Shortly after becoming Interior Minister in March, Horst Seehofer announced that Islam “doesn’t belong to Germany” – a statement he has sought to reverse after the sharp criticism it generated.
The Bavarian interior minister, the host of this year’s Islamic Conference in Berlin, has said that Germany’s 4.5 million and growing Muslim population should live as part of German society rather than separately or even in opposition to it.
Namely, the Bavarian politician is pushing for mosques in Germany to train their imams in Germany rather than abroad, and depend less on foreign contributions, he announced in his opening talk on Wednesday.
Seehofer did not concretely say how mosques would receive funding in the future. He announced, however, that existing funding programmes for integration projects within the mosque communities would be expanded.
He wants to see that “German Muslims replace foreign influence not only organizing and financing their communities themselves, but also adapting imam training to their needs,” Seehofer wrote in a guest article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Monday.
What is the conference?
The Islam Conference (DIK), started in 2006 by then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, brings together German Muslims and representatives of the federal, state and local governments. This year there are around 200 attendees, pushing to fill a gap in political discourse: of the 703 members of the Bundestag, only three have reported themselves to be of Muslim faith.
In recent years the conference has discussed topics such as religious education and Islamic pastoral care, but this year it will tackle more concrete issues such as foreign funding of mosques and how Islamic education can be provided in Germany.
This time around, Seehofer has invited liberal theologians and scholars – such as Seyran Ates, who founded Berlin's liberal Ibn Ruschd-Goethe mosque – in addition to the Islam associations who usually attend. Some of them had sharply criticized the associations in the past because of their conservative understanding of Islam.
“This time the cast is more colourful, I think that's good”, said Ates. In the next few years, the DIK will focus on “everyday practical questions of living together,” he added.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have welcomed the “new start”, which they say they hope will bring solid changes to the table. Green party politician Katrin Göring-Eckardt called for training more imams in Germany but also for better recognition of Islamic religious groups in Germany.
“We finally need concrete proposals for the recognition of Islamic religious communities,” said the Green politician.
With regards to the Turkish Islamic umbrella association Ditib, which currently funds 900 mosques in Germany, she cautioned that there should be no recognition for associations “that do not accept fundamental constitutional principles of our society, for example because they spy on their members and are in fact the extended arm of the Erdogan regime”.
In the past two years there had been criticism, above all, of sermons and activities of Ditib's imams. Some have been accused of spying on congregants. Another stumbling block was that the association asked their followers to make prayers for Turkish soldiers in Syria. The imams of the Ditib are sent to Germany by the Turkish state religious authority.
The candidate for the CDU presidency, Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, demanded binding rules for Muslims on integration in Germany.
“Integration will only succeed in the long term if these mosque communities see themselves as German mosque communities and not, for example, as Turkish ones”.
Mosques must not be financed from abroad, imams must be trained in Germany and speak German, he added.
‘A secular Islam’
The week before the conference, prominent Islam experts, including Green politician Cem Özdemir, had founded the “Initiative for Secular Islam”. The aim of the group is to make a contemporary understanding of Islam heard, as reported by “Die Zeit”. The group criticized the predominance of the religious-conservative associations in the Islam Conference.
The Integration Commissioner of the Federal Government, Annette Widmann-Mauz, demanded an “emancipation” of the mosque associations from abroad and a restructuring of the representation of Muslims in Germany.
“Whoever wants to be part of Germany as a mosque association cannot remain part of Riyadh or Ankara,” she said, adding that mosques who want to rely on the German church tax must meet the legal criteria,” the CDU politician told the “Bild” newspaper on Wednesday.
Former Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir approached the conference with skepticism, pointing out that change will not come overnight. He told the newspaper “Die Welt” that “all parties in the federal and state governments have completely overestimated the willingness of Islamic associations, especially Ditib, to reform”.
“But anyone who wants recognition as a religious community must accept that the Grundgesetz (Basic Law) is the guideline for living together, said Özdemir. “There is no room for misogyny, militarism and religious fundamentalism.”
The Central Council of Muslims in Germany promoted more trust in the mosque communities. “I can only warn against seeing the mosque community as a problem. On the contrary: it is part of the solution,” chairman Aiman Mazyek told the Editorial Network Germany.
At the same time he acknowledged “considerable deficits” and mistakes among Muslim religious communities, which he hoped the conference would take a step towards repairing.