"The idea of a German Islam isn't all that strange"

Imam Ender Çetin
Last September, Ender Çetin became one of the first Muslims to qualify as an imam from the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrück (image: private)

Ender Çetin is one of the first imams to have been trained in Germany. Are these imams the bridge-builders Germany needs right now?

Interview by Teseo La Marca

In Christianity, the Church lays out clear, but sometimes inflexible rules. In Islam – and in particular Sunni Islam – there is no such central authority. And so, the first port of call for Muslims who have questions or doubts of any kind is their local imam. The job doesn't just mean leading prayers, but also providing pastoral care, advice, mentorship and cultural mediation. And their influence on believers reflects the importance of that role. 

Until now, the vast majority of the imams active in Germany's 2,500 or so mosques were trained outside Germany and grew up abroad as well. This could soon change, thanks to a German imam training programme. Ender Çetin is one of 26 Muslims who qualified as an imam from the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrück last September – the first cohort to do so.

In this interview, he talks to Qantara.de about why German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called the programme a "milestone for integration", how accepting the Muslim community has been of these new imams, and how to stand up to self-proclaimed imams who are spreading radical messages on social media.

Herr Çetin, you are a member of the first cohort of imams to have been trained in Germany. What is the greatest difference between you and an imam from Turkey? 

Ender Çetin: One big advantage is that we know the reality of life in Germany. The first people who profit from that are the people who attend the mosque and who turn to their imam with questions and uncertainties – some of which are very practical in nature. We understand their language, their slang, their humour, their problems. But in certain cases, it can also make sense to bring in imams from abroad. 

Germany/Islamkolleg/symbolic image
Muslim men and women can train as chaplains and imams through German at the Islamkolleg in Osnabrück (photo: Metodi Popow/imago images)

When, for example? 

Çetin: There are mosques that see themselves as cultural associations as well, where Turkish language and culture are cultivated. In such cases, it makes sense to invite an imam from the country of origin. You always have to bear the needs of the individual mosque associations in mind. Training in Turkey is generally also longer and better established. Then you get the best Koran reciters, who can read aloud from the Koran in a very melodic way. 

Foreign imams are often accused of spreading a conservative version of Islam here. 

Çetin: That depends on the local communities. But it's true that these imams have to stick to certain guidelines. I myself worked for the largest Turkish umbrella organisation, the DITIB. Most of the imams I met there interpreted the texts in a very contemporary way. 

But then they didn't dare to convey that in their sermons. When I ask them why that is, they say that the community wouldn't understand it – and in the worst case, the religious authority in their home country can fire them or move them to another community. 

You qualified last September. What has happened since then? 

Çetin: Practically, nothing in my life has changed. I'm still working as a prison chaplain, and I go into schools as part of the Meet2Respect project. A rabbi colleague and I get up in front of classes and answer the students' questions. But I feel more confident now; I'm an accredited, trained imam. 

How is the employment situation for the others in your cohort? 

Çetin: A lot of them are asking what will happen now. There's a great need for Muslim chaplains in hospitals, prisons and in the army too. But there still aren't any jobs being advertised. We may all have a qualification, but some of us are still working in our old jobs – in schools or at airports. It isn't what we'd hoped for.

Nancy Faeser, Germany's interior minister, said in November that the aim was to completely replace the imams sent here from other countries, one step at a time.

Çetin: The question is: who is paying these imams? There is no mosque tax in Germany; there's nothing like the German Church tax. The individual mosque associations don't have the necessary means, so voluntary work is often the only option. But there is the hope that full-time imams could be funded through projects. Or that a central association will be founded through which the imams could be employed. 

Some Muslims are fearful of a "German state Islam". Are you accepted, as an imam who was trained in this country?

Çetin: I hear the same thing from my own Turkish-speaking community: "Well of course the state doesn't want any more imams from Turkey, it wants to create its own Islam." But I don't find the idea of a characteristically German understanding of Islam all that strange.

An imam is seen standing at a podium in front of a group of Muslims during Friday prayers in the Merkez DITIB Mosque in Duisburg, Germany, there are decorative images on the wall
DITIB imams are generally sent to mosque communities in Germany for four years; they are civil servants of the Turkish state and often know little about Germany when they arrive here. Pictured here: Friday prayers at the Merkez DITIB Mosque in Duisburg, Germany (image: Christoph Reichwein/dpa/picture alliance)

Could you explain what you mean? 

Çetin: Cultures have an influence on religion. You can therefore speak of a Turkish, Moroccan, Persian or Indonesian Islam. The problem is that cultural values are often misunderstood as religion – restrictions for women being one example. 

This is about traditional values that, on closer inspection, have little to do with religion. And so it could certainly be that a new understanding of Islam develops here in Germany, which may at first be new from a Turkish or Arab perspective, but can still be founded in the theological sources and perfectly legitimate. The only important thing is that this "German Islam" emerges from internal Muslim debates and is not somehow imposed on us from above. 

When did you personally decide to become an imam? 

Çetin: It started with an identity crisis. As a young man, I wondered: where do I belong? Am I a Muslim or not? Who and what am I, really? My family wasn't all that religious. But I felt this pressure from mainstream society to integrate, but in the end you still don't belong. And that made me feel I had to defend something. And so at 17, I started to become increasingly religious. 

How did that manifest itself? 

Çetin: At first it was just the usual behaviour: alcohol was taboo, and I started praying five times a day. I was very strict with myself. For instance, I thought I had to catch up on all the prayers I hadn't said when I was 13 or 14. But I don't regret that time. 

Society often brands young people who are like that as radical, but I think this development is important to allow you to keep growing and to realise yourself where you might have been wrong in the past. 

It was different for me as a young person: we rebelled by taking up anti-bourgeois attitudes. Why are young Muslims choosing the conservative path? 

Çetin: Because an areligious attitude is prevalent in society. Then religion becomes a means of differentiating yourself from mainstream society. For a young person, the most important thing isn't whether you're good or bad, but that you are someone. That society sees you. 

And if society regards Islam as evil, you're going to be a "Muslim" all the more, you feel strong and dangerous. It used to be that you were still a "foreigner" even if you were born and grew up here. Now, society sees you first and foremost as a Muslim, a mysterious and potentially dangerous person.

Two men (Bülent Ucar and Esnaf Begic) stand behind a long wooden desk in front of a blue wall with the words 'Federal Press Conference' in German, Berlin, Germany
Academic Director Prof Dr Bülent Ucar and Chairman Dr Esnaf Begic of the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrück presented the institute at the Federal Press Conference in Berlin in October 2020 (image: Christoph Strack/DW)

Would there be less extremism if mainstream society didn't have these prejudices? 

Çetin: Yes, and paradoxically, I think migrants would be less religious too. Fewer women would wear hijabs; fewer people would go to the mosque. 

You speak of a kind of protest identity for many young people. Are Islamists also exploiting this to recruit new followers? 

Çetin: That's the sad thing about it. Self-declared TikTok imams are also using this interest in religion to present a completely distorted image of Islam on their channels and spread crude messages. Some of them have tens of thousands of followers.

What kinds of thing are they saying? 

Çetin: My son asked me recently what I would think of him celebrating a birthday with his non-Muslim friends. A TikTok imam had apparently claimed that it was against our religion. These TikTok imams are giving short, easy answers to everyday questions like this that fit into ten-second videos. 

They speak the language of young people, but the messages they're sending out are from another age, for instance that you aren't allowed to be friends with Christians and Jews. They base that on Koran verses that they've stripped of their context. These channels, like "Generation Islam", are also behind the demonstrations calling for a new caliphate – which is really extreme. That should give us pause for thought.

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And it's getting worse? 

Çetin: Yes. One important reason is that Muslims, especially Palestinians, are now under general suspicion. If you express solidarity with Palestine, what you get back is, "Oh, you're all just antisemites." A lot of people just can't be doing with this pressure to justify themselves. And in response they then really do move to an extreme position.

What can we do to combat this?

Çetin: I've been thinking about why it's so easy to get to young people with these questions: Am I allowed to be friends with an atheist? Am I allowed to shave my head? Am I allowed to let a Jewish doctor treat me? 

My generation didn't ask these kinds of questions. I believe that really, there is another question at the bottom of this: How can I live in Germany and be a Muslim? How can I find my place in society, when I no longer have any connection to my country of origin and don't really feel accepted here either?

These young people just want to feel integrated and like they belong. That's a positive thing, but we need to take their questions seriously and give them convincing answers. 

And package those answers into ten-second TikTok videos. 

Oh, that will definitely be the biggest challenge. (laughs)


Interview conducted by Teseo La Marca. 

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin