The long road to legal recognition

According to expert opinion, there is still a great need for action in the legal recognition of Islam in Germany. There has been some progress in recent years, but Islamic religious communities are still a long way from being on a level footing with others. Susanne Kaiser summarises the deficits

By Susanne Kaiser

Is Islam part of Germany? In this country, there is probably no question so controversial and so hotly debated as this one. It has been at the centre of social debate for many years, over which time a huge variety of answers have been sought, and Muslims have continued to strive for recognition. But what does it mean to be "part of Germany", or "to be recognised"? Is it a question of whether Islam gels with German values and the German legal system? Or of whether an ordinary Muslim is always free to practise their religion and culture in the public domain here?

Numerous examples from daily life demonstrate that this is no simple matter: take the issue of holidays. The writer Monika Maron is completely convinced that in Germany, there is "total religious freedom", and all believers are allowed time off on their religious holidays. In a subjective polemic, she therefore rails against German Islamic integration policy, and the calls from Islamic associations for the introduction of a statutory Muslim holiday for everyone.

But the associations are a long way from achieving this goal, in any case. They were actually demanding that Muslims should be allowed to take time off on important religious holidays – Eid al-Adha, the breaking of the fast, Ashura – at their own cost. Up to now, employers and schools have been permitted to deny these requests. Just because religious freedom is anchored in the constitution, it doesn't follow that this right is always granted. Islamic organisations have therefore restricted themselves to minimal demands thus far.

Legal recognition is essential

The importance of recognising Islam legally as well as socially is shown in a new evaluation by the Islamic studies expert Dr Riem Spielhaus and the jurist Martin Herzog, commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The study says that for a start, it is necessary to grant Muslims the same access to resources as other religious communities: the financing of projects, protection against discrimination and the right to practise their faith, as well as the opportunity to implement this right. And this is precisely what political representatives and those representing the interests of the Islamic associations are now negotiating.

Dr. Riem Spielhaus (photo: private)
The need for action on the way to equality for Islam: in Riem Spielhaus's view this applies in the short term to the guarantee of being allowed to practise your faith, the development of educational and social offers, and with regard to the financial protection of Islamic religious practice. Spielhaus believes that the current temporary rulings and pilot projects could be "a helping hand along the road" to recognition, but must be allowed to "become permanent provisions"

But an agreement must be reached on every single detail of Islamic religious practice, with each federal state in Germany, each community or commune – in a dialogue conducted over many years. A simple Islam law, such as Austria has instituted, will not do in Germany.

There is a long road ahead to legal equality for ritual religious practice, in education, and with the social engagement of Islamic communities. Issues include Islamic graveyards and burial rites; the building of mosques; ritual slaughter of animals; holidays; religious education linked to the Islamic faith; Islamic theology in universities; youth work; social welfare; pastoral care in prisons, hospitals and the military. So far, none of this seems to be a matter of course in Germany.

Up to now, legal agreements with Muslim communities or associations have only been reached in a few federal states. The Ahmadiyya community, for example, is the only body recognised in public law in Hessen and Hamburg, but it doesn’t even have its own graveyard.

Large associations like the DITIB (Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), by contrast, are not recognised, but de facto enjoy more rights. In Lower Saxony, their state association achieved an agreement on pastoral care in prisons in 2012, following three years of negotiation, while Islamic religious instruction has been taking place in schools since 2003/4. In Berlin, a ruling on holidays is in force, as is a burial provision, and pastoral care in correctional facilities is now getting off the ground.

Between recognition, regulation and general suspicion

A climate that is at times sceptical or even hostile towards Islam makes the slow negotiations even more difficult. Muslims also have to organise themselves in order to be heard - for example, by founding state associations or Shura councils, working out membership policies, providing transparent points of contact and developing basic structures conforming to the criteria for legal recognition and cooperation.

But it is not only religious communities who must fit in with the requirements of German law. "Something in the understanding of the law is also changing," Riem Spielhaus says in an interview. She is currently seeing a "mutual convergence on the basis of an equal status in (constitutional) law". 

The Islamic studies expert Anne Schönfeld criticises the pressure to conform and the compulsion to unite that are associated with the state policy of recognising Muslims: "The policy of recognition doesn't just have an affirmative effect on those who wish to be recognised. It also changes their self-image. And it is always also a matter of the state regulation and management of religion. People have to be clear about this," says Schönfeld. That means that the diversity and independence of Muslim religious life in Germany has to become standardised to a certain extent, for the sake of recognition.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) visiting the Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin on 09.01.2015 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Rainer Jensen)
Signals for social recognition and participation: according to Minister for Justice Heiko Maas, treaties could be an important step "to bring Muslim communities closer to the constitutional state and its values". The minister sees a treaty like this as an opportunity to develop a German Islam


Maas wants treaty with Muslims

How politics imagines this was made clear in a recent lecture by Heiko Maas (SPD) at Berlin's Humboldt University, when the state minister for justice argued in favour of a treaty with Muslim communities in Germany. Maas sees this as an important step in "bringing Muslim communities closer to the constitutional state and its values" and developing a German Islam. In return, however, Muslims are being asked to do their part to obtain recognition by state and society. They should, says Maas, organise their membership better, and the associations should be obliged to distance themselves regularly from extremism and anti-Semitism among Muslims.

For the Islamic associations, a lot depends on the legal recognition of their organisations. They often hope that this recognition will bring with it a social revaluation – an assessment about which Riem Spielhaus has some doubts. Even so, it is ultimately also a question of esteem: the importance of esteem for the work of these associations, and how closely it is sometimes also associated with legal consideration, is shown by the example of youth work.

For many years there were reservations about mosque associations performing outreach work with young Muslims. They often came under general suspicion. Youth work was frequently seen as a recruiting tool for Islamism, and was regarded with scepticism. "This meant that there was also no interest in a revaluation and qualitative improvement of the youth work done by Islamic communities, and certainly no funding for it," as Spielhaus explains. In some cases, these reservations still stand in the way of recognition for associations as providers of youth work. "Legal and social recognition are mutually dependent," she says.

By Susanne Kaiser

© 2015

Translated by Ruth Martin