Who Has the Final Say on Religious Authority?

In Germany, centres for Islamic studies are to be set up in three universities in order to train imams and religion teachers. Avni Altiner says that the content of the Islamic theology which will be taught at German universities must be worked out in cooperation with the Muslim associations

Bookshelf in the library at the University of Osnabrück (photo: dpa)
The religious activities of Muslim associations in Germany reach the Muslim grass roots, and thus serve as a bridge between the state and the Muslims, says Avni Altiner, chairman of Schura Niedersachsen, an association of mosques in the German state of Lower Saxony

​​ Only since the German Academic Council issued its recommendation that centres for Islamic studies should be set up at two or three state universities has the issue begun to receive the attention it deserves.

Germany's education minister, Annette Schavan, has now said where imams and religion teachers will in future be trained: one centre will be in Tübingen and the other will be a dual centre shared between Münster and Osnabrück.

Muslim associations like the Schuras, or associations of mosques, in northern Germany have been calling for years both for the introduction of Muslim religious education in schools and for the training of Muslim clerics in Germany.

All the same, there's a substantial difference between the aims of the associations and those of the politicians making the decisions. The politicians have been led to make this historic decision by considerations of integration and security policy.

For the Muslim associations there have been other issues: equal rights; the development of an authentic Muslim theology in a European context; independence; and the emancipation from the Muslim countries of origin.

The significance of the Muslim associations

If these aims are to be achieved, the content of the Islamic theology which will be taught at German universities must be worked out in cooperation with the Muslim associations. The religious life of Muslims in Germany takes place in the over 2,500 Muslim institutions which belong to the associations.It is they who provide the religious infrastructure in Germany. Their religious activities reach the Muslim grass roots, and thus serve as a bridge between the state and the Muslims.

Annette Schavan (photo: AP)
Education minister Annette Schavan has announced that imams and teacher for Muslim religious instruction will be trained at the University of Tübingen, as well as at a centre to be set up jointly at the Universities of Münster and Osnabrück

​​ The associations are often accused of not representing all the Muslims and their low membership figures are used as evidence. But these figures have to be multiplied if the real reach of the associations is to be estimated. Usually only one member of a family is registered, but the rest of the family is involved in the community and uses its services.

If one takes a realistic estimate of the total number of members, one can realize that the associations have an enormous reach.

The state must be ideologically neutral

Furthermore, religious activities are entirely in the hands of the mosques, which gives them the right to be given special consideration on the advisory councils which have been proposed by the Academic Council.

The Council was right to propose that the content of the denominational courses on Muslim theology at state universities should be developed in cooperation with the Muslim associations. The state is constitutionally required to be neutral in terms of religious ideology, and has to keep itself out of the affairs of religious communities. It's the job of the faith communities to decide on content. The only condition which can be placed on the training is that it conforms to the principles of the constitution – a rule which applies to everyone, regardless of their religion.

photo: dpa
Rauf Ceylan (pictured) and Bülent Uçar in Osnabrück and Mouhanad Khorchide in Münster will be the first professors for the new "Islamic Studies" courses

​​ The involvement of the Muslim associations in the decision processes will also have synergy effects: participation in democratic structures will lead Muslims to greater identification with the German society which has become their own.

The cooperation between the state and religious communities in the context of the German model of secularism will offer a very specific kind of opportunity for identification with the state.

Unlike in laicist democracies such as France, Tunisia or Turkey, the German model is prepared to support religions and religious communities, as long as they remain within the constitution. In this respect, the state treats all religious persuasions equally.

This is the context in which not just the spiritual leaders of the religion, but also the teachers of religion in schools will be trained. The state pays for their training, and, in the case of the teachers, also their salaries when they start work.

The right to Muslim self-determination

It is not clear to me, however, why public figures who describe themselves as "cultural Muslims" should be involved in these advisory councils. In the churches, public figures from outside the institutions, especially those who say they have little relationship to Christianity, have no right to help decide on the contents of theology courses or the appointment of professors.

An imam kneeling in front of a prayer niche (photo: dpa)
Avni Altiner says the involvement of the Muslim associations in the decision processes will have synergy effects: "Participation in democratic structures will lead Muslims to greater identification with the German society which has become their own," he writes

​​ In the case of the advisory councils for the Islamic centres, this is precisely what the Academic Council proposes. But theology can only be decided by members of the relevant religious group and by established and recognized theologians. Neither the state nor other public figures without theological competence, let only theological knowledge, should be allowed to have any influence. Competence, authority and legitimacy go hand in hand.

The German constitutional court has repeatedly issued judgments saying that religious freedom in the form of the right to self-determination of religious communities has a higher value than so-called academic freedom. Should this not also apply to Muslims?

The Muslim associations as a social bridge

Unfortunately, the experience so far has shown that the right of self-determination is not granted consistently to Muslims. Only occasionally do the Muslim associations find that they are consulted in their mediating role as representatives of the Muslim grass roots.

As Schura Lowe Saxony, we have had positive experiences over ten years of fruitful and productive cooperation with the University of Osnabrück – not just with a pilot programme for Muslim religious instruction in schools, which has been extended to ever more schools, but also with the concept of the university's training for imams and providers of religious services which is starting this month.

​​ The next step will be the setting up of an Institute for Islamic Theology, with an advisory council. As a result of the trust which has been developed and the concept which has been adopted, all the mosques in the Schuras of the northern German states are supporting this project.

Within the Schuras, there are Sunni and Shiite Muslims and a variety of ethnicities. People with roots in Turkey, Morocco, Albania, Bosnia, Iran and Germany work hand in hand – as Muslims and as German citizens.

The religious authority of future imams

All the same, it will be of central importance for us Muslim communities that this breadth of representation be reflected in the make-up of the advisory council. This principle must also apply to the advisory councils in the other new centres. This does not mean giving a privilege to the Muslim associations; it merely means that Muslims too will exercise the right of all religious communities to advise and help make decisions on religious matters.

If the Muslim associations are not to be adequately involved, I would have to advise the Academic Council to modify its proposals: it should recommend the setting up of chairs of Islamic studies whose occupants would be chosen by so-called "liberal and progressive" Muslims, without the involvement of the mosques and the Muslim associations.

But then the question would arise: would the Muslim community support the process? Would it recognize the graduates of these courses as religious authorities? And would those graduates have a chance of becoming imams in German mosques? The answer is not hard to imagine.

Avni Altiner

© Qantara.de 2010

Avni Altiner is chairman of the Schura Niedersachsen, which represents Muslims of all denominations and nationalities.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Nimet Seker, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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