Open dialogue on thorny issues

Beyond all the intellectual debates about their religion, most Muslims in Germany face difficulties in their everyday lives that they would dearly like to solve. The Goethe-Institut, in co-operation with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, has initiated a project called "Muslim Associations as Community Activists". The project seeks not only to create stronger ties between mosque associations in German cities and the city authorities but also to improve relations between the various Muslim denominations. By Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

How can we organise our religious festivals? How can we ensure that we eat in accordance with the rules of our religion? Where do we want to be buried? These are important questions for Muslims, who are increasingly becoming part of mainstream society in Germany yet still want to continue practicing their respective forms of Islam. In order to foster communication between Muslim congregations and the authorities of the cities in which they live, the Goethe-Institut and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, a major German foundation, have initiated a three-year project.

Some one hundred people from the cities of Essen, Hamburg, Hamm, Ingolstadt and Mannheim are taking part. Every mosque association has sent two or three representatives. The Muslim representatives then decide for themselves which issues are of most importance to them and then discuss these issues with their respective city authority. The German cultural institute regards itself as both moderator and co-ordinator of the project, but does not want to interfere in the matters being discussed.

Ingolstadt is a city in Bavaria with around 130,000 inhabitants. Almost 40 per cent of the population has a migrant background if one includes naturalised Germans, ethnic German migrants from Eastern Europe and children born in Germany to foreign parents. The largest group is made up of individuals with Turkish roots. Some seven per cent of the population are Muslims.

Ingolstadt, which is governed by the conservative Christian Democrats, was the first to begin the Goethe-Institut project in the autumn of 2013. It involved representatives of seven different mosque associations, including the Turkish DITIB, Arab congregations, Alevis and Bosniaks. A Milli Gorus mosque congregation was also invited, but it has not yet sent any representatives to the events and workshops. The reason remains unclear. By contrast, Milli Gorus mosque congregations in the cities of Hamm and Mannheim have indicated an interest in taking part in the project.

Sign for Halal produce in the window of a Turkish shop (photo: DW/S. Soliman)
"Muslims want to live out their faith in Germany, but it is not always clear if all practices are compatible with the German legal system. Certain regulations are complicated, for example when Muslims want to slaughter lambs according to Islamic precepts (halal) for the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice," writes Claudia Mende

Potential for controversy

Reuf Avdic represents the small, 200-strong community of Muslim Bosniaks in Ingolstadt. Avdic sees a whole range of issues that have not been adequately solved for avowed Muslims. Many of these issues could potentially be considered controversial by mainstream society.

Muslims want to live out their faith in Germany, but it is not always clear if all practices are compatible with the German legal system. Certain regulations are complicated, for example when Muslims want to slaughter lambs according to Islamic precepts (halal) for the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice. It is important for Muslims to be present during the slaughter to recite the appropriate prayer. The meat is then distributed among family and friends.

The slaughtering of animals is an extremely controversial issue in Germany. According to Muslim rites, the animal is killed by slitting its throat and letting it bleed. It is a matter of debate among Muslims as to whether religious precepts permit the animal to be stunned or anaesthetised before being killed. The Law on Animal Protection (Paragraph 4a) forbids this method of slaughtering animals except when prescribed by religious law, such as in Judaism and Islam. In such cases, the responsible authorities can issue a special permit. This is a situation where two very different value systems collide. Animal rights activists regard ritual slaughter as cruelty to animals; Muslims want legal certainty.

Muslim burials

Such conflicts certainly cannot be solved at municipal level, so what's the point in discussing them with the authorities? Project director Sebastian Johna of the Goethe-Institut stresses that the issues to be discussed are chosen by the project participants themselves. "I neither support nor block any special concern. I see my role as that of creating a framework in which urgent issues can be discussed," he says. To this end, Johna establishes contact with experts and the city authorities in the five cities involved in the project. He adds, however, that not all concerns can be resolved at municipal level.

Another, less emotionally charged topic is the issue of Muslim burials. It is important for Muslims to bury their dead as quickly as possible. But what is to be done, for instance, when cemeteries are closed on a Sunday? At present, funeral directors arrange for most deceased Muslims to be transported to their country of origin for burial. But there are an increasing number of Muslim immigrants who have spent most of their lives in Germany and want to be buried here. They would like to know to what extent they can find a final resting place in accordance with Islamic laws.

The Muslim cemetery in Berlin-Gatow (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Action urgently needed: the number of Muslims who have lived all their lives in Germany and want to be buried there is on the rise. Pictured here: the Muslim cemetery in Berlin-Gatow

The issue of Islamic dietary rules in everyday life is also important for many Muslims. "We often find ourselves in awkward situations in public canteens, because we constantly have to ask whether there is any pork or alcohol in the meals on the menu," says Reuf Avdic. Canteens often offer turkey instead of pork, but then overlook that there is bacon in the sauce. Avdic is in favour of some kind of label as a guarantee that the food contains no pork. This would also be in the interest of non-Muslims, he says.

Learning about similarities and differences

The Muslims of Ingolstadt would like to discuss this issue with the city authorities. "We maintain an open dialogue with Muslims," says Ingrid Gumplinger, who is on the staff of the Ingolstadt Commissioner of Integration. "We will see to what extent we can accommodate their needs."

Avdic welcomes the co-operation with the Goethe-Institut, as it results in more consideration being given to the concerns of Muslims by city authorities. "As an individual association, there is practically no chance that we would be taken seriously," he feels. Thanks to the mediation efforts of the German cultural institute, "our concerns are given extra weight."

However, there is more to the project than merely improving contacts between Muslims and municipal authorities. It has helped various Muslim associations to better recognise their similarities and differences and, ideally, to tolerate each other.

The Alevis, for instance, do not share many of the religious beliefs held by Sunni Muslims. Ingrid Gumplinger of the Ingolstadt city administration says that the reservations felt by Muslims groups towards each other are evident, "but the issues under discussion affect all of the Muslim denominations. The important thing is that we all sit together at the same table."

Claudia Mende

© 2014

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/