Meet Germany's first Islamic affairs consultant
There are around 2,800 mosques in Germany. Every so often, they find themselves at the centre of discussions or disputes, especially whenever Islamic houses of worship with distinctive characteristics, such as a tall minaret, appear as part of the cityscape. Although the same standards generally apply to mosques as to churches or synagogues, much depends on the local regulations of each municipality.
These sorts of situations are where 44-year-old Hussein Hamdan can step in. A doctor of Islamic and Religious Studies, he has become Germany's first Islamic affairs consultant, in which capacity he helps to resolve conflicts between Muslim communities and local government authorities.
For the past eight years, Hamdan has worked as an Islamic affairs consultant in the southwestern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. He clearly remembers his first assignment: "It was 2 June, 2015, and a district administration office asked me for an appraisal of a Sufi association," he recalled Sufis are followers of mystical Islam, known for their music and ecstatic spiritual dance.
There are only a handful of these communities in Germany. The religious scholar was able to assuage some of the uncertainties among local politicians.
First Muslim to work for a Catholic diocese
Hamdan is employed by the Catholic church, where he has worked since 2012, the first Muslim at the Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. About 11 million people live in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, some 800,000 of them are Muslims. The first mosques were built in the state in the 1990s.
Initially, Hamdan was responsible for a project called "Young Muslims as Partners". Supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, he is available as a consultant for local government authorities and decision-makers.
He often deals with everyday questions. Is the minaret too high? How can local authorities best understand the who's who of all the individual Islamic groups in their communities? How can a municipality best integrate young Muslims? On the other hand, how can a mosque community promote the integration of their young people? Most of the time, there are no blanket answers to these questions.
The height of a minaret must be based on the relevant building regulations for the urban area in question. In areas where Muslim believers have lived for decades, there might be more exchange between their communities and the local governments than in others.
Hamdan also explains to mosque communities how the process of local government works in Germany. Who can they contact for assistance? Hamdan says a prerequisite for successful dialogue is for the mosque communities to put forward trusted spokespeople.
Advises some 50 local authorities
Almost 50 local authorities throughout Baden-Wurttemberg have made use of his consulting services. Sometimes, it is only a conversation that takes one or two hours. In other cases, it could take two or three appointments, he says. In a few cases, he needs to walk the parties through a longer process. "It is not about providing ready-made solutions, but about recommendations for action," the Islamic affairs consultant emphasised.
Hamdan understands the differing views when it comes to building mosques in Germany. While some see it as part of a process of "Islamisation", others see publicly visible mosques, which are often built as replacements for facilities tucked away in backyards or industrial parks, as a sign of a more open, cosmopolitan society.
One of the cases Hamdan advised on involved a town of 8,000 inhabitants whose local council ultimately rejected the construction of a minaret. Hamdan said that at least it was possible for both sides to continue talking with each other.
He also informs local authorities about Islamic groups that are being watched by the German constitutional protection authorities, which are charged with tracking extremist movements.
Every community is different
In addition, he warned against generalising all mosque communities that belong to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), whose political influence in Germany has been criticised in the past. "We must always look at each individual mosque community. Because the communities could vastly differ from city to city," he said. Mosques that are part of DITIB, the largest umbrella organisation of mosques in Germany, have been criticised because they are subordinate to, and allegedly controlled by Diyanet, Turkey's religious authority.
"Part of having an honest dialogue is addressing critical questions," Hamdan emphasised. He recommended that representatives from local authorities and mosques get together to exchange views more often.
"It requires sharing a meal, drinking coffee together, celebrating together. But it also needs exchange about how we handle critical questions, which of course also impact our lives together here in our local municipalities."
Hamdan places a lot of value on the inclusion of Muslims, especially young Muslims, in local government projects. His efforts have been praised by the anti-Semitism commissioner for the state government of Baden-Wurttemberg, Michael Blume.
"Hussein Hamdan proves that the coexistence of religions is truly playing out at the grassroots level," said Blume. "Countries which do not want to experience clashes like those seen in France should invest now in local dialogue and advice regarding Islam."
© Deutsche Welle 2023
Hussein Hamdan, Als Islamberater unterwegs durch Baden-Württemberg, (literally: 'Travels of an Islamic affairs consultant through Baden-Wurttemberg') published in German by Grunewald.