Vanguards of "Euro-Islam"?

Prestigious mosques, well established organisations, university chairs – Islam in Germany has outgrown its status as a minority religion. Could this be the start of what is known as Euro-Islam in the Federal Republic, asks Gregor Taxacher

By Gregor Taxache

Prestigious mosques, well established organisations, university chairs – Islam in Germany has outgrown its status as a minority religion. Could this be the start of what is known as Euro-Islam in the Federal Republic, asks Gregor Taxacher

With approximately 3 million Muslims living in Germany, Islam is the largest minority religion in the country

​​For some people the buzzword "Euro-Islam" is some kind of ominous spectre – right-wing factions like the Pro NRW party, which above all is against the building of mosques, are prophesying an Islamisation of Europe that will lead to its doom. Experts on terrorism also see only the negative side of integration; in September 2007 in the region of Sauerland three German converts to Islam were arrested – they had planned terrorist attacks. In the meantime Al Qaida has even started broadcasting its video messages in fluent German – a somewhat paradoxical form of "successful integration". Yet even beyond this equating of Islam with Islamist terror, many people are of the same sceptical opinion as the women's rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who said, "To me it really is quite clear that Islam is not compatible with a liberal society that has evolved as a result of the Enlightenment.

" Who or what is a Muslim and who represents Muslims?

According to statistics on religions in Germany there are about 3.5 million Muslims living in the country. On closer inspection this figure is deceptive because religious membership is not documented in the case of Islam. The same goes for Muslims who give up their religion as there is no formal means of leaving the religious community. The statisticians simply count the number of immigrants from Muslim countries and their offspring. They are only able to deduct the number of documented cases of people stating they are of another faith. In the face of this compulsory identification of one's religion, the Central Council for Ex-Muslims was set up in Cologne in February 2007.

Who represents Islam? Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's Minister of the Interior (left), and Axel Ayub Köhler of the Central Council for Muslims during the German Islam Conference

​​Muslims who do not want to be Muslim anymore target their criticism mainly at the Muslim umbrella organisations which enjoy sole representation of Muslims in Germany without having a legitimate right to do so. In contrast Peter Heine, Islamic Studies Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, sees signs of a "Euro-Islam" in Germany developing in particular in the umbrella organisations. The Central Council for Muslims, the Islamic Council and the fact that they have merged into a coordination council testify, in his opinion, to the will to integrate themselves into German society. "There is a growing acceptance of this kind of representation among German Muslims," observes Heine. The government on the other hand prefers to work with reliable negotiating partners in the councils. Since 2006 the German Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble (Christian Democratic Union party) has held an annual Islam Conference in Berlin. His aim – to promote the development of a "German Islam" that is well within the framework of the German constitution and that adheres to the rules of a pluralist democracy. Critics like Lale Akgün, member of the German parliament and the SPD party's Commissioner on Islam, consider the conference to be superfluous. "Historical structures between the Christian churches and the state that have taken centuries to evolve cannot be applied in a fast-track procedure to a religion that came about 40 years ago when migrant workers came to the country," says Akgün. It will not be agreements made by religious communities that will pave the way to normality in an immigration country, but more a publicly promoted campaign that will enable individuals to lead an integrated existence whether they are religious or not.

Who decides what integration actually is?

It is exactly this integrated existence that is the basic idea behind the buzzword "Euro-Islam" – a religion that no longer defines itself as the religion the immigrants brought with them from their home countries, but one that is integrated into the enlightened modern era of the Western world. The political scientist Bassam Tibi speaks of an Islam at home within the dominant European culture. This is the kind of Euro-Islam the Vice President of the German Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse (SPD), has been striving for since 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

"I am for integration", says Tariq Ramadan, "but it is up to us Muslims to decide what that exactly means."

​​Udo Steinbach, former Head of the Orient-Insititut in Hamburg, feels that all this talk about a Euro-Islam is also a "symptom of a relationship crisis" – people would like a form of Islam that is not so alien to them. According to Steinbach there are not enough eminent authorities promoting a Euro-Islam that Muslims can identify with, either. For some Tariq Ramadan could be one of these authorities. This specialist in Islamic studies from Switzerland is an aggressive advocate of a form of Euro-Islam that would enable Muslims to throw off the yoke of their double inferiority complex – the first in connection with their Islamic home countries and the second with the way they live their lives in a Western democracy. Ramadan, however, reacts vehemently against being dictated to from outside about how this form of Euro-Islam is to assimilate within the dominant culture. "I am for integration", he makes his position clear, "but it is up to us Muslims to decide what that exactly means." It is statements like these that have made critics suspicious. Ralph Ghadban, who has written a book about Ramadan, thinks this spokesman for Euro-Islam is a fundamentalist in disguise who is paving the way for Islam to infiltrate Europe. Yet again Islamisation rears its ugly head.

A brokered normality

The Islamic associations in Germany also have to deal with accusations that they are being ambiguous. In 2002 the Central Council for Muslims in Germany published a charter in which it said, "There is no contradiction between the teachings of Islam and basic human rights." Why only basic human rights? And who decided what they are? In a practical sense the whole thing is being negotiated step by step, especially as Islam in the meantime is struggling for public recognition in Germany. The Islamic associations are demanding Islamic religious instruction at state-run schools, as has always been the case with the Christian churches. This has spawned training courses for teachers of religious instruction at several universities under the supervision of the education authorities. In September 2008 the first book for Muslim religious instruction was approved in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

When planning permission for a prestigious mosque is applied for, the builder often has to promise to incorporate a community centre or integration courses into his plans or to guarantee that the Imam will hold his sermon in German. In this way Euro-Islam or something like it develops out of all kinds of individually negotiated agreements between the immigrant religion and the players of the "majority society". Peter Heine is optimistic that this process will be successful. "Islam is basically a very flexible system", says the Islamic studies expert. In the course of its history it has always managed to integrate itself into all kinds of different societies. That is why today we find a form of Islam in India or in East Africa that is quite different to the Islam in Iraq. "And a lot of the Islamic propaganda emanating out of some Arab countries is no longer in line with the lives most Muslims lead in Europe."

Gregor Taxacher

© Goethe Institute 2009

Gregor Taxacher works as an author for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk TV and radio station, as well as an educational advisor and lecturer at the Thomas-Morus-Akademie (his main focus is on Christianity and Islam) in Cologne, Germany.

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