Islamkonferenz - the first steps of a very long journey
On the 2nd May the second plenary session of the Deutsche Islam Konferenz (DIK), concluded with some controversy. Whilst the Federal Minster of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble, of the Christian Democrats (CDU), described the discussions as ‘a success’, the Islamic organisations’ spokesperson, Ayyub Axel Köhler, declared “We cannot continue like this. These discussions are just a confusion.” A few days later there was consternation at the news that the Islamic organisations present at the conference had withdrawn the approval initially given to documents which, in addition to defining Islamism as dangerous, stated the respect of the constitutional democratic system as the duty of every Muslim.
Opened by Schäuble in Berlin on the 27th September 2006, this conference of dialogue – scheduled to last over at least two or three years – is intended by the organisers to be a tool for improving the relationship between German society, its institutions, and the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who belong to it, by promoting integration and combatting the diffusion of Islamist terrorism. The Islamic organisations, on their part, hope, over the course of the negotiations, to gain recognition of a political and judicial status akin to that of the Christian and Jewish communities. Participating on the part of the State are representatives of the Federal Ministries, of the individual Länder, and of local councils. Representing the Muslim community, in addition to a number of intellectuals representing the various currents within German civil and intellectual Muslim society, (such as the sociologist Necla Kelek, the lawyer Seyran Ates, the writer Feridun Zaimoglu, and the Frankfurt dentist Ezhar Cezairli), are a number of the most influential Islamic organisations, who have recently joined to form a Council of Coordination of Muslims: The Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, the Islamic Council and the Union of Centres of Islamic Culture.
According to official statistics, there are currently between 3.2 and 3.5 million people in Germany who practise Islam, of which 80% are Sunni, 17% Alevis, and 3% Shiites. This figure, however, also includes ‘non-practising’ Muslims. Around a third of these 3 million Muslims are German citizens, but 85-90% of the Muslims who live in Germany do not belong to any particular organisation or cultural centre – something which has drawn a degree of criticism and provoked a number of doubts regarding the capacity of the conference to represent this vast reality. Mr. Schäuble was quick to stress that the organisations attending the DIK could not speak for the entire Islamic community, but has not so far opted to declare the creation of a centralised body of Muslim representation, such as the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) established in France in 1999 by the then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Deutsche Islam Konferenz is divided into three areas, which meet every two months, and which deal respectively with ‘German Social Structure and Consensus of Values’, ‘Religious Questions in the German Constitutional Conception’, and ‘the Economy and Media as a Bridge’. A round table committee also meets periodically to discuss issues of ‘Security and Islamism’. Themes discussed include equality between the sexes, mixed physical education in state schools, the issue of the veil, the teaching of Islam in German, the training of imams within Germany (who at present are largely ‘imported’ from abroad) and the fight against extremism.
There has been no shortage of conflict. The first point of contention concerned the question of who ought to have the right to participate as representatives of the Muslim community. In addition to the lack of representation that the participating organisations offer, the presence and participation of certain individuals currently under surveillance by the intelligence services for suspected links with subversive groups and the voicing of views which are incompatible with the constitutional democratic system, has provoked much debate. Amongst these are the President of the ‘Islamic Community in Germany’, Ibrahim El Zayat, challenged for his links with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the leader of the Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya. The influence that the ultraconservative ‘Milli Görüs Islamic Community’ exerts on these groups has also generated some concern, the state television channel ARD having recently come into possession of video footage in which members of Milli Görüs are seen publicly extolling an Islamic caliphate in Germany as an ideal political model. On the other hand, Schäuble’s position was clear; in an interview with the daily newspaper Die Welt he declared, “If I decide from the off to exclude all those who are not 100% behind the Grudgesetz (the German constitution – ed.) then we might as well forget about it”.
Those representing Muslims in the group of ‘Economy and Media’, however, have complained at length about the image of German Islam, in their view distorted and misleading, which is conveyed by the mass media – and have gone as far as to compare their own condition to that of the Jews during the Nazi regime.
Germany has shown itself to be noticeably late in introducing policies of integration, having, up until recently, refused to accept its status as a country of immigration. Despite the presence of millions of foreigners – coming as gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’) from the 1950s onwards, first from Italy and Greece, and then above all from Turkey, North Africa and the Balkans – German society had always refused to take decisive steps towards integration, tolerating instead the development of ‘parallel societies’.
The result is individuals who, after forty years of living in Germany, can speak hardly a word of German, and a growth in discontent, unemployment and social problems amongst predominantly Muslim youths from a migratory background.The idea of riots, like those in France, or of terrorist activity, have now generated a climate of fear within public opinion. September 11th, whose organisers had a logistic base in Hamburg, and the spread of Islamic radicalism and ‘jihad culture’ in environments linked to certain mosques and communities, have now faced German institutions with an urgent need to open up a dialogue with the varied world of Islam, in the hope of warding off an attack of mass proportions like that of London or Madrid. There have been some plots, relatively amateurish in truth, which have fortunately been thwarted, but the level of alert remains high, as Schäuble reaffirmed in a press conference on the 15th May: “The greatest threat to stability and security in Germany continues to come from Islamist terrorism. Germany too must come to terms with a new quality of terrorist activity.”
The minister, and society in general, are hoping for the coming of an ‘enlightened’ Islam, capable of uniting faith and reason, and of isolating the more dangerous elements within itself. It will be a long and arduous path, however, given the polarisation which has developed between the various positions, even between the different currents within German Islam. The writer Feridun Zaimoglu, for example, sparring with female critics of Islam present at the DIK which he describes as “pumped up by the media”, drew attention to the absence of religious Muslim women proudly wearing the veil, in his view an important reality which risks being overlooked. Undoubtedly true, even if, as Christian Geyer of the FAZ rightly pointed out, we cannot blame secular Muslims if the religious organisations have chosen not to send a single female delegate.
Translation by Liz Longden