The Chronicle Review

Educating Imams in Germany: the Battle for a European Islam

Sean Gallup, Getty Images

A guide speaks to visitors at Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin, where the resident imam is a Turkish civil servant. Integration-minded critics would like to see more German imams.
July 18, 2010

In the snow-swept courtyard of the white-marble Sehitlik Mosque, Berlin's largest Islamic prayer house, the resident imam greets the faithful with handshakes and embraces. A slightly built, cordial man wearing an open parka, Mustafa Aydin is a Turkish civil servant on a four-year posting abroad, as are many of the Islamic preachers in Germany, where the Muslim community is overwhelmingly of Turkish heritage. Aydin understands basic German, which he's been learning, but he communicates with me through a Turkish-to-German interpreter. The services' prayers are in Arabic, he says, but his sermons and chats with congregants—including those born and schooled in Germany—are in the language of their parents' Turkish homeland, and that, he assures me, is perfectly adequate for his parish's needs. "We don't have any problems with Turkish," he says.

In a Germany struggling to come to grips with its burgeoning, four-million-strong Muslim population (about 5 percent of the populace), the use of imams sent from Turkey and other foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, has come under sustained fire from integration-minded critics. After all, argue some intellectuals, politicos, and other citizens across Germany's political spectrum, including the more moderate currents in the Muslim community, how can the foreign clergy advise believers—many of whom grapple with profound disadvantage in Germany—without mastering the lingua franca and knowing the world they live in? The imams have, in part, been held responsible for Muslims' ghettoization, as well as fundamentalism in some pockets of the country.

"The problem isn't these imams, it's that there aren't any other imams," responds Badr Mohammed, a Lebanese-born social worker and city politician who offered to show me around the Sehitlik Mosque, in one of Berlin's heavily migrant neighborhoods. "We're only now laying the foundations for a new model," he explains. "In order to facilitate the integration of Muslims, we have to first integrate the imams, and this requires another generation of imams, German imams, which we don't have yet."

Fostering a generation of German-schooled imams, seen as central to breaking the vicious circle of Muslim exclusion, is the chief aim of an Islamic-theology initiative announced by the government in January. The effort is a vital front of the Islam Conference, started in 2006, an ambitious, wide-ranging process set in motion by the German government to consider the yawning gap between mainstream Germany and its Muslims. The conference, designed to map out a long-term integration strategy, painted a dismal picture of the reality faced by German Muslims. It is a reality marked by meager integration; growing alienation and even fundamentalism among the second and third-generations; the ossification of a Muslim underclass; and dysfunctional communication between Germany and its Muslims, nearly half of whom are German citizens. One of its key recommendations is to focus on the training of the Islamic community's personnel, including religion teachers, as well as the dearth of Islamic theology in German academe.

Bringing Islam into the classrooms at the very highest level, Germany hopes, will have an educational and cultural trickle-down effect. And so the country's foremost academic advisory body, the German Council of Science and Humanities, announced the creation of cutting-edge academic institutes—hybrids of seminary and religious-studies programs—to examine Islamic theology with a critical bent and teach it to Germany's Muslims in a university setting. "This," stated the council's 158-page report, "is the best way to insure the academic quality of research and instruction, to intensify the discourse with other disciplines with different worldviews, and to create a reliable theological foundation for interreligious dialogue."

Although the institutes will be anchored in state-financed colleges, the country's Muslim communities will have a substantial voice in their curricula and management, just as Christian churches do in theology departments across Germany. The council's recommendations are not blueprints for the two or three new planned institutes, estimated to open in 2012 and to cost about $4-million annually in government funds, but rather a visionary démarche, the specifics of which—the study program, size, and composition of faculty and students—will be hammered out by the vested parties over the next few years. Certain, however, is that these new academies will nurture not only German-speaking imams with European orientations, but also—if everything goes according to plan—new ranks of male and female Muslim religion teachers, public intellectuals, scholars, and faith-based social workers. The long-anticipated proposal explicitly mentions the training of qualified religion teachers for the estimated 700,000 Muslim pupils in Germany who do not enjoy faith-based religious instruction on a par with that of their peers who belong to the major Christian denominations.

The initiative is part of a broader strategy to promote a European Islam in Germany—and across the continent—that better reflects the needs and values of the European Union's 16 million Muslims, and breaks new ground in the cultivation of a moderate, Enlightenment-friendly Islamic faith. The establishment of faculties of Islamic theology "could change the very character of Islam in Germany and Europe," says Christoph Markschies, president of the prestigious Humboldt University of Berlin.

The issue of Islam in Germany's public sphere is explosive—and certain to stir up pique before the faculties open their doors. "The execution of these plans will bring up a lot of difficulties," predicts Markschies, a Protestant theologian. He welcomes the consensus around the project but warns that when it comes to establishing the institutes, "there's going to be bitter conflicts, not least within the large number of different Islamic communities, that will pit conservatives against progressives, Sunnis against Shiites, and so forth." Before concrete steps to create the institutes can be taken, the German universities have to locate a single, authoritative institution in the Muslim community to act as an interlocutor; the inability to do so in the past has proved the major stumbling block in establishing Islamic theology courses on a much smaller scale.

Germany's Muslim populations are relative newcomers to the country, and their communities still reflect those migrant roots. Most of Germany's Muslims settled in West Germany in the latter cold-war decades, when the country's surging economy drew unskilled labor from Southern Europe, and above all from Turkey. Over the years, waves of Muslims from the Balkans, the Arab world, and Asia also put down roots, assembling a patchwork of communities. About two-thirds of Muslims here are Turkish, Sunnis who stem overwhelmingly from rural, southeastern Anatolia. Yet the Islamic community also encompasses urban-minded Iranian Shiites, Alevis (a persecuted minority in Turkey), Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims, Sufis, and strains of the Arabic Muslim Brotherhood.

As postwar labor migration swelled, it was common for the homelands, particularly Turkey, to organize the visiting clergy and religion instructors to minister their needs—and, explicitly, to reinforce their ties to their countries of origin. Their first prayer houses were unadorned rooms rented in dreary downtown tenements.

From those modest origins, Islam has mushroomed into Germany's third-largest faith, behind Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. There are hundreds of mosques between the Black Forest and the Baltic Sea, with as many as 2,000 clerics to serve a Muslim population that has more than doubled since 1997. Yet even though third and now fourth generations now attend mosque services and private religion classes, 90 percent of the imams are still flown in from abroad, and teachers are groomed informally in local parishes.

"There's a disconnect between the religious authorities in Germany's mosques and the Muslim communities across Germany, particularly the younger generations," explains Riem Spielhaus, an East German-born Muslim scholar of Islam. "Young people feel estranged from those imams who come from another country and try to give them guidance. They say, 'What can you tell me about my life?' The more Muslims are integrated and feel part of the society, the more they require clerics who can help them address their problems in school or the workplace. In a way, their dissatisfaction is a good thing, because it shows they have arrived in society."

"This is an historic process," says Rauf Ceylan, a sociologist and author of a new German book on European imams. In the course of his research, he interviewed hundreds of German imams. "We want imams to have a positive relationship to the German state and to develop an Islamic-European theology that is compatible with human rights and democracy. Most of it completely bypasses their believers' everyday reality," he recently told a German newspaper. "For over a thousand years, the Friday prayer has been an important medium to discuss religious and ethical issues, but social problems as well. In the context of Germany, this would mean that the imams in, say, Kreuzberg, in Berlin, would also discuss arranged marriage or problems with the German school system. Instead these imams are talking about the Dardanelles Campaign of World War I; Ataturk's life; or Zakat, Muslims' voluntary personal contribution to the needy. The imported imams strive to keep their flock's ties to the homeland alive—and this doesn't help their parishes in the least."

Against the backdrop of international terrorism, including a foiled bomb plot in Germany in 2007, and studies documenting failed integration, Germany's foreign imams have come under intense public scrutiny. One study discovered a pronounced conservative, fundamentalist streak among up to 20 percent of Islamic preachers in the country. Many of the imams possess little higher education, and some come from extremist ranks.

As inadequate as Badr Mohammed, the Lebanese-born social worker, finds the status quo, he maintains that German state policies are ultimately the source of the tormented relations between Germany and its Muslims. "Germany simply wasn't open to Muslims until the Islam Conference," says Mohammed, who is on the conference's board and credits it with ameliorating the way Germans think about Muslims. He argues that Germany hesitated much too long in accepting Islam as an integral part of German society. "Only now are Muslims beginning to feel that they are welcome in Germany, that they are not something alien and inferior."

Until very recently, Mohammed notes, there were no facilities where prospective clergy could study faith-based Islamic theology. Young Muslim men in Germany who aspired to join the clerical ranks had to travel to seminaries in Turkey or Egypt. German universities offer Islamic studies but not the kind of confessional training that Catholic and Protestant clergy receive at the state's expense. The foreign imams, he says, do their best. "But what can you expect," he asks, explaining the plight of Muslims in Germany, "when you're told, 'You don't belong to us, you're not one of us, you're bad,' and then they don't identify? The imams aren't to blame. But still we need new ones."

A stroll along Berlin's bustling Kottbusser Damm, in the Turkish-dominated Kreuzberg district, offers a snapshot of what has become of the Muslim migrants, in particular the Anatolian Turks. The kebab vendors, all-male teahouses, and hole-in-the-wall bakeries imbue the old Berlin neighborhood with a distinctive, ethnic flair. The Turkish migrants, many now longtime German citizens, coexist easily with the working-class Germans and Kreuzberg's leftist bohemians. In Germany, Muslim populations aren't isolated in outlying ghettos like the banlieues of Paris. But it is conspicuous that the Deutsch-Türken, or German Turks, don't generally mesh with the Germans beyond the everyday business of the streets.

Studies underscore what is plain to the eye in Kreuzberg: Muslims' blocked path into the upper echelons of German society. Joblessness is twice the national average for Turkish nationals in Germany, and 28 percent of Turks report discrimination when looking for work. The most comprehensive study to date, "Muslim Life in Germany," documents the disturbing social fallout for Muslims in Germany, including in the youngest generations. It found Muslims twice as likely to drop out of high school as non-Muslims. "It is young, male Muslims that face the worst prejudice and overwhelmingly negative stereotypes," says Sanem Kleff, director of the NGO Schools Without Racism—Schools With Courage. "Even many of their teachers give up on them." Of all the immigrant groups, Turkish kids were the least likely to make it into the elite high schools, the ticket to a college education and a middle-class career in Germany.

Yet—and this is a point regularly brandished in the raging debate over integration—foreign countries like Turkey aspire to keep a grip on their people abroad through the mosques, and stubbornly resist encroachment on that turf. Over 1.7 million of Germany's Turks still have Turkish citizenship. In 2008, Turkey's prime minister, visiting Germany at the time, unleashed a tempest when he called assimilation "a crime against humanity," in what was understood as a call to resist integration. Although Islamic groups, like the powerful Turkish Islamic Union (Ditib), which runs the Sehitlik Mosque, deny acting in Turkey's name, a look around the mosque's premises speaks otherwise. Red-and-white Turkish flags fly high over the entrances. The entire Sehitlik Mosque was recently reconstructed with building materials exclusively from Turkey, Mustafa Aydin tells me proudly, paid for to the last nail by Ankara's religious-affairs department, the same that employs him and about 800 fellow clerics across Germany.

Groups like Ditib respond coolly to the planned Islamic institutes. If Islam were to enjoy the same status as the Christian religions and Judaism, the training of its imams in colleges' theology departments would be overseen by the German state and subject to national academic standards. In an Internet exchange on the issue, "Murat Ceylan from Berlin" expressed the doubts that some of Germany's Islamic authorities harbor but dare not state publicly: "This concept is testimony to the poverty of Islam in Germany. We're ceding to the state instead of creating something ourselves. I really don't believe that a state-paid professor is going to find answers to the most pressing Muslim questions."

At the core of the controversy—and perhaps the gravest obstacle to launching Islam into the public sphere—is the status of Islam in Germany. In stark contrast to the United States and France, church and state are not strictly separated in Germany. The major religions are present in universities and schools, in the form of confessional, faith-based religion teachers and theology professors, and as partners in determining curricula for religion classes in public schools and universities' theology departments. Religion teachers in public schools, for example, are practicing Catholics or Protestants who are accredited according to standards set by the churches together with the teacher-training programs. Since the Protestant and the Catholic churches are centralized, with a clearly defined hierarchy, the state has an undisputed interlocutor. This single, legal representative is exactly what Germany's fragmented Islamic communities cannot provide, thus excluding Islam from the range of rights, responsibilities, and state monies granted to the accredited faiths. Efforts to forge a representative umbrella organization for Muslims have fallen flat, exacerbated by the fact that only about 20 percent of German Muslims belong to any Islamic association at all.

Nowhere does the status issue have greater implications than for religious instruction in schools—a piece of the puzzle essential for eventually cracking the integration conundrum. The Islamic tutoring of school-age children is almost entirely private and unregulated, either by Germany's educational authorities or by a centralized Islamic body. Unlike for the Christian instructors, there are no mandatory courses of study or certification. A handful of pilot projects offer restricted, state-sanctioned classroom teaching to an estimated 1 percent to 2 percent of the Muslim pupils. Experts suspect that Germany is short anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 qualified Islam instructors.

On Berlin's easternmost outskirts, in a prosaic hall that once housed the Communist railway-workers union, the newly opened Buhara Institute is a private project designed to deal with the deficit of homegrown imams. The school, which enrolls 29 young male German and Dutch students, is financed by a group of Berlin Sufis. It is run by Alexander Weiger, a Bavarian convert to Islam. The curriculum of the six-year program includes German, civics, and a wide range of classes in Arabic, theology, and Koran studies. "We want to train imams who are grounded in the society and speak perfect German," explains Weiger. "They should be able to conduct a dialogue with the churches, the authorities, and other parts of the community."

Other independent projects have sprouted up around the country, such as short-term courses for imams on German culture, language, and interreligious dialogue. The main Islamic organizations have begun limited training at their own facilities. Organizers say the foreign imams are eager to learn more about Germany in order to be more effective.

But experts tend to agree that these projects, though worthy, can't replace proper theological study at German universities, where the courses would meet academic standards and involve the input of the Islamic community as a whole. Moreover, notes Spielhaus, the East-German-born scholar, the private programs, like Buhara, rarely include women. "Women are completely neglected in this discussion, even in the Islam Conference," says Spielhaus. In Turkey, Morocco, and elsewhere, she says, women study theology and lead all-female prayer sessions, as well as serve as religion teachers and parish social workers.

Observers in Germany and beyond hope that the new institutes will eventually lend a greater sophistication to Islam in Europe, putting it on a par with other religions. "The Islam in Germany is still a kind of 'migrant Islam,'" says Eberhard Seidel, a Berlin-based author of several books on the topic. "If there were just 100 or 150 Western-educated Muslim theologians in Germany, half of them women, things would change very quickly. But this Muslim elite doesn't exist. There are far too few capable interlocutors to engage on behalf of Muslims in a public debate that is all about their future."

The kind of academically rigorous theology that will be offered at Germany's universities, says Humboldt University's Markschies, is something rare even in the Muslim world. "Islam lacks a Western-type theology, characterized by a critical, open-minded discourse about its texts, its assumptions, and its history," says Markschies, who'd like to see one of the institutes find a home in Berlin. "The Christian religions have engaged with the Enlightenment and issues like human rights and personal liberty for some 200 years, which still has to happen in Islam. Bringing Islam into the German universities will compel it to face discourses about democratic norms and will ultimately change it, the way Christianity changed when it confronted modernity."

Across Western Europe, where the Muslim populations are almost exclusively postwar phenomena, the dilemma of imported clergy—and the discourse around it—is akin to that in Germany. But the peculiarities of the church-state relationship in Germany—the way religious authorities and educational institutions cooperate on issues like curricula and staffing—give the state and academe leverage in theological training that is unthinkable in, say, France or Italy. "The content of university-level theological training," explains Thomas Lemmen, director of a Christian-Islamic group for interreligious dialogue in Cologne, "is ultimately determined by the churches or, in the case of Islam, by representatives of the Islamic community. But the mere fact that this study has to adhere to constitutional and university standards is a unique means for the German system to provide a context for Islam to develop further, perhaps in the direction of a European Islam."

"Muslim organizations have reacted to the special needs of Muslims in Germany, for example, through relevant courses in the home countries," says Lemmen. "Imams and theologians come to Germany better prepared than in the past. Nevertheless, there's no way that a course of study abroad can be a real alternative for an academically rigorous university education in Germany."

Ulrike Freitag, a professor of Islamic studies at Berlin's liberal-minded Free University, warns that the introduction of Islam into academe is open-ended, with no guarantee that something progressive will emerge. "On the one hand, there's enormous potential for a new interpretation of Islam," she says. "There's the possibility of a new kind of discussion between Sunnis and Shiites or an alternative reading of the Koran." On the other hand, she is wary that German universities "could wind up with something very conservative. The orientation of the migrant communities and their descendants is overwhelmingly traditionalist," she says, referring to their interpretation of the Shariah on matters such as gender, family law, clothing, and moral codes in general. "They could unite around a minimum conservative consensus rather than dare to try something new."

Although the Islam Conference and the planned Islamic institutes are enormous steps forward, those involved admit that the road ahead is treacherous. Markschies, for example, wonders whether there are enough qualified Muslim academics to fill the new posts. Kleff, of the NGO Schools Without Racism—Schools With Courage, argues that "it is absolutely essential that Islam be granted equal status with other religions in Germany." But she admits that the quest for a single legal partner for the German authorities remains elusive, even though a new coordinating council was set up by the Islam Conference. "You can't just change Islam to make it like Protestantism," she says.

Critics say Islam has already been altered through its emergent Western congregations and interaction with European value systems. The new Islamic institutes in Germany, as well as like-minded programs in Austria, France, and the Netherlands, could well take Islam to places its guardians never intended it to go. That is exactly what the architects of Germany's Islamic academies hope.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist and political analyst in Berlin. His books include Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008).