There is a debate in Europe about the need to train religious experts locally

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Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:51

There is a debate in various European countries about the need to train religious experts locally in order to avoid foreign interference and the influence of do-it-yourself preachers. The spread of ideas opposing the integration of Muslim communities and the growing force of radical ideologies are both giving cause for concern. To prevent all this, Germany has come up with the idea of creating centres of Islamic Theology. We visited them.


The debate is re-opened at regular intervals. Germany needs a “law on Islam” that can regulate the Muslim communities and guarantee that preaching in the mosques is in German, thereby promoting “transparency”. So said Jens Spahn, a conservative politician and member of the executive committee of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, at the beginning of April. Spahn also re-raised an issue that, for years now, people have been grappling with not only in Germany but everywhere in Europe where the Muslim presence is growing: the training of imams. It was precisely this expression that was used by both the German and the international press when an Islamic Theology programme was launched in 2010 at the University of Osnabrück in Lower Saxony (to the North-West of the country). And, judging by the words of Rauf Ceylan, still today a professor of Sociology of Religion at Osnabrück, that was also the idea that the project’s founders had. As he said at the time, through the site IslamToday, “We need imams who are socialized and at home in Germany. They influence the religious orientation of Muslims in Germany, they have a big impact on whether young Muslims will practice a tolerant, conservative or extremist version of Islam.”



The Mosques in North Rhine-Westphalia


Today, seven years on, there are five universities with Islamic Theology centres in Germany. In addition to Osnabrück, we can count Münster, Tübingen, Erlangen and Frankfurt, whilst the Humboldt University of Berlin is in the process of structuring a course. Up until now, however, none of these places has become a genuine training centre for imams, the majority of whom – in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe – study abroad, generally in their country of origin: Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, the Balkans… There is no specific course of studies for becoming an imam. In Münster, the subject is included in the Islamic Theology courses or in the course for becoming a Muslim religion teacher, as Cefli Ademi, a professor at the university, explains to us. “Whoever studies Islamic theology can then go on to be an imam; they decide.” In the case of Catholic priests, a university degree in Theology is followed by an obligatory two-year practical training period. However, Catholics and Protestants have hundreds of years of relations between the state and the Christian Churches behind them, explains Helmut Wiesmann, the person responsible for relations with Islam within the German Bishops’ Conference. The situation is still in a state of flux as far as Islam is concerned, on the other hand: these study centres have only existed for five or six years and Muslims are still organized as associations, rather than religious communities.


As in the faculties of Christian or Jewish Theology, the study programmes and professors in the new Islamic Theology centres are chosen by a federal-level committee, which includes university representatives (who have the last word on academic standards) and members of the religious communities, who follow the religious aspect.


Osnabrück is a small town of just under 200,000 inhabitants and was once part of the Hanseatic League. Its little historic centre attracts tourists and school groups from all over the country. They come to visit the old, thirteenth-century stone houses, the buildings with their exposed wooden beams, the town hall where the Peace of Westphalia was signed (thereby ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648) and the museum that remembers the town’s most famous citizen, Erich Maria Remarque. Gazing at the flat, surrounding countryside with its bright green interrupted by the red of sloping-roofed barns, it seems hard to imagine the town as a training centre for the religious leaders of a religion – Islam – that brings with it a strong mental image of such different panoramas: those of the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and even further East. Two town mosques face onto the same peaceful street lying outside the historic centre, amongst industrial warehouses. One is a centre for Bosnian Muslims and the other is a prayer room belonging to DiTiB (Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği, in Turkish), the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs. This is the German branch of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Ankara, which has, for decades and in agreement with Berlin, been sending its imams from the Turkish schools to the German mosques, from Lower Saxony to Bavaria.


For years, the German government thought that it was to its advantage to rely on a bureaucratized and well-oiled institution, and a model of Islam (i.e. the Turkish one) that was considered moderate and secularized by decades of Kemalism. This until Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist and nationalist drives became too strong. Tensions between the German and Turkish governments arose once more in February: first when some imams linked to DiTiB were accused of spying on Ankara’s behalf and then again, when the German authorities blocked appearances by certain Turkish politicians who had come to campaign in favour of a “Yes” vote in the Constitutional Referendum held in Turkey on 16 April. The President’s line won quite narrowly, partly thanks to the overseas voters, and the referendum has been considered by many politicians, observers and analysts in Europe to be the latest step towards consolidating an already excessively authoritarian power.



Conflict with Ankara


It is partly political tensions of this kind – in addition to integration difficulties and fears about the radicalization of younger generations – that are spurring German politicians to try using the training of imams to institutionalize local Islam and, above all, to make it speak German: most preaching is still done in Arabic and Turkish. “The Salafis in Germany were the first to realise that they needed to speak German and that communities should not be divided along ethnic lines,” explains Silvia Horsch al-Saad, a Muslim and professor at Osnabrück University’s Centre of Islamic Theology. Ultra-conservative Muslims who follow the example of Islam’s Prophet and his first Companions to the letter, Salafis can be non-violent quietists or jihadists and, therefore, tending to aggressive militancy.


Covering her head with a black veil, Amine Kabaktepe is of Turkish origin and one of Prof. Horsch’s students. She began studying Islamic Theology because she and her mother were already involved in interreligious dialogue within her mosque. Although she wants to specialize in design and does not want to continue with religious studies after she graduates, she thinks that the German mosques need to train people who are able to communicate, precisely because “something is missing in this area and the vacuum gets filled by other people: if you look online, there’s nothing but Salafi sites.” The Salafis are a Muslim minority in Germany but their numbers are rapidly increasing. Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany’s domestic intelligence agency) stated in September 2016 that the number of Salafis in the country had gone up to 9,200: they numbered 8,900 in June 2016 and 5,500 three years ago.


There are very few radical mosques and they are often off the radar. According to Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS), the problem is that the traditional mosques have focussed their attention on the older generations rather than on teenagers, whereas the Salafis are active on the internet: they organize sports events and reach out to the young. Their work on the ground and online is very effective.


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A Syrian market in Neukölln, Berlin


The imams active in the religious associations on German soil are no longer – as they were in their Islamic countries of origin – simply prayer leaders: they are enjoying an increasingly central role and one that is not only religious but also political and social. According to Koehler, there is therefore no alternative to co-operation between the national institutions and the Islamic associations. “We need a team of imams trained in the West, born and bred here, who know the social and legal system. We need academic courses and debate about the fundamentals of Islam in our universities. Then we need to create connections between these imams and the communities and to make using these imams attractive to the communities, for example by guaranteeing financial incentives for those who employ them.”


The financial question, when added to the educational one, is no small matter and it affects an area that is already highly controversial in Germany and will now also include the founding of Islamic Theology centres, the training of imams and relations between the state and Muslim associations.



The State, the Churches and Taxes


The German Constitution sanctions freedom of worship and does not establish a state religion. It lays the foundations for strong co-operation between the state and religious communities, with the latter enjoying the right to collect taxes from their members. In order to be able to do so, a community must be legally recognised as a Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts i.e. a corporate body governed by public law. There are various prerequisites for this recognition: the association’s constitutionality, the number of its members, the length of its presence on national soil etc. The Catholic Church, the Protestant one, the Jews and other faiths are all recognised as religious communities and can collect taxes that allow them to pay for their structures and activities and the salaries of their priests and pastors. Islam has not yet been so recognised and one of the greatest problems that the German authorities are facing is the lack of a unified leadership. In short, if the Catholics, Protestants and Jews have a single representative who acts as an interface with the state, Islam’s history and its very nature present a different reality, as can also be seen from this issue’s articles.


More than a dozen Muslim organizations participate in the German Islam Conference, a forum set up in 2006 by the German Ministry of the Interior to foster long-term dialogue with the different Islamic realities in the country. “The dialogue aims at improving the social and institutional integration of the approximately 4 million German Muslims,” states a presentation pamphlet. The same Conference recognises that the Islamic organizations present in the country do not necessarily represent the 4.3 million Muslims in the territory: “Approximately 20 per cent of Muslims belong to religious organizations or congregations, although the number of Muslims who regularly frequent the mosques is higher. Approximately 2,350 mosque-centred associations with 2,300 imams are active in Germany,” although the number of unregistered prayer rooms and places of worship would be much higher, according to the local media. The German Muslims are 74 per cent Sunni, 12 per cent Alevi (a religious group present in Anatolia, above all) and 7 per cent Shi’ite. The associations are divided along ethnic and linguistic lines.



Religion Classes


So, contrary to the earliest press announcements, they don’t train imams at Münster or Osnabrück or the other Islamic Theology centres. Cefli Ademi, the professor at Münster, explains to us that the first graduates will go to teach Islamic religion in schools, above all. This is one of the first achievements of the work carried out by the Islam Conference in tandem with the associations: the religion class at school will no longer be just for Christians. “Up until now,” he explains, “there have been no religious instruction centres and communities had to see to importing imams from outside. This is a central issue because these people have less knowledge of German society. Having said that, the job of an imam is not very attractive to graduates nowadays, partly for economic reasons. There are many expectations about these courses, particularly on the part of politicians. They are hoping for better integration and to be able to establish a liberal, very secular Islam, thus demonstrating a very limited understanding of the issue: since its origins, Islam has never had the same separation of state from Church that exists in the West. Furthermore, the politicians see the communities as being too conservative, whilst the communities see the universities as being too closely tied to the government.”


The Islamic Theology centres are nonetheless receiving many applications for enrolment; particularly on the religion-teacher training courses. And not a few of the (primarily female) students see them as providing a great work opportunity. Sporting a cream-coloured veil over a shirt and jeans, Sarah Heritani is one of Professor Ademi’s students and of Syrian origin. She tells us how there is only one Turkish mosque in her village outside Münster. The preaching is in Turkish, a language that she doesn’t speak. “The Turks (like others) say, ‘This is Turkish’ and think that it’s religious. There’s a fusion of religion, culture and nationality. In the state schools, on the other hand, there will soon be teachers teaching Islamic religion and there will be Germans of Arab, Turkish and Macedonian origin….,” she explains. She, too, along with her female friends – all students aged around twenty – think that the time has come for Islam to speak German in the mosques. And yet, those very same days, a book by the journalist Constantin Schreiber, a Middle East veteran with an excellent knowledge of Arabic, sparks debate. As Schreiber himself told us, Inside Islam is a piece of reportage, not a piece of research with scientific pretensions. The reporter visited 13 mosques in various German cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Potsdam and Karlsruhe – and listened incognito to the imams preaching. Not once did they preach in German. The book has caused controversy and the journalist has been criticised for it, despite the fact that he received help in decoding the preaching from academics specialising in Islam. “In the best of cases, the sermons sounded like stories about another world, about a mythicized Arab Middle Ages, amongst date palms and camels. In the worst, they treated the subjects of integration and socialization in Germany as something to be feared and avoided. Suffice it to think of when an imam spoke of the ‘danger of Christmas’.”


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Two girls walking near the Berlin Wall


The fact remains that, precisely because it is not communicated in the language of the country, the content of the Friday preaching in Germany – as elsewhere in Europe (in Italy, the minister of the Interior, Marco Minniti, has requested legislation that would impose the use of Italian in the mosques) – often escapes the authorities, who are more concerned with the integration process. Only one of the imams in the mosques visited by Schreiber over eight months spoke a “broken” German. “We have 2,600 mosques in Germany and I don’t know a single imam who has had a European education,” Bassam Tibi, a Syrian professor of political science, naturalized German and practising Muslim told Deutsche Welle in 2009. “How can they teach a Muslim living here how to behave? These imams will probably tell me not to integrate.” It was precisely this point, recalls Daniel Koehler, which triggered the debate over the need for locally trained preachers. The feasibility of such training, however, raises some issues that, once again, are linked to the Islamic community’s legal status: “Islam is not recognized as a religious community in Germany. Muslim associations do not receive state funding to pay for imams with a university education. This is one of the reasons they go and get them from Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, where they are free. If we train up high-level imams, who will pay for them? Who will pay for someone with a university degree? The moot point is: where is the money to come from? The same goes for those imams who go and work as prison chaplains. There’s no question that we need to train imams here but then there’s another question that needs to be asked: will the communities accept them afterwards?”



A Bit of Levant in Berlin


The Neukölln district in Berlin hosts many of these communities. They gather in makeshift prayer rooms in buildings very like national health-service centres or suburban Sunday schools. Germans do live in the area: particularly young Germans who gambled on good property deals in an area ripe for gentrification amidst the hipsters’ cafes, Levantine restaurants and halal butchers. Indeed, thousands of Turkish and Arab immigrants have settled here over the years. In some streets, you could close your eyes and think you were in Aleppo or Hebron. Arabic is spoken in the streets in various Levantine accents and the signs (written in Arabic and German) reflect the new proprietors’ origins: “Damascus vegetables” or “Oum Kalthoum Coffee”, the latter borrowing the name of the Egyptian star of Arabic song. You can sit in a restaurant on a Saturday afternoon and savour hummus as if you were in Tulkarem, West Bank, listening to orders in German following orders in Arabic. It is the Syrian refugees, above all, who have chosen Neukölln as home in recent years but the district’s history already had a long-standing connection with the Middle East. In 2005, the fine, pine-surrounded Columbiadamm mosque was built a stone’s throw from Templehoff Park or, rather, the runway of an ex-Nazi airport that, in 2015, became an emergency shelter for over 5,000 (primarily Syrian) immigrants. The mosque’s brightly coloured embellishments are based on sixteenth-century Ottoman art and, looking at the building, you could think you were in Istanbul. And, in a certain sense, you are because the land on which the mosque stands is Turkish. The German Emperor, Wilhelm I, gifted it to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century for use as a Muslim cemetery, as the garden’s old gravestones recount. It is in this same area that the local offices of Islamarat, one of the many German Islamic associations and part of the Islamic Conference, is situated. It has ties with the Islamist Turkish political and religious movement, Millî Görüş, founded by Erdoğan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan. Burhan Kesici, Islamrat’s secretary-general, has been a member of various committees responsible for the dialogue bewtween Islamic theological centres and Muslim associations. He is currently working in Berlin to set up a similar project at the Humboldt University. In the past, he was at the centre of a controversy because he was removed from the Münster University committee. At a time when Millî Görüş was under the authorities’ particular scrutiny, the federal government blocked his appointment on the basis of “constitution-threatening issues”. Today, sitting at a desk on which a dual-text volume of Goethe’s works in German and Turkish lies open, he does not think that national universities can train imams. “They can teach Islamic theology and they can teach method to those desiring to become imams but an imam has different duties.” What he is proposing is that the Universities should be able to establish the fundamental principles but that there should then be a practical training period elsewhere. As far as his organization is concerned, that “elsewhere” remains Turkey. “We are very worried about the theological universities experiment in Germany,” he says.


The Shi‘ite community in Berlin also has its doubts. In Shia Islam, the imam has a far more central role in interpreting the Sacred texts: he is the only figure who can “make the Book speak.” If, for Ali Taouil, the Berlin representative of the Shi‘ite community IGS, the opening of Islamic theology centres is generally, from a Muslim point of view, a step forward, the universities’ academic form of teaching is not compatible with their vision. In the hawza, the Shi‘ite seminaries (the most famous are at Qom, in Iran, and Najaf, in Iraq) the training of imams lasts up to ten years, “and here in Germany there are no hawza.” “We need to ensure the quality of the education,” explains Ali Chahrour, another IGS representative in Berlin. “If you train an imam, you must be sure that he will be accepted by the community.” The local Shi‘ite community is much more interested in the opening (in April) of a Berlin branch of the al-Mustafa university, one of Iran’s most important religious universities. And, therefore, linked to the Teheran government.


For now and as already mentioned in Osnabrück by Amine, the student enrolled on the Islamic Theology course, the Muslim associations’ most senior figures generally think that “nothing coming out of Germany can be Islamic,” and therefore rule out the local universities’ teaching as well. This approach is destined to change, however, Lydia Nofal tells us in the garden of her little house in the suburbs of Berlin. She is a convert and the number two of the Berlin branch of ZMD (Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland i.e. the Central Council of Muslims in Germany), the country’s largest umbrella organization gathering various Islamic associations. “Nowadays, most Turkish mosques would hesitate to take imams trained in Germany. And yet, all the mosques are competing with each other to attract believers: let’s remember that, according to the Ministry of the Interior, the associations represent only 20 per cent of the 4.3 million Muslims in Germany. Precisely because of this competition, the mosques that don’t speak German and don’t have imams trained in Germany who are prepared to deal with an ever younger and ever more German believing public will, in the long run, lose believers. This is the effect that the presence of the second and third generations is having. They have another kind of life, another culture: they want to engage with someone who is like them. It will take time but the change will come in the end.”


 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Rolla Scolari, “Wanted: a German Islam”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 114-128.

Online version:
Rolla Scolari, “Wanted: a German Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: