Analysis, Europe

OPINION - 'German Islam' as a political project

German Islam conference has added a new function to its job description: redefining Islam -- even though it previously claimed to be merely a mechanism of communication and dialogue between the German state and Muslims living in Germany

OPINION - 'German Islam' as a political project

By Zeliha Eliacık

The writer is researcher at SETA's Directorate of European Studies, working on Orientalism, minorities in European and Muslim societies, Islamophobia and the foreign policy of Germany.


Although Germany's debate on Islam has a long history, it took on greater intensity in 2010 with the then German President Christian Wulff's momentous declaration that "Islam belongs to Germany". As if to counter Wulff's argument, Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from the Christian Social Union (CSU) recently stated that "Islam is not a part of Germany", causing the debate to flare up again. Merkel rejected this statement of her coalition partner from the CSU, reaffirming that "Islam belongs to Germany". President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a similar supportive statement, remarking that Muslims living in Germany belong to Germany.

Apparently, the issue of "German Islam" is brought up in two different ways in the German public. On the one hand, there is the perpetually raised issue of whether Islam and Muslims belong to Europe, which is debated in theoretical and categorical terms. And on the other, there have been practical attempts to redesign Islam and the state's relationship with the Muslim communities by means of a number of organizations, such as the German Islam Conference, founded in 2006, and also to call into question the existence of such well-established and traditional institutions as the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB).

Operating under the Ministry of Interior, the German Islam Conference last July announced its plans for restructuring. It was announced as part of the action plan that, from now on, unorganized groups and a number of prominent Muslim individuals would also be invited to the Conference's meetings in addition to organized Muslim groups, which have remained the only invitees so far. What essentially matters, however, is that this institution has added a new function to its job description, which is to "redefine Islam", even though it previously claimed that it was merely a mechanism of communication and dialogue between the German state and Muslims living in Germany. Markus Kerber, the undersecretary of the Interior Ministry in charge of the organization, demanded in a statement he made that Muslims living in Germany define an Islam particular to Germany.

A political discourse: 'Islam belongs to Germany'

This latest call for a redefinition of Islam for Germany has thus revealed that the phrase "Islam belongs to Germany" is as politically motivated as "Islam doesn't belong to Germany". Clearly, we cannot be naive about this situation and interpret it as "Islam is now accepted in Germany". The fact that the debates about "a German Islam" were initiated and are now being directed and manipulated by politicians instead of theologians or sociologists is for all to see. And moreover, both theses (“Islam belongs to Germany” vs. “Islam doesn't belong to Germany”) investigate what kind of Islam must be one to suit to Germany, through a security perspective.

The idea of redefining the Islamic faith, which is a fully practical religion based on a deep-rooted tradition possessed of solid primary sources, is redolent of the transformation of Christianity, which took its present form as a result of a series of councils. On a closer look at the ongoing debates, one can see that the actual aim of the "German Islam" project is a top-down imposition of a model of Islam that has already been traced out to a large extent, which, it is hoped, Muslims will adopt. In fact, former Interior Minister Otto Schily made a similar statement as part of his integration plan that he announced as early as 2002, in which he explicitly said that Muslims had to be assimilated and be prepared to adopt a "European Islam".

Is DITIB being undermined for eventual closure?

What is apparent in the discussions of Islam is that the German state and elites are convinced that Islam does not belong to this country and are therefore seeking to create a new Islam that would. At this point, we see that new organizations are being established to control and manipulate the traditional Muslim communities in Germany, and in particular the Turkish community, which is the largest Muslim group in the country. In order to control traditional institutions and to get rid of them in the medium or long term, these institutions have been put into a political context, thereby causing their relations with the Turkish state to be regarded with suspicion. Although the National Vision -- Milli Görüş -- (IGMG) -- one of the most influential Muslim groups in Germany that was under surveillance for quite a long time on the grounds of being incompatible with the constitutional order -- has slipped off the radar in a number of states, it is still monitored by the Federal Interior Intelligence Agency. It has recently been announced that there is an ongoing investigation to decide whether to place also the DITIB under the surveillance of the Agency for the Protection of the Constitution. German politicians trying to place the DITIB, an institution never involved in a criminal act, under monitoring despite arguing at the same time that there is not enough evidence to monitor even such separatist and racist groups as AfD (Alternative for Germany) is rather meaningful. Looking at this trajectory, one might assert that the eventual goal is to disband these institutions in the medium or long term.

It is also no coincidence that the debate around the DITIB was sparked off again right after President Erdogan's Germany visit. It is known that the DITIB is being presented as a problem particularly in the context of its relations with Turkey. Although no arguments to date have been put forward, as part of the debate, about DITIB being an Islamist or radical institution, accusations about it being a nationalist structure are conspicuously at the forefront nowadays. This, in turn, reinforces the suspicion that Germany, in line with its integration policy aimed at cultural assimilation, is intent on severing the Turkish community's ties to their national and religious identity and traditions. The "German Islam", in this sense, is an extension of Germany's integration policy centered on cultural effacement.

The designers of the "German Islam" project are clearly bothered to see the Turks living in Germany enjoying deep-rooted ties with Turkey, from which they draw strength and find a very strong support, According to the designers of the project, it is only through the severing of this connection and support that they would be able to take the Turks living in Germany under complete control. It is known that institutions such as the DITIB and the National Vision have become targets because they did not agree to the "German Islam" deal that they were presented with in 2008 and did not yield to such offers thanks to Turkey's support. In addition, there are arguments that the radicalization of Muslims is feared and therefore a moderate, harmonious model of Islam is required. It is, however, obvious that there is a clear tendency to ignore the fact that the Turkish youth stay away from radical groups such Al-Qaeda owing to their strong traditional religious identity and also owing to positive contributions in this regard from organizations such as the DITIB. Though newly-emerged modern terrorist organizations, completely disconnected from the tradition, such as Daesh, and reactionary projects such as "reformist Islam" are diametrically opposed to one another, they must both be interpreted as consequences of breaking with the traditional religious identity.

Islam the only religion that did not undergo 'Enlightenment'

The continual emphasis on "loyalty to the constitution" in the various calls to Muslims living in Germany causes the German society to view Muslims as potential enemies of the constitution. This emphasis also 'others' them by constantly calling their loyalty to this country into question. Islam is perpetually brought up and discussed as a security problem based on the notion of threat. The dominant discourse regarding Islam in the political and media spheres is completely negative. This dominant discourse gives rise to a “Muslim question” first and foremost, which is reminiscent, in a way, of the “Jewish question”. Then what follows is projects being implemented for the solution of this “problem”.

It is clear that Islam is not wanted in the West as it is, since it is the only religion that has not undergone a kind of enlightenment, and the only religion that is possessed of a transformative power independent of the dominant Western cultural and ideological structure. This is why Muslims living in Germany are being demanded to redefine Islam. Although the structure making this demand is rooted in the Christian-Jewish tradition, it is far from being religiously observant and has more of a secular character whose Christian identity is limited to the cultural sphere. Therefore, what the Muslims are effectively being told is, “We reformed Christianity during the Enlightenment era, and now Islam needs to go through this.”

In addition, one in seven people in Germany will be Muslim according to the projections on 2030. Given that one in 17 people was Muslim in 2010, Muslims are increasingly seen as a risk factor in terms of a demographic transformation of the society. And in this sense, it is pretty obvious that the future vision of Germany has no place for self-confident and self-assured Muslims, and that there will be efforts to disable and eradicate any kind of mechanism in place to boost the Muslim self-confidence and self-assuredness.

Arteries feeding cultural identity being severed

Religion is carried on and lived as a tradition and culture as well, and is not merely composed of a set of rites of worship. Therefore, the disbanding of institutions such as the DITIB and Milli Görüş, which establish the Turks' relationship with the religion over tradition and culture (never forgetting that they are the biggest Muslim community) will constitute a serious problem for the Muslims living in Germany. This not only would amount to cutting off these people's connection with Turkey but should also be interpreted as a project of shaping identities, a serious intervention in people's cultural and religious identity.

It should also be remembered at this point that “Alevism without Ali”, a destruction project in essence, was developed and promoted in Germany as a doctrine aimed at the Alevi communities. The recognition of Alevism as a separate religion in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the introduction of separate Alevi religious classes is just another leg of the project of dividing and transforming the Muslim Turkish community in Germany.

No to 'pagan Islam'

The secular West wants Islam and Muslims to be reformed and put through the processes of enlightenment. The secular and pagan subconscious of the West seems to want to reduce Islam, the only unreformed religion in the world, to being a cultural richness, and even degrade it to being merely a flavor, a spice, as it were, by means of projects such as the “German Islam”. The fact that the Pope -- the most important religious reference of the West and seen as "God's representative on earth -- is now sanctioning gay marriages although he was opposed to even abortion until a few years ago demonstrates the impact that politics exercises on religion in Europe.

The aim of all these projects is to create “a pagan Islam”. Muslims must never take this bait on whichever seemingly justifiable grounds it may be presented to them. Despite their different political opinions, they must reject this intervention altogether, since it is being staged against their essential identity. Although the project of "German Islam" and the disbanding of the traditional groups is being carried out over President Erdogan and the DITIB in order to win the support of certain opposition groups, the real goal is far beyond that; what is essentially being targeted is the entire Muslim community of Germany, and not only certain people with certain political convictions.

New actors of 'German Islam': Religious people

Since the German state elite appreciated that they could not possibly carry out the “German Islam” project through actors who are not recognized by and do not at all resonate with the Turkish and Arab Muslim communities, they are now planning to proceed with the project through observant, conservative Muslims and people who they think would have some influence on the inner circles of these communities. For this reason, the Islamic faculties opened at German universities and the whole concept of having Islamic classes as well as the activities of the German Islam Conference should all be evaluated against this backdrop.

It is clear that behind the German demands for “institutionalized Muslims” lies the urge to take Muslims under complete control. “German Islam” is essentially a political project and thus any assessment on this issue should be considered on this particular premise. Islam has always had and will always have different and various practical manifestations depending on where in the world it is practiced. However, “German Islam”, whose entire rationale sits on an intervention in the essential qualities and references of Islam, is a project that is doomed to failure. The Islamic faith and its places of worship will continue to exist in Germany without taking before their names adjectives such as 'German', 'liberal', 'modern', and so on, and their existence will continue in its natural flow. Through the transformative and powerful influence of culture, Muslims living in Germany will, over time, cultivate a unique, distinctive culture as well, just like other Muslims have in many other lands. However, any political project imposed in a top-down manner, aimed at artificially transforming the identity of Muslims must be rejected outright.

Muslims living in Germany as well as the Turkish state must be cautious in this regard and work on likely scenarios for what needs to be done when the plans regarding the disbanding of traditional institutions turn into concrete steps as part of the "German Islam" project.

Translator: Omer Colakoglu

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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