– Bekim Agai is director of the Academy of Islam in Science and Society (AIWG) in Frankfurt.
Ten years ago, then Federal President Christian Wulff started a debate on the 20th anniversary of the reunification that continues to this day: does Islam belong to Germany or not? Since then, this debate has flourished on its vagueness.
Which Islam do you want to ask? The popular, the mystical-spiritual, the Salafist, the Bosnian, Turkish, Arab, African influences, the Sunnis, the Shias? Which Germany – the urban, the rural, the traditional, the cosmopolitan, the xenophobic? What does it mean to belong? Does Islam belong when Muslims are held accountable, when they have their religion scrutinized, when they actively express themselves on social issues?
Wulff mainly spoke about the people in society who shape the way we live together. He brought them into focus. His offer was: “We are all this country, whether it comes from East or West, North or South and regardless of origin.” In this respect, this speech was on the one hand a description, after all one in four people in Germany can now tell his or her own story. Parents tell. On the other hand, it was a plea for a multiform society, for a Germany that accepts itself as an immigration country. A call to appreciate this social reality in all its diversity – and despite its problems.
“Islam” was not the focus of Wulff’s speech
‘Islam’ was not central to the conversation, it is only mentioned once: “Christianity is undoubtedly part of Germany. There is no doubt that Judaism belongs to Germany. This is our Christian Jewish story. But Islam is now also part of Germany. “A lot has happened since then: the verdict has been repeated, it has been watered down, it has been contradicted.
According to several Forsa studies, about half of Germans agree, including mainly people under 29 and West Germans, the other half reject it, including mainly people over 60 and East Germans. Other studies found rejection by the majority. How Muslims feel about this phrase and its possible implications is usually not asked. Spoken on the day of German unity, the verdict is one of the constant disagreements among Germans.
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The fact that it describes a reality doesn’t change anything: the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) estimates the number of people with a Muslim faith at about 4.4 to 4.7 million. That’s about every twentieth German resident and far less than most Germans estimate in surveys.
Since 2015, the already multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual Islam in Germany has become even more diverse: according to the BAMF, one in four people counted as Muslim has come to Germany in the past five years. People of Turkish descent make up only about half of all Muslims. When we talk about Muslims in Germany, we’re talking about people who have only been here recently, as well as people who have lived in Germany for four generations or have no migration biography at all. People with very different biographies shaping Germany’s present and future in one way or another.
The Islamophobic AfD is sending a clear message
At the political level, the AfD, an openly Islamophobic party, has joined the German Bundestag and many state parliaments. And discriminatory statements and actions, from Islamophobic attacks to terrorist attacks on people of the Muslim faith or their religious institutions, send a clear message: “Muslims are not among them.”
At the same time, behind speeches by radicals dripping with Islamic statements and their attacks in Germany and the recruitment of young people for IS lays the message that Islam, democracy and human rights are incompatible and that Muslims cannot be part of a democratic society.
Muslim intellectual debates that cross the boundaries between the majority society and Muslim communities are also stimulating. And aside from the media and political interest, a number of new initiatives and associations are emerging, which of course see themselves as Germans and Muslims, which are socially engaged, whether in youth work, aid to refugees or anti-racism.
The training of imams and theologians now focuses on theological and cultural differences
Meanwhile, several universities are training young people – mainly women – to become Islamic theologians, teachers of Islamic religious education. Scientists in the field sit in the German Ethics Council, their books are discussed in the functions section, they get involved with Islamic and non-Islamic organizations and institutions.
The German imam training starts in Lower Saxony and the Islamic association Ditib has recently established a training center for imams and community workers in the Eifel. This is based on the – in part late – realization that organized Islam in Germany must also address the different realities of Muslims in Germany linguistically, culturally and theologically.
Many people of Muslim faith found Christian Wulff’s statement to be a rare recognition of their religious, perhaps even remotely cultural, identity or that of their parents, while at the same time belonging to Germany. They are Muslims, but they are much more: they are, to speak with Wulff, “the doctor, the German teacher, the taxi driver, the TV presenter, the greengrocer, the footballer, the filmmaker, the minister” – and thus they belong to Germany. Above all, they are not an object of attribution. They are individuals. Even if the Islam debates suggest otherwise.
If you want to lead the membership debate productively, you shouldn’t put everyone in an Islamic drawer, but talk to people. About how they envision the future in Germany and what role Islam can play for them – or not. One can take note of this, agree or disagree here and there, but all this is part of the normality of religious and political plurality in Germany and Islam inserts precisely into this normality.