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Culture

Sowing the Seeds of Political Consciousness

More than 40 years after the arrival of Muslim immigrants, Germany's first Muslim Academy -- a center for political education and a forum for Muslims to participate in social debates -- has opened in Berlin.

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The Muslim Academy stresses education and political awareness.

Some three-and-a-half million Muslims currently live in Germany. That makes Islam the country’s third most popular religion after the Protestant and the Catholic churches.

Though the country has a host of organized Islamic organizations representing the interests of various sections of the Muslim population, the new academy, which opened this week in Berlin, pointedly distances itself from the Central Council of Muslims and the Islam Council, is seen as a much-needed competing voice.

Chairman Abdul Hadi Christian Hoffmann said the formation of the academy and the recognition of Muslims as a political force is long overdue.

"In Germany, we have a particular system of political education, and on what it means to be politically engaged," he said. "All major parties, and all major religious denominations already have academies, so we are just filling in the gap," Hoffmann said. "We want to fit into the traditional German system, and we want to provide courses on community involvement, etc."

Neutral principles

The academy, which boasts scientists, researchers and academics from several Muslim nations as well as from Germany, aims to inform about all facets of Muslim life in Germany as well as debate issues such as inter-religious dialogue, education and research.

It also wants to restore the image of Islam, which has taken a battering in recent years especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a religion that's compatible with the modern western world. To this end, the institute plans to organize discussions and seminars, which organizers hope will lead to the formation of democratic councils and working groups.

Education by Muslims for Muslims

The funding for the institute will come from political foundations and private donors. The academy does not represent a religious standpoint.

Some 2.5 million German Muslims are of Turkish origin. Of those, many are German-born children and grandchildren of immigrants. Other Muslim groups include Shiite Kurds and converts to Islam. Hoffman says he hopes all groups will find a voice in the new academy.

"We deliberately wanted to fit into the German political education system. So we said, we are not a religious institution, we do not issue Fatwas. We are an educational institution founded by Muslims for Muslims."

The academy is also expected to take on controversial issues concerning Germany's Muslim community which have proved a sore test for their ability to integrate. The most significant among them in recent times is the headscarf debate.

Last week, Germany's Constitutional Court confirmed the legality of state laws that forbid public employees like teachers from wearing headscarves on the job. Headscarf bans now exist in six federal states and further debates are being held throughout the country.

Muslim Academy deputy chairman and former Berlin commissioner for foreigners' affairs, Barbara John, confirmed that the headscarf issue would be up for debate at the academy.

"We have a broad discussion on headscarves in Germany," she said. "Should the wearing of headscarves be forbidden? One of our first events will be on the headscarf issue. But not in a way that we’d say, this should be done or that. We are creating a forum for many points of view."

Intellectual and critical

The academy's leaders want to change the tone of current debate on Islam in Germany, which can often be overrun by deep emotions.

"In the future, we'd like to see a more critical and rational debate on Islam in Germany and one that's of a higher intellectual standard than is usually the case," said Hoffmann. "We hope we can leave behind the emotional suspicions and accusations bedeviling Islam. We want to contribute to the fact that our religion will meet with more respect."

The timing of the opening of the Muslim Academy seems opportune. With debate over Turkey’s possible entrance into the European Union gathering strength, Europe could be faced with an influx of Muslims sooner than expected.

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