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Some of Germany's Muslim leaders are criticizing a book which says that belief in God is not mandatory in Islam. The author is on the defense - particularly since he heads the organization that trains Islam teachers.
For an outsider, the situation sounds odd: a Turkish newspaper, "Türkiye," prints an article in which three high-ranking functionaries of Muslim organizations in Hamburg accuse an Austrian with Palestinian roots of betraying the roots of Islam. The reason: the Austrian wrote a book in which he claimed that paradise was open to anyone who lived a good life - regardless of whether he or she believed in God.
The plot thickened when it became clear that the Austrian was also a professor of Islam. Adding another layer of internationalism to the story, it turned out he works at the University of Munster in Germany, where he heads the organization responsible for training future Muslim religion teachers.
That the criticism of his book, which was published in September 2012, reached him through a Turkish newspaper both surprised and annoyed Mouhanad Khorchide. "That is not in line with Muslim values, where it is very clear that when you criticize someone, or want to make a suggestion, it should happen privately - not in the media," he told DW.
Khorchide's view is that Islam is the acceptance of God's love and mercy, as well as the application of those principles into practical, daily life. According to this definition, anyone who applies these principles to his or her life is therefore "muslim." God, after all, is not interested in whether someone is a "believer" or "non-believer."
For Zekeriya Altug, head of the northern German branch of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), reducing Islam to "mercy" is too narrow a definition for the religion.
"Faith is elementary, but so are deeds supported by faith," said Altug, one of Khorchide's three Hamburg-based critics. "Alone, neither is enough. It is the combination that creates a whole."
Altug added that he was not in opposition to all of Khorchide's views. He agreed that Islam is a pluralistic religion, one which has room for a wide range of opinions. But, Altug said, Khorchide's views needed to be examined closely because of the responsibility inherent in teaching future religion instructors.
As a trainer of teachers, Khorchide agrees he has a special role. It is important to him to convey the tenets of Islam, however, in a manner that takes into account children and young people's needs.
"We face the challenge of many young people who say they are not interested in a restrictive God, or a God that scares [them]," he said. It's the same reason, he added, that he teaches that religion exists for people and not for God. God's concern is for people, the teacher believes, not self glorification.
The possibility of dialogue
According to the German daily newspaper, "taz," the original "Türkiye" article cited Ramazan Ucar of the Association of Islamic Communities in Hamburg. Ucar, according to the report, called on Khorchide "to express his regret and conduct himself like a Muslim." For Zekeriya Altug at the DITIB, it was a declaration he did not agree with.
"From a religious perspective that goes too far," he said. "Every person has to decide what they regret and when to show remorse, which has to come from inside. It cannot be imposed."
Altug added that he believes Khorchide started the discussion with good intentions, even if the way he formed his views was unconventional. Altug also said there was a solid basis for future dialogue.
"There is a need to sit down talk," he said. "The issue should not be seen as a fight but as a constructive discussion. That's the only way we will move forward."
Khorchide said he was also open to further discussions, believing that such talks would benefit many in Germany's Muslim communities.
"Everything new causes concern or insecurity at first," he said. "But I think we are heading in the right direction. I see a path ahead of us - the association means well. We all learn from our mistakes."