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Between dialogue and estrangement

September 27, 2016

Germany's Conference on Islam is marking its 10th year. It aims to increase understanding between Muslims and German authorities. Critics, however, have called it misguided and point to heightened tension across Europe.

Deutschland Festakt 10 Jahre Deutsche Islam Konferenz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ M. Kappeler

Initiated in 2006 by Wolfgang Schäuble, then Germany's interior minister, the German Conference on Islam (DIK) was intended to be an open, unbiased, goal-oriented dialog - a platform for better understanding between Muslims and representatives of the Federal Republic, the states and the local authorities. "Islam is part of Germany, and it is part of Europe; it is part of our present, and it is part of our future," said Schäuble, at the opening of the Conference.

On Tuesday, the DIK will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a ceremony in Berlin. However, the federal chairman of the Kurdish community in Germany, Ali Ertan Toprak, finds it painful to look back on the past 10 years. He believes that the Conference has failed. Instead of rapprochement, Toprak says, what we see is that "despite the Conference on Islam, estrangement is significantly greater, particularly over the questions of a common value system and loyalty to the German state."

'We've achieved a lot'
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, the current host of the Conference, sees things differently. His verdict is a positive one. "We've achieved a lot," he says, pointing out that the Conference on Islam has always been an "initiator" and a "guarantee of tangible results." He sees the introduction of Islamic religious education in schools and the creation of professorships in Islamic theology at universities as two prominent examples of this.

Deutschland Festakt 10 Jahre Deutsche Islam Konferenz
Thomas de Maiziere (CDU)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ M. Kappeler

In 2014, de Maiziere breathed new life into the Conference on Islam, which had been plagued by personnel disputes and internal strife. Instead of focusing exclusively on questions of extremism and security partnership, as his predecessor Hans-Peter Friedrich had done, de Maiziere turned to practical questions relating to everyday life, setting up a Muslim social welfare organization as well as Islamic pastoral care in the military, in hospitals and in prisons.

There are certainly plenty of challenges at present. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims came to Germany as refugees. In addition, Germany was rocked by terrorist attacks that were motivated by Islamist sentiments. De Maiziere has commented that this has greatly altered the perception of Islam in Germany. But it's important for substantive issues to take precedence over noisy headlines. In an interview with DW, Aiman Mazyek, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that, for him, the most important issue is for Islam to be given "institutional equality in Germany with other religions."

Who represents the Muslims?

In 10 years of the Conference on Islam, one of the Council's main points of argument has been who was entitled to speak with whom on the same level. These days, the only people who sit opposite the German federal, state and municipal representatives are representatives of Islamic and Turkish associations. In the early years of the Conference its initiator, Wolfgang Schäuble, invited individuals as well - primarily from the liberal, secular end of the spectrum. This set the scene for inter-Muslim disputes between conservative Sunni forces, between Alevis and liberal-secular personalities.

Seyran Ates insists that these conflicts need to be endured. A Berlin lawyer of Kurdish origin, she participated in the first round of the Conference on Islam, from 2006 to 2009, as an independent Muslim voice. Interviewed by DW, she said that German politics had to accept "that Islam as a religion simply can't be organized like the Christian church, meaning that it doesn't have one institution that speaks for us all." This was why, she says, the German government has made a crucial mistake in conferring only with the organized Islamic associations. "I think the Conference on Islam is not doing itself any favors by restricting its points of contact to the associations, who represent only 15 percent of Muslims," she said.

But Professor Mathias Rohe, a scholar of Islam who also took part in the first Conference, disagrees. "Anyone who wants to have a say in the discussion has to get organized," he told DW. "That's also the case for liberal and secular voices."

Would a European Conference on Islam be preferable?

Gökay Sofuoglu, the federal chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, considers it a success that, although it has faced some difficult tests over the past 10 years, the dialog has never collapsed. Not even when the government excluded the Islamic Council from the Conference for a few years because of ongoing criminal investigations against one of its key members, Milli Görus. During this period (2011 and 2013) the conversational atmosphere within the Conference of Islam was at an all-time low, also in part because many Muslim representatives felt that they were coming under general suspicion. For this reason, Sofuoglu is advising people to remain level-headed with regard to the current tensions between the German government and the Turkish Muslim organization DITIB. He told DW that "it's more helpful to keep on talking to each other than to conduct this whole exchange via the media."

The squabbles about who should have a seat and a voice on the council have also entailed organizational changes to the Conference over the years. Today, instead of the big plenary assembly, there's also a steering committee made up of nine representatives from the federal, state and municipal levels and nine representatives from the nine Muslim organizations. Many of the participants believe that this structure is a viable one, but that the meetings are too infrequent.

And yet this is a time when the government could really profit from the Conference on Islam's expertise, Sofuoglu believes. "This would be a great opportunity to involve migrant organizations more in shaping the response to the refugee issue," he says. Meanwhile, Seyran Ates thinks the Conference is in urgent need of reform, which should also involve a consideration of other, ongoing solutions. "Right from the start," she says, "I've criticized the fact that this is just a German Conference on Islam, when what we really need is a European one."