Germany’s first public higher education program for imams gets underway at the University of Osnabrueck in northwest Germany on Monday, with the explicit hope of improving the integration of Germany’s four million Muslims.
The course will train Muslim spiritual leaders over two semesters in German language skills, Islamic theology and religious education. Martina Blasberg-Kuhnke, vice-president of the University of Osnabrueck, thinks the course can contribute to helping Muslim communities to integrate.
"Imams play a pivotal role because they work with their communities, their religion and with society at large, so they have a public function like priests and other community leaders," she told Deutsche Welle. "They have a big influence on family life and the way practicing Muslims choose to live their lives, and that's why they're particularly important."
At the moment there is space for just 30 students in the course, although nearly three times that number expressed an interest in taking part. Currently most imams are educated in Turkey, speak little German and are unfamiliar with western European culture.
Islam is 'part of Germany'
"Integration" is the current buzzword in German politics. Earlier this summer, Thilo Sarrazin, a prominent German banker, sparked public outrage with the publication of his book, "Germany abolishes itself."
In it he claimed the country was being undermined by poorly educated and unproductive Muslim immigrants. Though Sarrazin may have been forced to resign, the debate continued.
At the beginning of October, German President Christian Wulff marked the 20th anniversary of German reunification with a speech about integration.
"Christianity is without a doubt part of Germany," Wulff said in his address. "Judaism is without a doubt part of Germany. That's our Judeo-Christian history… but in the meantime, Islam is also part of Germany."
While representatives of Germany's Muslim community welcomed the remarks, others said the president was letting Muslims off the hook when it comes to integrating into German society.
Chancellor Angela Merkel distanced herself from Wulff's comments, saying German culture was based on Judeo-Christian roots, and that all communities must comply with German law. Merkel also stressed the need for imams to be trained within Germany so as to relate better with young Muslims growing up in the country.
Departments for Islamic studies
Others are hoping that departments for Islamic studies will become an established part of academia in Germany. Peter Strohschneider, chairman of the German Council of Science and Humanities, which advises the government on higher education, thinks this single course does not go far enough.
"The development of Islamic theology could fulfill several functions at once," Strohschneider said. "It would include professional training for religious studies teachers, training for imams - who are community leaders - and also create a new generation of Islamic theologians."
Osnabrueck is the first of a number of universities to expand their provision for Islamic studies. Universities in Tuebingen, Muenster and Frankfurt are also planning to introduce similar programs. The hope is that Muslim theologians will become better integrated into the academic landscape in Germany, and that this will have a knock-on effect on the wider Muslim community.
Author: Joanna Impey (AFP/dpa/epd/KNA)
Editor: Andrew Bowen