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Islam faces obstacles on path to be part of Germany

September 19, 2020

Some ten years ago, German President Christian Wulff said Islam was very much part of German society. What about today? 

Symbolbild | "Antimuslimischen Rassismus"
Image: imago images/IPON

It was a short statement that had a lot of impact. In his speech almost 10 years ago on the 20th anniversary of German reunification, Germany's then-President Christian declared that Islam was a part of Germany.

The claim sparked a nation-wide debate on the role of Islam in the country — one that had continued to this day. Wulff's 2010 statement enraged some, while resonating deeply with others.

Today, millions of Muslims call Germany their home. Some families have been living in the country for two, three and even four generations. But, for some, the question of integrating into German mainstream society, and gaining recognition, has not been without its difficulties. 

Riem Spielhaus, an expert on Islam at the University of Göttingen, says Wulff's statement struck a chord. In the following years, she says, much progress was made in terms of the integration of and acceptance towards Muslims. But by 2016 this process stagnated, she says. "And we have partially seen advances undone."

Where, exactly, has progress been made? And where are improvements needed? Spielhaus says the German government rarely has the power to push for nation-wide changes, such as the introduction of a Muslim chaplaincy in the German military. In many cases, the expert says, Germany's various states are the ones with the legal means to make society more accommodating towards Muslims. This relates to things like Islamic burials, giving time off on Islamic holidays, offering spiritual care in hospitals and jails, and teaching Islamic theology at universities. German states differ the most when it comes to Islamic religious lessons in school. 

Christian Wulff making his speech
German President Christian Wulff's speech provoked widespread debate about Islam's place in GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Spielhaus welcomes that German courts are changing their perspective, too. When ruling on fundamental religious issues, many are now emphasizing the importance of religious plurality. 

A patchwork of associations

Unlike in Christianity, where Churches are structured hierarchically and have official leaders, this is not the case in Islam. Some large Muslim organizations that are active in Germany, like the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib), are funded from abroad. German lawmakers, therefore, avoid close cooperation with the association, fearing outside interference.

Prof. Dr. Riem Spielhaus
For academic Riem Spielhaus, the last ten years have shown mixed resultsImage: Georg-Eckert-Institut

A broad range of Muslim associations exists in Germany today. Not all, Spielhaus says, are as representative of the Muslim community as they might claim. This has become evident for instance during the German Islamic Conference, when different Muslim associations vehemently disagreed with one another.

Read more: Germany: Imams will have to prove they speak the language

This disunity has made progress difficult. Cooperation between the German state and the country's numerous Muslim associations is fraught with difficulties. In July this year, for example, Germany's Foreign Ministry endeavored to make Muslim lawyer Nurhan Soykan an adviser in one of its departments. The announcement drew criticism, however, with some accusing Soykan — who serves as vice president with the Central Council of Muslims in Germany — of doing too little to counter religious extremism. Germany's Foreign Ministry then reversed its course, and dropped Soykan.

Promising grassroots cooperation

While cooperation with official Muslim associations has not always proven easy, working together on a smaller scale has often been successful. Serap Güler, a lawmaker with the Christian Democrats (CDU), who serves as state secretary for integration matters in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, cites the Coordination Council for Muslim Civic Activism as an example.

Read more: Salafism in Germany: What you need to know

She says it cooperates with some 200 Muslim civil society organizations in the state, such as a Muslim Carnival group, a scout organization and integration initiatives. According to Güler, lawmakers are keen to empower such citizen organizations.

Young Muslims in Germany

Dennis Sadiq Kirschbaum heads an organization working to give German Muslims a greater say in public affairs. JUMA, which was founded in 2019, represents young, active Muslims in Germany. Kirschbaum says traditional Muslim associations are losing appeal among his generation, with some turning their backs on them entirely. He says there are plans for 16 Muslim youth organizations across the country — none of which define themselves through religion alone — to create an alliance to give young German Muslims a voice.

A group of Turkish-German scouts
Many children with a Muslim background are also embracing their German identitiesImage: DW/M. Von-Hein

Yet Spielhaus says Islamic groups often possess fewer "financial resources and personnel" than Christian organizations. This may limit their influence. Moreover, she warns of "growing religious skepticism and an Islamophobic climate in Germany." 

Indeed, when a racist shot and killed nine individuals with a foreign background in the town of Hanau near Frankfurt in February this year, Germany — and the country's Muslim community — was shocked. In a search for a better understanding of the issues, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has set up a special expert body to investigate the problem of Islamophobia in the country.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C