Cooperation with the Turkish-German Islamic association DITIB is on the brink of collapse. Germany's most populous state is considering not signing the planned contract with DITIB over religious education.
Until recently, the Islamic association known as DITIB was welcomed as a political partner. With around 900 mosque congregations across Germany, the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs has long been an important point of contact.
However, since Turkey started to crack down on critics of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, politicians in Germany have started wondering whether DITIB, which is very close to the Turkish government, is still an appropriate partner.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous German federal state, a decision has now been taken that could also have consequences for the teaching of religion in the state. The Interior Ministry has ended its cooperation with DITIB on one of its flagship projects.
This is a prevention program that aims to protect young people from drifting into Salafism. "Project Signpost" is offered in many towns and cities in NRW. To date, DITIB has been in charge of implementing it in Cologne. This cooperation has now been terminated, as NRW's interior minister, Ralf Jäger (SPD), announced in response to a question from the CDU state parliamentary group.
'How good it is to be a martyr'
The cause was something that happened a few months ago and that has nothing to do with current tensions in German-Turkish relations. It concerns a publication by Diyanet, Turkey's Presidency for Religious Affairs. In March 2016 the association published a comic glorifying martyrdom. "How good it is to be a martyr," a father says in it to his son. When asked how one goes about becoming one, the father replies, "Of course you can want to be one, my son. Who doesn't want to gain the right to go to heaven?"
The Interior Ministry called on DITIB to respond to the publication with a statement. After all, the Islamic association and the Presidency for Religious Affairs are closely connected: DITIB's imams are sent over and paid for by Diyanet.
The hope was that DITIB would distance itself from the publication, but clearly this didn't happen. NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jäger writes, "This statement did not display the clear neutrality and sufficient distancing required of a responsible body involved in the 'Signpost' prevention program." DW was unable to reach DITIB for a comment.
Firm line by the state government?
This particular case concerns a prevention project in Cologne. However, DITIB's failure to distance itself, and the firm line taken by the state interior ministry, could have further consequences. As in Lower Saxony, where an Islamic contract that was about to be signed was put on ice at short notice, the overall cooperation with DITIB is currently being scrutinized in NRW.
There has been criticism that, among other things, the Islamic association is a member of an advisory board with a say in the syllabus for Islamic religion lessons in NRW. The relevant schools ministry says it's keeping a very close eye on current developments. Schools minister Sylvia Löhrmann (Greens) announced recently that she wanted to go on working with DITIB on matters of religious instruction. However, it's still unclear what the consequences of this latest incident will be.
DITIB has applied to be recognized as a religious community. This would mean that the association could offer classes in religion independently of schools – just as the Catholic and Evangelical Churches do. However, it's looking increasingly unlikely that this will happen.
The premier of NRW, the Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft, has repeatedly distanced herself from DITIB of late. "There are increasing doubts that DITIB complies with the criteria for classification as a religious community," she said. An assessment is currently being done so that the state chancellery can decide on the application. It is also investigating how independent DITIB's operations are of state influence. The failure to distance itself from the martyrdom comic is not going to help its cause.