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Germany tries to forge European brand of Islam

Selman Yavuz, who has Turkish roots, leads prayers in Ahlen, Germany.

Source : James Angelos | The Wall Street Journal
OSNABRÜCK : Germany | 03 Aug 2011

Having given birth to the Protestant Reformation and the current pope, Germany is now at the fore of a broad effort to foster a European theological tradition for a relative newcomer: Islam.

In a brightly lit university classroom in this small northwestern German city, some 30 German mosque leaders are participating in a government-backed course in inter-religious understanding. The experiment, one of many across the Continent, covers subjects ranging from the Reformation to the German constitution.

The deadly twin terror attacks in Norway on July 22, carried out by a fanatic who saw himself at war against the "Islamization" of the Continent, has refocused attention on Europe's decades-long reluctance to embrace its Muslim communities. There are more than 44 million Muslims living in Europe, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, about 6% of Europe's population. By 2030, that percentage will grow to 8%, the study projects.

Much of the resurgent popularity of Europe's far right in recent years has been fueled by populist fears that the rise of immigration in Europe—particularly in Muslim communities that remain connected to their native languages and cultures—is washing away European or national cultural identities.

Even in the political mainstream, there is a growing thought that laissez-faire efforts to absorb Muslim populations into European society have gone awry—with troubling political, socioeconomic and security consequences. In a now-famous speech last fall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had "utterly failed." French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have since echoed her remarks.

By tutoring local mosque leaders within national university systems, European governments are increasingly trying to conform the practice of the faith with a sense of their national identities and post-Enlightenment values and traditions, or what some have taken to calling "Euro-Islam."

In the Netherlands, the Dutch government is funding university Islamic theology programs, and France has begun supporting French civics courses for Muslim religious leaders, in an effort, as the French newspaper Le Figaro put it, to transform foreign imams, or prayer leaders, into "imams á la francaise."


In Norway, the University of Olso, as part of a planned joint program with Sweden's University of Uppsala, will begin providing Islamic courses this fall. The university aims to build a curriculum it hopes will be acknowledged by Islamic leaders as the credentials for Nordic Muslims to become imams—and give Norwegian students a homegrown opportunity to study Islamic theology.

The recent "events have shown that knowledge has become acutely important," said Trygve Wyller, dean at the theological faculty at the University in Oslo, referring to the Norway massacre.

Germany's government is granting five of its public universities up to €4 million ($5.7 million) each to develop Islamic theology programs. The Osnabrück experiment, the first German university course of its kind, has gained a great deal of attention. During a recent class, news cameras and reporters circled the students, men dressed neatly in suit jackets and a single row of head-scarved women.

Among the seminar's revelations for Selman Yavuz, who leads a small Muslim congregation in western Germany, was that according to a Roman Catholic doctrine, the church holds Muslims in "esteem." "Many of us didn't know that they believe such good things about us," said Mr. Yavuz, 32 years old. "It changes your thinking."

In Germany, the program is widely regarded as a paradigm-shifting if belated acknowledgment that Islam is now a permanent part of German life.

Yet even as the government supports such initiatives, Germany's ruling class debates whether Islam "belongs in Germany," a conversation that began when German President Christian Wulff made the assertion that it does during a speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of German reunification.

After taking office in March, German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich seemed to rebut Mr. Wulff, remarking, "To say that Islam belongs in Germany is not a fact supported by history."

The dissonance reflects a political leadership that sends seemingly conflicting messages about the place of Islam in German society.

Prominent leaders like Horst Seehofer, the minister-president of Bavaria, have maintained that Germany has a Judeo-Christian Leitkultur—a leading culture—that is largely incompatible with Islam or other "cultural circles."

Mr. Yavuz, one of the German-born students in the class, is a relative rarity in a nation where most Muslim religious leaders come from abroad. But his background is typical of many Muslims of Turkish descent in Germany. His father came to Germany as a gastarbeiter, or guest worker, from Turkey in the early 1970s.

For decades, the government based its immigration policy on the assumption that such immigrants would return to their homelands. Yet, like Mr. Yavuz's father, many immigrants stayed to raise their families in Germany. Today, about two-thirds of Germany's 4.3 million Muslims have Turkish roots, according to a government report.

As a teenager, Mr. Yavuz's parents sent him to an Islamic religious school in Turkey, both to learn Islam and to soak up the language and culture of the family's homeland. He became an imam a few years after returning to Germany.

The congregation he leads in Ahlen, a small city of in the northwestern German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was founded in the 1970s by Turkish guest workers recruited to work in the area's coal mines. The mosque, a former car garage, sits next door to a pizza restaurant, and there are no minarets or domed ceilings. Mr. Yavuz, like many peers, is cognizant of negative attitudes toward Muslims in Germany. At one point, he displayed a copy he carried of a German newspaper article with the headline: "Germans Are Especially Islam-Skeptical." The article described a recent study showing that 60% of Germans describe their attitude toward Muslims as negative.Several German Muslim groups have welcomed the government's support of Islamic studies programs as a step toward treating Muslims equally with other religious groups.

"We see this as a first step for the structural integration of Islam in Germany," said Erol Pürlü, a spokesman for the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany, an umbrella organization for several Islamic groups.

But broader acceptance of the university programs by Germany's Muslims—who have roots in different countries and varying religious interpretations—is by no means certain.

One challenge is that nearly 90% of the nation's imams come from abroad, particularly Turkey, and many promote an Islam that is "oriented to Turkey," said Rauf Ceylan, professor of religious sciences at the University of Osnabrück, and therefore "disturb the integration process."

With German consent, the Turkish government began sending imams to Germany in the 1980s, a decision fueled by concern that more conservative forms of Islamic teaching forbidden in Turkey were taking hold among Europe's Turkish diaspora.

Today, some 900 mosques, about one-third of the total in Germany, are led by Turkish-state employees. These imams, Mr. Ceylan said, have trouble relating to a new generation of German Muslims because they often know little about German society when they arrive for periods of up to five years and speak little German.

That's worrisome to German officials because it cedes much of the German-language Islamic discourse in the country to more hard-line preachers.

Fundamentalist imams in Germany have had success appealing to younger Muslims, posting German-language sermons on You Tube and in rap music with messages specifically meant to appeal to youth.

"You need progressive imams that are young and eloquent like the radicals," Mr. Ceylan said. "But look at YouTube, and who is present?" he added. "The radicals are present, and not the progressive imams."


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