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New imam trainings good for Germany and for Islam

New imam trainings good for Germany and for Islam
By Lewis Gropp


Two years ago, former German President Christian Wulff stated that Islam is part of Germany, creating an uproar among the more conservative followers of his Christian Democratic Union. Then, defying reason, Joachim Gauck, Germany’s new president, stated earlier this year that Muslims are part of Germany, but that he would not say Islam was.

But with more than 4 million German Muslims, and the principle of religious freedom enshrined in the country’s constitution, how could Islam possibly not be part of Germany?

Behind the scenes, decisive steps are being taken institutionally to make Islam a more integrated part of Germany. Two years ago, the German Council for Science and Humanities recommended that Islamic theology be taught at German universities, along with training for imams and religious teachers. This was a decisive step towards the creation of an authentic German Islam – demonstrating that German culture and Muslim identity need not be in conflict.

And across the country, young German Muslims are defining how Islam is already part of Germany and how it can continue to be in the future.

For example, Sineb El Masrar, a German woman of Moroccan descent, founded Gazelle, a magazine geared towards German women of many cultural backgrounds. Nimet Seker, a German woman of Turkish heritage recently launched Horizonte, a magazine for intellectual debate on issues relevant to Muslims in Germany. And Afghan-born philosopher and poet Ahmad Milad Karimi was highly praised for his translation of the Qur’an into German.

In 2006, German policymakers established the German Islam Conference to promote co-operation between the German state and Muslims. The conference signalled that German Muslims should feel at home in Germany – both as Muslims and as Germans.

The debate about Muslim culture, religion and identity is in full swing among young Muslims, and the new training programme for imams is playing a central role in the conversation.

“Considering the fact that Muslims have been living here for 50 years, this is a most welcome decision,” says Bülent Ucar, Professor for Islamic Religious Education of the University of Osnabrück.

In 1945, some 6,000 Muslims lived in Germany. Today, that number is now over four million, about two thirds of whom are from Turkey or of Turkish descent due to the guest worker agreement signed in 1961 by Turkey and Germany. Around 55 per cent of all Muslims in Germany have German citizenship.

Of the more than 2,000 imams actively working in Germany, 80 per cent are from Turkey. Because these imams lack knowledge of German and German culture, and are generally rooted in a conservative understanding of Islam, their community work is often an obstacle to the integration of Muslims. It is difficult for them to understand the issues facing Muslims who are well-established in Germany.

“It was high time religious teachers, imams and Muslim theologians were trained here in Germany. Now Islamic studies are taught at university – on par with Jewish, Protestant and Catholic courses of study,” Ucar concluded.

The main challenge for these programmes is to combine the teaching of Islamic traditions with Western academic and pedagogical standards. Establishing Catholic and Protestant theology as university subjects in Germany fostered creativity and self-criticism in Christian theological studies, and this process provides a relevant model for Islamic theology.

“I’m not sure we will earn universal praise for what we are doing, but it will certainly trigger a debate,” says Professor Mathias Rohe, Germany’s most renowned academic expert on sharia (Islamic principles of jurisprudence) who also helped set up the university’s Islamic theology programme. Providing a professional academic environment for the development of Islamic thought and theology will provide a new way for German Muslims to take part in the global intellectual debate on Islam’s past, present and future.

At the four newly established Institutes for Islamic Theology, students debate subjects such as feminist Islamic theology, the re-discovery of forgotten early Islamic theologians, the critical historical study of Qur’anic manuscripts, or the role of language, script and reason in the interpretation of the Qur’an and the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad.

Despite past educational hurdles for young German Muslims training to be religious leaders, there is now a new generation of Muslim students in the country that are self-confident, well-trained and eager to rediscover tolerant and pluralistic Islamic traditions and schools of thought, and as a result, to redefine what it means to be Muslim in 21st century Europe.

In addition, by informing the German public – as imams in mosques, teachers in schools, professors at university and even as experts in the media – how Islam and democracy can go hand-in-hand, they will demonstrate that Islam is indeed part of Germany.

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* Lewis Gropp is an editor with Qantara.de. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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