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Islam for the Diaspora: Importing Germany's Imams

By James Angelos in Ankara, Turkey

With Germany lacking schools of Islamic theology, Muslim congregations have long imported religious leaders. As Germany considers steps to create more homegrown imams, countries like Turkey -- which sends state-employed imams to Europe to serve large segments of the Turkish diaspora -- are filling the gap.

Photo Gallery: Turkish Imams Prepare for Life in Germany Photos
James Angelos

It was impossible to tell that the men who gathered in a German language class one frigid winter morning in Ankara, Turkey were Islamic religious leaders. They wore suits, or plaid button-up shirts, and could have easily passed for office workers or graduate students as they worked over phrases of German in their course book.

"Birgit Deichmann still searches," one man in a grey suit read aloud. He stroked his black mustache with a look of befuddlement. "What is a Deichmann?" he asked the instructor. Deichmann, she explained, was just a German last name, the name of the person still searching.

His question indicated the degree of culture shock that lay ahead. These men, who hail mostly from the villages and cities of Anatolia, would in the next several months depart for Germany to serve four years as imams, leaders of Muslim congregations in mosques throughout the country. From their classroom at the Goethe Institute in Ankara, where through the windows the students could behold the white and grey minarets of Ankara's Kocatepe Mosque soaring to such heights that the towers seemed to hang from the clear blue heavens, German society seemed like a distant notion. Most of the imams, in fact, had never visited Germany, much less held a conversation with anyone with a last name like Deichmann.

Bridging the Gap

Germany lacks well-established Islamic theological programs that can educate German-born Islamic scholars, which means that Muslim congregations often have little choice but to import imams and religion teachers from abroad. But German policy-makers are increasingly considering whether religious leaders from Turkey or other nations are the best candidates to lead congregations in Germany, especially following a recommendation in February by the German Council of Science and Humanities, an advisory group to federal and state governments, which called for the prompt creation of two to three new Islamic theology programs within German public universities. The creation of such programs can be considered a progressive notion in a nation where even the construction of a neighborhood mosque with minarets can ignite fears over the increasing prevalence of Islam in Europe.

But for Germany, a country perpetually seeking antidotes to what many of its citizens see as the difficulty of integrating its manifold population of 4 million Muslims, comprised mostly of Germany's large Turkish minority, the idea of cultivating a distinctly German form of Islam that is rooted in German institutions, or at least mosque leaders with a native knowledge of the German language and the communities they serve, is increasingly seen as wise integration policy.

Within the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, the state agency known as Diyanet that oversees the practice of Islam in Turkey and appoints imams to serve large segments of the Turkish Diaspora abroad, there is agreement that Germany could benefit from educating more home-grown imams in its own theological institutions. "But how can one do that now so long as the institutions in Germany or in Europe are not of the kind that exist in Islamic lands?" Ali Dere, who heads up foreign relations for Diyanet, said in his office in Ankara, where, on the wall, a portrait of Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, gazed down upon the room. "As a long-term goal, we wish that Europe somehow develops wholly strong and good institutions of Islamic theology." But, Dere added as a note of caution, it would take time to develop such programs since there is not exactly an abundant pool of German-speaking, university-trained Islamic theologians who could staff them.

Close Ties to Turkey

Diyanet began sending imams to Germany in the mid-1980s, at a time when more fundamentalist Islamic movements that had been banned in Turkey had become increasingly popular among Turkish Muslims in Germany. In 1984, Diyanet founded The Turkish-Islamic Union of the Office for Religious Affairs in Germany (DITIB), now one of Germany's largest Islamic organizations, in a move that experts say was at least partly intended to counteract the influence of those movements. Today about 880 of Germany's estimated 2,500 mosques and Islamic associations affiliate themselves with DITIB, which maintains close ties to Turkey.

This class of 16 religious officials in Ankara -- including five women headed abroad as Koran teachers -- was near the end of a four-month course required by Diyanet. After school one day, many of the men from the class gathered in the common room of their dormitory, where during the course, they shared cramped rooms with as many as five single beds and barely enough floor space to lay down a prayer carpet. The men said they believed in a very tolerant strain of Islam, and indeed, they sounded almost idyllic when speaking of their faith. "Every Muslim loves everyone," said Murat Abdullah, a tall 39-year-old who towered above his classmates. "Not only human beings, but all God's creatures," added his colleague, Haluk Disci, a 29-year-old with a trimmed black beard.

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