Imams Made in Germany: Will Efforts to Train Homegrown Muslim Leaders Fail?

By Andrea Brandt and Maximilian Popp

The German government plans to enlist imams educated at German universities to improve the integration of young Muslims in the future. The program, however, threatens to create a conflict between Germany and Turkey and with Muslim organizations.

Photo Gallery: Germany to Train Imams Photos
AP

The man with the moustache and neatly ironed shirt raises his eyebrows. With which names does he associate Germany? "Ballack, Hitler," he replies.

Ahmet Aktürk, 35, is standing in front of a mosque in Istanbul's Maltepe neighborhood. Men are hurrying into the prayer room. He has been an imam in the Turkish city for the past six years, leading prayers, delivering sermons and listening to his congregation. His people will miss him, he says -- and he will miss them.

In a few months, Aktürk and his wife and two children will move to Germany, as one of several hundred imams the Turkish government sends there each year. Aktürk has never been to Germany before, and the only Germans he has ever seen were tourists in Istanbul's historic district. But he didn't understand them, because he doesn't speak German and they didn't speak Turkish.

When Aktürk starts his new job, he will be one of the 1,800 to 2,000 Muslim preachers in German mosques who come to the country from abroad to provide the roughly 4 million Muslims in Germany with guidance in matters of faith and life. They are "the key figures in integration," says Rauf Ceylan, a religious scholar in the western German city of Duisburg. Unfortunately, most of them have a difficult enough time finding their own bearings in this foreign country.

Change 'Has to Start with the Imams'

In the wake of the grim conclusions reached by Thilo Sarrazin, a former executive board member of Germany's central bank, the Germans have launched into an impassioned debate over why so many Muslims fail in the country -- in school, at work and in society. Hanover criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, who interviewed 45,000 young people nationwide, describes one of the key reasons: "Imams from abroad, with no understanding of the reality of life here in Germany, contribute substantially to the poor integration of young German Muslims." According to Pfeiffer, the more devout Muslim youth also tend to be more isolated from German society. Anyone who hopes to change this, says Pfeiffer, "has to start with the imams."

This is precisely what German Education Minister Annette Schavan, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, intends to do by putting a plan devised by the German Council of Science and Humanities, an independent body that advises Germany's state and federal governments, into practice as quickly as possible. Under the plan, imams will be trained at two or three German universities, in accordance with the German curriculum. In addition to theology, the new preachers will also study education and community organizing. Schavan intends to decide which universities will receive government funding for the project in the coming weeks.

Politicians of all stripes are welcoming the idea, but whether it is truly feasible remains uncertain. Even if everything goes according to plan, the eagerly anticipated imams, with their German university degrees, could end up being unemployed, at least initially.

An Open House for Islamic Preachers

An older man is sitting up very straight in a lecture hall at the University of Osnabrück, in northwestern Germany, listening to the speakers on the stage describe their visions. Abdul-Jalil Zeitun, 62, a real estate agent and a volunteer imam at the city's Ibrahim Al-Khalil Mosque, has a dream, which is why he is attending this open house for Islamic preachers. Zeitun, together with about 90 fellow imams from all over Germany, hopes to attend the first training sessions for imams at a German university this October. But only 30 slots are available.

Zeitun, a native of Syria, is interested in collecting new ideas on working with young people at the university. But most of all he has dreams of his son Hilal, 17, becoming one of the first imams with a real German university degree. Hilal, born and raised in Germany, is a good student, has Christian and Muslim friends, and has been active in youth programs at his mosque for years.

But his father fears that this dream will never become a reality. It is still unclear how imams trained at the university "can expect to feed a family" in the future, says Zeitun. Because Muslims don't pay Germany's church tax, most mosque congregations can only afford volunteer imams or those funded from abroad. But for university students, a net monthly income of €2,000 ($2,597) is the minimum starting salary needed to make the years of study worthwhile, says Zeitun, "or else no one will do it." Zeitun has already decided that he will advise his son to study medicine instead.

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