Islamic Conference in Berlin: Lowering the Wall Between Mosque and State

After decades of struggling with integrating its Muslim minority, the German government meets on Wednesday with representatives of Islamic groups in hopes of fashioning a "German Islam". Its the first meeting of the Islam Conference -- and the challenges are myriad.

Germany has done little to approach its Muslim minority in the past. Here, a mosque in Hamburg.
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Germany has done little to approach its Muslim minority in the past. Here, a mosque in Hamburg.

Wednesday afternoon in Berlin, Germany's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble will realize an idea that is simultaneously exceedingly simple and extraordinarily ambitious: opening a dialogue the the country's Muslim minority. Schäuble, as host of Germany's Islam Conference, will be bringing together his Interior Ministry with Islamic groups in pursuit of a "German Islam." Schäuble wants to find a way out of the dead end that the German debate over integration has led itself into. "Our work should be as concrete as possible," Schäuble told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday. "This is about designing our future together."

And the invitation list makes clear that it's not just a PR stunt. The Interior Minister has not shied away from bringing together influential people who have not previously had kind words for one another. The Islamic delegation will be comprised of representatives from the major Islamic organizations in Germany, as well as people from "Islamic civil society" – teachers, entrepreneurs and secular intellectuals like the novelist Feridun Zaimoglu. Some are "cultural Muslims" without religious faith, others are even critics of Islam like the author Necla Kelek and the attorney Seyran Ates.

The conference, nine months in the making, is still a shaky proposition that threatens to go off into unexpected directions. Conservative Muslims like Ali Kizilkaya, head of the Islamic Council, are not excited by the idea of debating with the feminist invitees about the role of women, the head scarf, and forced marriage. The spokesman of the liberal Islamic group Aleviten wonders, meanwhile, why only the conservative Islamic groups were given the privilege of holding a speech during the conference.

Schäuble doesn't claim to know how it's going to turn out; he hopes, though, to get everyone to focus on the work at hand. Above all, he wants to address religious education and the training of imams. These are, indeed, the major concerns of his ministry: since the German government doesn't financially support Islamic educational institutions, the majority of the 2,500 mosques in Germany have to fly in their priests from other countries. And since these mullahs usually don't speak German, it's difficult for the government to know what they are preaching. Schäuble hopes to create a new legal relationship between the German state and its Muslim citizens that would give Islam more recognition. In return, Schäuble hopes, Muslim groups would be more transparent and more explicitly committed to the German constitutional system. There already have been some encouraging signs. Last week, the head of the conservative Central Islamic Council, "condemned the insults and threats of violence against Pope Benedict XVI."

But, more realistically, Wednesday's meeting will be the kick-off to a long process. The government officials and Islamic representatives who meet on Wednesday will gather every six months for the next two years to monitor the work of four working groups. They might, in fact, need the long break to accommodate one another. It seems that Schäuble, for one, didn't do all his homework in advance –- the Islamic Conference, overlaps with the beginning of the Islamic month of Ramadan, during which Muslims neither eat nor drink during daylight hours. The dialogue, then, will be on an empty stomach for half the participants. And there will probably be plenty of leftovers from the refreshment break that was pencilled into the schedule.

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