09/16/2010 12:57 PM

Imams Made in Germany

Will Efforts to Train Homegrown Muslim Leaders Fail?

By Andrea Brandt and

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.

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.

Is a Conflict Developing Between Germany and Turkey?

Universities in six German states are applying for Schavan's incentive money to develop centers for Islamic studies. In addition to training imams, the new theological institutes will produce religion teachers and new scholars for the future. The universities in Osnabrück, the nearby city of Münster and Berlin see their chances of receiving the funding as particularly good.

To ensure that the imam-training programs get off to a successful start, it is critical that state governments, Islamic organizations and mosque associations clarify the job prospects they will be able to offer graduates. Uwe Schünemann (CDU), interior minister of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, has proposed that the new imams be offered half-time jobs as religion teachers in schools. This would enable state and local governments to share the costs, an idea that appeals to Schavan. But a nationwide discussion about Schünemann's idea hasn't even begun yet.

If it did become reality, there will likely be another problem: Only a handful of Islamic organizations actually support the planned imam-training program, and those that do only do so half-heartedly. Not a single representative of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), the largest Islamic organization in Germany, attended the open house in Osnabrück. And Erol Pürlü, the representative of the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers (VIKZ) sent to attend the panel discussion, chose his words carefully, saying that it would make sense to offer "additional training" for VIKZ imams in the area of community education.

When asked to clarify his remarks after the open house, Pürlü admitted that he had no intention of giving up the VIKZ's internal imam-training program at a boarding school in Cologne, which teaches a conservative form of Islam with mystical elements. In the past, youth-protection agencies have reacted with alarm to the work taking place in the VIKZ's local organizations. Illegal VIKZ school boarding houses in the states of Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia have even been shut down.

It is possible that the VIKZ is merely interested in securing the government's seal of approval for its own imams. "We are aiming for the recognition of our theological imam-training programs by universities," says Pürlü, adding that the VIKZ could perhaps "cooperate" with German universities in their training programs.

Widely Varying Objectives

The Osnabrück open house for imams revealed how widely the objectives of individual imams in attendance varied. Bülent Ucar, a professor of Islamic Religious Education, vehemently advocates a complete university degree program for imams. In his view, the two-semester training program is merely a confidence-building measure, a first step "to get to know one another." But others believe it should be the only step.

Islamic organizations are already seeking to torpedo the planned imam-training program with insidious, targeted attacks. In an office at a German university that officials hope to turn into a center for Islamic studies, an academic pulls a letter out of a drawer. It is a malicious letter, perhaps even a threatening letter, which is why the scholar does not want his name or that of the sender to appear in print. The letter came from the national headquarters of an Islamic organization.

The writer bluntly states that the academic should stop making critical remarks about the organization in his interviews, and warns that if he refuses to do so, the organization will regrettably be forced to challenge his academic qualifications.

Such animosities suggest the magnitude of the dilemma confronting politicians and academics, who realize that the success of any imam-training program depends on the cooperation of the Islamic organizations. In fact, such programs would be inconceivable without their support, because the German-trained imams would not be accepted in many congregations. There is "a real danger" that the programs will produce graduates with no employment prospects, predicts Ünal Kaymakci, deputy chairman of the Islamic Religious Community of Hesse (IRH), which has long been under observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence service.

Is Turkey Opposed to Imams Tained in Germany?

University imam-training programs also threaten to trigger conflicts of interest between the German and Turkish governments. Michael Kiefer, an Islamic scholar in the western city of Düsseldorf, voices his suspicion that Turkey is trying to maintain its influence over imams in Germany and, therefore, on immigrants of Turkish descent through its Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

Year after year, Diyanet sends hundreds of Turkish civil servants to work as imams in the 896 DITIB communities in Germany. In their sermons on Turkish holidays and their patriotic speeches, they often reinforce the immigrants' ties to their former homeland. "The truth is that Diyanet and DITIB are opposed to a German imam-training program based on the Science Council concept," says Kiefer, "unless they are given a key role in shaping the curriculum and selecting personnel."

Some mosque-goers agree with Kiefer's theory. "Everyone here would like to see imams from German universities sooner rather than later," says Özay Karabulut, 39, spokesman of the 16 DITIB communities in Duisburg. According to Karabulut, it is extremely demanding to "constantly integrate new Turkish imams." Nevertheless, he adds, senior officials at DITIB and Diyanet are blocking substantial changes. "They're worried that they'll lose their control over the communities if they don't," says Karabulut. A DITIB spokeswoman calls the accusations unfounded.

Battling the Fringes

As the director of the foreign division of Diyanet, Ali Dere is in charge of sending imams to Germany. This summer, he traveled to Cologne to attend a meeting with representatives of the Council of Science and Humanities. A slim, soft-spoken man, Dere chooses his words carefully. "We support the initiative of the Council of Science," he says. Does that mean that Diyanet supports imam training at German universities? "That isn't the question that's being raised," he replies.

Diyanet and DITIB would like to see imams from Germany, says Dere, but adds that they could also learn their profession in seminars in Turkey or in the congregations. "We have to consider which method is the best one," he says. In other words, are the Islamic organizations simply taking a wait-and-see approach and hoping the issue will resolve itself?

There is an enormous need for well-trained imams. Imported imams from Turkey, including Aktürk, say that they feel well-equipped to work in the German congregations. To prepare for his stay in Germany, Aktürk attended a seminar at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank aligned with Merkel's CDU, and completed crash course in German. He now knows that Berlin is the German capital, and that a woman runs the country. He can also say "I love Germany" in German. But young Muslims in particular, says religious scholar Ceylan, expect more from an imam.

Wanted: Integration Figures

Does the Koran forbid young men from having a girlfriend before marriage? Does every devout girl have to wear a headscarf? Where do you find help for a best friend who is having serious drug problems? Young Muslims need well-trained, eloquent preachers with good connections in their neighborhood, people who are "familiar with the reality of their lives," says imam expert Ceylan.

The lack of such integration figures presents an opportunity for people like Pierre Vogel, a German who once trained for a career as a professional boxer. Today he is sitting in the fluorescent light of an austere room in a mosque in the western city of Mönchengladbach. He looks like an imam from the early days of Islam, with his red beard flowing over his light-colored robe and a crocheted cap on his head.

"We're not in Turkey here," says the 32-year-old Muslim convert, speaking in the local sing-song accent. As a child, he attended a Catholic high school near Cologne and then a sports-oriented boarding school in Berlin. Imams have to understand life in Germany, or else they won't succeed with young people, says Vogel, himself a self-appointed imam.

Vogel is familiar with life in Germany, and he appeals to young German Muslims -- to the displeasure of intelligence officials. Experts rate Vogel among the so-called Salafists, a group with fundamentalist tendencies. Its imams preach isolation instead of integration, and its theories are seen as hostile to democracy. "For young people seeking direction," Ceylan warns, "contact with these types of imams can be the first step toward slipping into Islamist violence."

A Pop Star of Radical Imams

German domestic intelligence agency believes that organizations in Vogel's milieu are strongly opposed to integration. In January, prosecutors searched his apartment, because he had reportedly distributed an essay on women in Islam that was liable to adversely influence young people. Vogel says the charges are unjustified. Authorities citing building regulations have since closed the mosque he was using in Mönchengladbach. But Vogel, whose world tends to revolve around the Internet, was unimpressed.

Vogel's messages, disseminated on the Internet or on the fringes of rock concerts, sound simple enough. Some 80 percent of German Muslims, he says, don't practice Islam correctly. What he means by correct is that men should be wearing beards and women headscarves. And if it is written in the Koran that a man can marry four women, no one can claim that this is no longer applicable today, Vogel pontificates.

In the face of such resistance, how is the kind of imam-recruitment program envisioned by politicians in Berlin supposed to work? Initial ideas are already making the rounds at German universities. One idea is to involve the more recalcitrant of the Islamic organizations in the formation of the planned advisory councils at Islamic studies centers, and to tie their participation to certain conditions. One of those requirements would be that those who want to have a say in the appointment of professors would be expected to pledge to employ imams with German university degrees in their communities.

Radical preachers like Pierre Vogel are already gathering their troops for a counter-offensive. Since the beginning of the year, the imam has increased his efforts to recruit young fans at mosques in major cities, including Berlin, Munich, Dortmund and Düsseldorf. In June, Vogel began organizing conversions to Islam on his Facebook page. This October, the self-taught imam plans to offer a written "Islam test" for his students -- the first of its kind at a German mosque. According to Vogel, once students have passed his exam they will be qualified to recruit new supporters nationwide.

He doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to continue preaching in Germany, Vogel says with a faint smile. For that reason, he adds, there will soon be "not one Pierre Vogel, but 1,000 Pierre Vogels." The pop star of radical imams leaves no doubt that he is interested in nothing less than securing the prerogative of interpretation of Islam among young Muslims in Germany.

Vogel immodestly likens his anti-integration mission to that of Mahatma Gandhi. Misquoting the Indian freedom fighter, he says: "First they laugh at you, then they ignore you and then you win."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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