Umbrella Organization Planned German Muslim Groups to Speak as One

Germany's Islamic organizations aren't lacking in number. But coherence has long been a problem. Now four groups are banding together to form an umbrella organization. German politicians applaud the initiative, but warn that it's only one of several on the way to better inter-cultural dialogue.
Von Naomi Buck

When Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble held an Islam conference in Berlin last year, his goal was to establish a new basis for dialogue with Germany's Muslim community, one rooted in democratic and constitutional values.

But as the representatives of the various Muslim organizations, federations and groups pulled up their chairs around the table, it became clear that dialogue -- in the sense of conversation between two parties -- was a misnomer: To date, no single body has represented the interests of the 3.3 million Muslims living in Germany.

Now, four organisations want to change that. The Turkish-Islamic Union for the Institution of Religion (DITIB), the Islamic Council (IR), the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD) and the Association of Islamic Culture Centres (VIKZ) are joining forces to form an umbrella group which they hope will speak on behalf of all Muslims in Germany.

"At the moment, we're working on statutes and formalities," ZMD General Secretary Aiman Mazyek told SPIEGEL ONLINE this week. The coordination committee, which has been meeting for the last half year, is forming a central organization at the federal level and coordinating bodies in the federal states. The new organization, as yet without a name, is scheduled to be launched by summer.

Not always easy

Armin Laschet, Minister for Integration of North Rhine-Westphalia -- the first state to install such a ministry -- applauds the intensified cooperation as "a major and important step." The conservative Christian Democratic Union politician told SPIEGEL ONLINE that in his experience, "It's not always easy, in discussion with Muslims, to find the right person to talk to."

Until now, internal rivalries have prevented cooperation of this kind. The Turkish-Islamic Union for the Institution of Religion, which is partly funded by the Turkish government and enjoys a solid reputation among German politicians, has often positioned itself as the single mouthpiece for Muslims. For years, the Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Council have been competing for the same distinction. But both organizations continue to face charges of fundamentalist affiliations; Milli Görüs, a movement with radical, anti-European tendencies and which is under observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, is said to hold significant sway in the Islamic Council while some members of the Central Council are thought to have ties to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Germany's most prominent politician of Turkish origin, Cem Özdemir, commends the initiative. In conversation with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the Green Member of the European Parliament emphasized how important it is that Germany's Muslims present themselves with a "greater degree of legitimacy," and not only in discussions of civil issues such as education and membership on broadcasting councils. When it comes to terrorist attacks, Özdemir said, "We gain nothing by being represented by the horrible talkshow preachers that do the rounds after such events."

Islam is the third largest religion in Germany, following Catholicism and Protestantism. The largest national group within the Muslim community are Turks, most decended from the first generation of guest workers that were brought into Germany in the 1950s and 1960s as cheap labor to help kick start the flagging post-war economy. As so-called "guest" workers, they were not expected to stay. But most, including Özdemir's parents, did and Germany continues to struggle to come to terms with the reality of a newly ethnically and culturally mixed population.

Central issues of debate include religion classes in Koranic and public schools, women's rights and the high degree of unemployment among Muslims of the second and third generations. And as Interior Minister Schäuble explained leading up to the Islam conference of last year, the fear of Islamist terrorism has exacerbated tensions -- many Muslims in Germany feel that they are treated as though "under general suspicion," he said during the conference last year.

Speaking with one voice

The four associations banding together represent a large number of Germany's 3,000 mosques and prayer rooms, but only a small minority -- roughly 15 percent -- of their members. Nonetheless, Integration Minister Laschet maintains that "Even if the association represents a minority of Muslims in Germany, it's the only visible one that can present one face and speak with one voice for the Muslims."

Where Laschet foresees potential problems, is in the fact that issues like Islamic classes, butchering practices and the education of imams are slated to be dealt with by the organization's state chapters. "The cooperation of four associations is not the same as a religious community," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "For that we would need clear criteria for membership, including restrictions on religious practice, commitment to the constitution and more."

But Özdemir warns against unrealistic expectations of coherence within the Muslim community: "It would be naive to expect that all German Muslims speak with one voice, or that this organization act as something like a Muslim pope." The mission of the new grouping, he says, is to "find consensus on the central questions and present divergent positions in a democratic format."

Some groups, however, are not persuaded that the umbrella group will represent their interests. Germany's estimated 700,000 Alevites, for example, have opted not to join. Alevites are a group of Islamic persuasion, but not all Alevites consider themselves to be Muslims.

"We have a completely different religious understanding," Ali Ertan Toprak, General Secretary of the Alevite Community in Germany told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that in political terms, they distinguish themselves from the other organizations. "For us the DITIB is a state-run Turkish organization and the Islamic Council represents Milli Görus," he says.

Despite the hurdles it faces, Özdemir says the umbrella organization is a welcome development that's come none too soon. He gives the example of a meeting he recently attended between German Islamic groups and Condoleezza Rice, at which an association leader subjected the American Secretary of State to a five-page oratory in "bad German." "We need general secretaries and chairmen who speak decent German and who have the necessary cultural capital to present themselves professionally in national and international contexts," he says.

Echoing a prevailing sentiment in his community, Özdemir said, "Muslims must not be viewed as a diasporic minority group within German society who intend to leave for their home countries -- their home country is Germany."

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