German universities move to train next generation of imams

Concerned about the influence of foreign imams on Germany's Muslim community, the government is funding Islamic theology departments in its public universities to train imams at home. 

For years Aysen Yüsra Yilmaz, the daughter of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany as guest workers, looked for a way to ground her religion in the German culture she has adopted as her own.

She finally found it this year in Germany’s first publicly funded university Islamic theology department, connected to Tübingen University in the Black Forest’s foothills and one of Germany's oldest universities.  

“We live in Germany, so we have to be able to represent our religion in German,” says Ms. Yilmaz, who is one of 36 students enrolled in a brand-new bachelor’s degree program there.

The opening of the department at Tübingen will be followed by openings later this year in Osnabrück, Nürnberg and Frankfurt. Funded by the government to the tune of €20 million ($25.4 million) for the next five years, the goal of the theology departments is to ground a new generation of Islamic religious leaders and scholars in German culture and root out what experts say is one of the main causes of radicalization of young Muslims in Europe – the lack of imams trained in the country.

Germany has 4 million Muslims, counting both immigrants and those born there, making up about 5 percent of the population. But the lack of religious training in the country means that most of Germany’s 2,000 imams come from abroad, mostly Turkey, staying an average of four years. The predominance of foreign imams in the education of Germany's Muslims exacerbates difficulties they might already have integrating into German society.
The imams imported from abroad tend to promote a more radical interpretation of the Quran, experts say, and they’re often unprepared to deal with many aspects of their job in Germany.

Here, they have to not only lead Friday prayers but act as counselors, community organizers, and youth workers – in short, they have to be a bridge between the mosque and day-to-day secular life in Germany. But they have no context for answering how the Quran would deal with many of the dilemmas confronting young Muslims living in Western Europe: a young Muslim man who wants a girlfriend like his secular friends or a Muslim girl who wants to take swimming lessons in school, for example.

“Most deal with their home culture, their home language, their homeland,” says Bülent Ucar, a professor of Islamic religious education at the University of Osnabrück, which last year pioneered a crash course for foreign imams on German society and language. So far 30 imams are enrolled, with many more on the waiting list, he says. This fall, Osnabrück will house the second of the four publicly funded centers for Islamic theology in addition to its already existing training program.

“Imams have good intentions, but they can't fulfill their jobs. They can't fulfill the conditions to bring about integration because they don’t speak German,” says Mr. Ucar.

The rarity of German-speaking imams who can connect with young German Muslims is also a problem in Germany’s eyes because of the increased popularity of a new cohort of young, radical, German-speaking imams, such as Pierre Vogel, a former boxing professional who converted to Islam and draws enormous crowds in public. He also has a strong following online.

A German citizen in his 30s who attended a Roman Catholic school as a child, Mr. Vogel later turned to Salafism, the fastest-growing Islamic movement in Germany. He knows how to connect with young people, especially those who feel adrift in German society but find the Turkish imams brought to the country out of touch. The presence of people like Vogel, who wears a long red beard and calls himself Abu Hamza, makes the need for German-trained imams all the more obvious, experts agree.

“For young people seeking direction, contact with these types of imams can be the first step toward slipping into Islamist violence,” says sociologist Rauf Ceylan of Osnabrück University.

When she officially opened the Islamic theology center in Tübingen in January, Education Minister Annette Shavan said the center's new graduates would be the best antidote to “hate preachers.”

Religion needs to be thought through,” she said.

Zahic Sicic enrolled in the Tübingen program precisely to combat the turn to fundamentalism. “People like Pierre Vogel have no idea about religion,” says Mr. Sisic, who grew up in Stuttgart in a Bosnian-Iraqi family. “Young people don’t know anything, and ignorance is dangerous. When you can’t explain something, you become aggressive.”

“That’s why young people should know more about Islam – so that there isn’t this aggression potential.”

“Imported imams bring lots of problems,” says Sisic's professor, Omar Hamdan, a Palestinian Israeli and Sunni Muslim. He is confident that with the Islamic theology centers, one of which he leads, Germany will “not always have to wait for just anybody to be brought over here from whatever country, be it Turkey or Egypt.”

Some groups, such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, have expressed only half-hearted support for the new center, in part because they fear the loss of Turkish influence. But Mustafa Hadzic of the Central Council of Muslims in Cologne, one of Germany's largest Muslim umbrella groups, says all recognized mosques support the centers.

Imams trained in Germany are “the only alternative to extremism, fundamentalism, jihadism,” says Mr.  Hadzic, who serves as an imam in a Bosnian mosque in Cologne.

Weaving Islam into Germany's social fabric

Unlike in secular France, which sees religion as a threat to the influence of the state over its people, the German government sees religious institutions as contributing to the public good. It views the communities of faiths it officially recognizes – Christianity and Judaism – as public organizations, granting them certain privileges and financial support. It collects a “church tax”  on Germans who declare church membership when filing their taxes and distributes the funds to the various churches accordingly. It also finances the education of theologians and priests and allows religion to be taught in public schools.

Even if Islam does not have yet that status, mostly because it does not have one main representative for the government to liaise with, myriad schools teach classes on Islam. The country needs at least 2,000 teachers trained in Islamic theology to teach the country's 700,000 Muslim schoolchildren, according to official government statistics.

Two years ago, the German Council of Science and Humanities, an independent body that advises Germany's state and federal governments, recommended that Islamic theology centers be established at public universities, similar to the ones that exist for Protestantism and Catholicism. In a country where religious communities are seen as partners to the government, the new centers are evidence that Islam is increasingly accepted as part of Germany’s social fabric.

“Look, we are now a part and parcel of a world-famous university,” says Mr. Hamdan. “Islam no longer stands on the outside. We stand on equal footing with the other theology schools. We’re just as central as the other religions.”

Speaking on the 20th anniversary of German reunification two years ago, former President Christian Wulff told crowds. “Islam also belongs to Germany.” At the time, his comments created an uproar.

Until recently, Germany resisted seeing itself as a country of immigration, says Christine Langenfeld, a law professor at Göttingen University who specializes on church-state relations. She calls the creation of publicly funded Islamic theology centers a “milestone.”

“The hope is that at some point soon it won’t be necessary to import imams anymore … That Islamic theology centers will bring about a modern understanding of Islam that makes it possible for Muslims to live in Europe side by side with many other religions,” says Ms. Langenfeld, who is a member of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, an independent foundation that advises policymakers on immigration and integration policy.  

“[The theology centers are] a path towards integration, equality and acceptance.”

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