David Lepeska
Nov 28 2018

Berlin, secular German Turks target Erdogan's conservative Islam

Germany's interior minister opened the country's fourth Islam Conference in Berlin on Wednesday, welcoming dozens of prominent Muslims to a meeting that ostensibly aims to better integrate Germany's 4.5 million Muslims socially and politically.

This year, organisers might also be seeking to sideline the conservative Islam of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Turkey. 

Inaugurating the two-day event, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called for mosques to train their imams in Germany and depend less on foreign contributions, echoing the comments of his deputy earlier this week. 

"The goal needs to be to make sure German mosques no longer depend on foreign money," Deputy Interior Minister Markus Kerber told the German newspaper Bild. 

When German officials talk about foreign funding for Islam, they are usually referring to Turkey. Some 3 million people of Turkish origin call Germany home; no country outside Turkey is home to a greater share of the Turkish diaspora. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), an arm of Turkey's government, runs some 900 mosques in Germany, including training imams and paying their salaries. 

Green party politician Katrin Göring-Eckardt feels the state should not recognise organisations like DITIB. They "do not accept fundamental constitutional principles of our society, for example because they spy on their members and are in fact the extended arm of the Erdoğan regime," she told Berlin-based news outlet The Local. 

The three previous German Islam Conferences (known as DIK) featured only representatives of established Muslim associations. But Seehofer reportedly wants to curb the influence of conservative organisations like DITIB and Turkey's Islamist Millî Görüş movement by involving more independent, liberal-minded figures. 

This explains the presence of psychologist Ahmad Mansour, who often speaks out against religious extremism, and Seyran Ateş, who founded Berlin's LGBT-friendly Ibn Ruschd-Goethe mosque. Both are part of a group of prominent German Muslims, led by former Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir, who last week launched the Initiative for Secular Islam.

"We do not want to accept the growing power of a democracy-distant, politicised Islam, which claims the sovereignty over the interpretation of all Islam," reads the initiative's founding document. The group is driven by a desire to counter both increasing anti-Muslim sentiment and increasing Islamism, and calls for a contemporary German Islam that "is fully compatible with human rights" and independent of foreign bodies.

Ateş and Özdemir have received a great deal of criticism for their views on Islam, and for their new initiative. Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, has said the practices of Ateş's mosque “do not align with Islam’s fundamental resources ... and are experiments aimed at nothing more than depraving and ruining religion”.

Days after Özdemir launched the secular Islam initiative, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency ran an opinion piece attacking the group and the people involved. "This initiative is less about contributing to the discourse on Islam than about a transformation of Islam in line with the distorted views of the radical right as well as Islamophobes," University of Salzburg political science lecturer Farid Hafez wrote for Anadolu. "Another highly unsettling aspect is that people of questionable reputation rank among the patrons of this initiative."

Germany's interior minister may seem a questionable choice to host a Muslim gathering. Upon taking up his post in March, Seehofer declared, "Islam doesn't belong to Germany", citing the country's Christian roots. But in recent months, Seehofer has softened his tone, saying he plans to use all the tools at his disposal to help Muslims "strengthen their German and Muslim identity, and to help them feel part of Germany." 

Germany remains the only Western European state with a regular, government-backed summit focused on helping Muslims and Islamic organisations work with state bodies to define a national Islam and integrate. Now if the country's Muslims could just find a way to get along. 

Özdemir understands that compromise will not come overnight. "All parties in the federal and state governments have completely overestimated the willingness of Islamic associations, especially DITIB, to reform," he said to Germany's Die Welt. "But anyone who wants recognition as a religious community must accept that (Germany's Basic Law) is the guideline for living together. There is no room for misogyny, militarism and religious fundamentalism."