Germany works to reduce Turkish influence on Islam

The German government is working with Ankara and the country’s largest Islamic group, also run by Turkey’s government, in a growing effort to curb foreign influence on its Islamic communities, Islam-focused news outlet Qantara reported.  

Among Germany's nearly 4.5 million Muslims, around 3 million are of Turkish origin. Nearly 90 percent of imams in Germany are educated outside the country, with most coming from Turkey.

The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) is a former arm of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate (Diyanet) that is still overseen by Ankara. It is Germany’s largest Islamic organisation, overseeing some 900 mosques, and its imams are educated, financed and sent from Turkey.

“In recent years, spying allegations, the glorification of Turkey's military assault on the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin inside DITIB mosques and the participation of Muslim Brotherhood members in a DITIB event in January has pushed the German government to intensify efforts to separate DITIB from the Turkish government,” said Qantara, which is overseen by Deutsche Welle.

"We are no longer dealing with a religious organisation but with a foreign state that is sending imams," said German parliamentarian Christoph de Vries, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party.

Criticism of DITIB's involvement in domestic political affairs has spurred Merkel's government to adopt a more hard-line approach and begin taking concrete steps to reduce Turkey's influence on mosques in Germany, according to Qantara.

“We gradually want imams to be educated here and religious authorities to no longer be sent from Turkey,” said Deputy Interior Minister Markus Kerber, adding that negotiations were underway with Turkey’s Diyanet.

Last month the government announced plans to amend Germany's residency law to require German language knowledge for foreign religious leaders.

The German Defence Ministry said this week that Islamic spiritual counsellors working for the military would need to be fluent in German and be graduates of a state-recognised university teaching Islamic theology.

Only five German universities offer Islamic theology programs, with a sixth to be added later this year in Berlin, according to Qantara. Rauf Ceylan, professor at Osnabruck University's Institute for Islamic Theology, said graduates of these institutes needed further training to qualify as imams.

"Reading of the Quran, how to perform a prayer, how to wash the deceased — our students undergo academic training, we are unable to teach these practical aspects," Ceylan told Qantara.

Osnabruck University’s imam development project, which had 150 attendees, was terminated in 2018 after eight years when funding ended, according to Qantara.

The biggest challenge, according to German Green party lawmaker Filiz Polat, is how DITIB mosques would finance their own imams once Turkish funding is cut.

In December, German officials said they were considering the introduction of a "mosque tax" for German Muslims, similar to the church taxes paid by Christians. Until that happens, German Muslims will need to find their own financing for imams.

Polat pointed to the Muslim Ahmadiyya Community, with around 40,000 members and more than 50 mosques in Germany, as a good model, Qantara said.

“All communities contribute to a common pot and then this is equally distributed so that the small communities can also afford an imam," she said. "Considering the number of Muslims with Turkish heritage, this is definitely doable. The question is, do Muslims want to be independent from their country of origin and do they want an imam education in Germany?”

Abdurrahman Atasoy, DITIB general secretary, said the organisation would soon launch a project to educate and hire imams in Germany, but first needed to find the funding.

“We also want to find a system appropriate for German standards and we are working on this," Atasoy said. "Building these mechanisms takes time."

Kerber, who is in charge of relations between the government and the country’s Muslims, said the government did not want to impose a policy, but said it was an advantage for imams to have some experience of German life and education.  

Imam Murat Gül agreed. The forty-three-year-old president of the Islamic Federation of Berlin, who was born in Germany and studied the Quran in Turkey, believes that in order to understand and address the needs of the Muslim community, imams in Germany should know the language and the culture, according to Qantara.