Germany plans state role in training imams

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The World

BERLIN, Germany — In the coming year, Germany will likely experience a small, but unmistakable, crack in the separation between church and state — or, to be more specific, between state and mosque.

If all goes according to the plan proposed in February by a national education council, the German government will soon be involved in training imams to serve the country’s Muslim population. The government would also have a hand in training thousands of educators to teach Islam in public schools.

Maria Boehmer, Germany’s commissioner for integration, calls it “the right signal for integration” to German Muslims.

Those moves would bring Islam closer into alignment with Christianity and Judaism in its dealings with the German government. The country’s authorities have long cooperated with representatives of the Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as with the official institutions of the country’s Jewish community, in designing curricula for schools and subsidizing the education of priests, pastors and rabbis.

By contrast, the country’s 4 million Muslims (about 5 percent of the total population) organize their religious affairs independent of — some Germans say, dangerously isolated from — the influence of the state. The recommendations from the education council were motivated by concerns about equal treatment for the country’s Muslim minority, but more so by concerns that Germany’s hands-off approach with Muslims had hindered their integration into mainstream society.

There’s plenty of evidence to support that view. A forthcoming study by Rauf Ceylan, an Islam scholar at Osnabrueck University in western Germany, draws troubling conclusions about Islam’s shadow religious economy. Left to their own devices, Germany’s Muslims have difficulty finding qualified imams to educate their children and guide their spiritual communities.

The main Muslim umbrella organizations that administer Germany’s mosques require clerics to have some degree of formal education — unlike the small, independent houses of worship that may sponsor clerics with no theological training at all. But they must find those trained clerics at privately organized centers of Islamic learning that are preponderantly conservative.

According to Ceylan’s study, only a small minority of German imams are fundamentalists who sympathize with radicals from the Middle East, but significantly more subscribe to interpretations of Islam that place them far outside Germany’s ethical norm — and, in some cases, may undermine tenets of the German constitution. For example, Germany’s guarantee for equal rights between men and women is subverted, some argue, by conservative clerics who preach on the duty for Muslim women to obey their husbands and avoid contact with other men.

So Muslims have looked outside of Germany for educators. A consistent source for modern-minded, theologically qualified clerics has been Turkey’s Ministry of Religion. For more than 20 years, the German government has arranged for thousands of imams selected by the government in Ankara to spend up to four years attending to the spiritual needs of Germany’s Muslim community, which is predominantly of Turkish ethnicity.

But, however much it may have helped bolster the leadership of Germany’s mosques, the Turkish guest-imam program has stalled Muslim integration into German society. According to Ceylan’s study, the newly arrived Turkish clerics often can’t speak with younger generations of Muslims in their first language, German, and, due to a lack of familiarity with the German social system, have trouble providing counsel on the sorts of pragmatic issues for which their congregations are most often seeking guidance. Coming directly from Turkey, they are under-prepared for the tasks demanded of them in a country where Muslims are in the minority.

There are difficulties, of course, in any German-backed effort to cultivate a home-grown Islam. The recommendations from the national education council call for the creation of three institutes for the training of imams and religion teachers. Curricula and staffing decisions for those institutes are supposed to be made by councils composed of scholars, as well as representatives from Germany’s Muslim community. The problem is that German Muslims, unlike German Catholics, Lutherans and Jews, don’t entrust a single centralized institution to represent their interests and viewpoints. Before anything else, the diverse voices of the splintered Muslim community will have to come to an agreement on how they want to inform the process.

What’s clear is that it would be a wasted effort were German universities to proceed with the development of Islamic theological institutions without the input of German Muslims. German universities have previously proven themselves tone deaf when it comes to creating a dialogue with the Muslim population. Representatives of the Muslim community loudly protested when Muenster University, which already has an Islamic studies institute that trains school teachers, hired a theology professor, Mohammad Kalish, who claimed that the prophet Mohammad might never have existed. The coordinating council of German Muslims ceased its cooperation with Muenster University because of the "vast discrepancy between the foundations of Islamic teaching and the public positions" of Kalish. Kalish has since been dismissed from the professorship.

The national plan to train imams will have to avoid mistakes of that sort in order to succeed: There’s no point, after all, in training imams who can’t earn a hearing among the Muslim community.

"Educating religious teachers through an extremist theology that excludes God, most Muslims would find that very questionable," said Lamya Kaddor of Muenster University.

Indeed, the greatest weakness of the plan may be its assumption that the universities won’t have any trouble finding candidates for theology professorships who both meet academic standards of scholarship and share a connection with the spiritual lives of German Muslims.

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