The War Over Germany’s Imams

Sent by Turkey as a check on Western influence as well as Islamist radicalism, Germany's holy men are at the heart of the battle over the future of Islam in Europe.

For decades, no one in Germany took much notice of the imported Islamic holy men in their midst. Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs sent imams inconspicuously, on four-year postings, to minister to the spiritual needs of West Germany’s Turkish migrant workers and their families — while keeping them in line with Turkish cultural norms.

But today, Germany’s Turkish imams find themselves square in the public spotlight. Berlin and Ankara are wrapped up in a fierce battle — and it’s not just about religion. Both countries are vying for the allegiance of the 3-million-strong Turkish diaspora in Germany, a population that represents two-thirds of the country’s Muslims. And both sides see the imams as the lynchpin to Germany’s Turkish community. The imams are uniquely trusted authority figures among the Deutschtürken (German Turks) who first came to Germany as Gastarbeiter — cheap, imported labor — in the 1960s.

There are three directions the imams could take with Germany’s diaspora Turks, each with huge consequences for the future of Islam in Germany and Europe: Do the preachers encourage diaspora Turks to integrate into secular Germany, do they push them in a radical extremist direction, or do they keep the majority of Germany’s large Muslim population an essentially foreign community for as long as they can?

In a book recently published in Germany, religious scholar Rauf Ceylan, himself the son of Kurdish labor migrants from Anatolia, offers the most explicit, penetrating examination to date of Germany’s foreign-born imams, showing exactly how crucial they are to Europe’s fate. "Ultimately," he writes, "they determine whether young Muslims will endorse a liberal, conservative, or extremist Islam." His book, however, Die Prediger des Islam: Imame — Wer Sie Sind und Was Sie Wirklich Wollen (The Preachers of Islam: Imams — Who They Are and What They Really Want) is not optimistic.

It’s not that the imams are breeding potential terrorists — in fact, quite the opposite. When it comes to fundamentalism, German and Turkish interests overlap. The last thing Ankara wants is the German Turks reimporting radical strains of Islam back into the Ataturk republic. Of Germany’s Islamic holy men generally, fewer than 1 percent are extremists, according to Ceylan, and those young, media-savvy leaders operate outside the purview of established mosques and often beyond the reach of both German and Turkish authorities. Germany has only narrowly escaped terrorist attacks like those in Madrid and London, and Ceylan warns that this "new quality" of fundamentalism has powerful, destructive potential.

But most of Germany’s imams are "traditional-conservative," or, as Ceylan labels them, "the Prussians among imams." These preachers are overwhelmingly Turkish civil servants — employees of the Turkish state — on postings, most placed in parishes through Germany’s largest Islamic organization, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), known in Germany as "Ankara’s long arm."

Ever since Turkey woke up to the fact that millions of its citizens were living in Germany and weren’t coming home anytime soon, imams have been flown in for purposes as political as they are religious. DITIB was created by Turkish authorities in the early 1980s to check the wayward drift and cultural emancipation of West Germany’s Turkish diaspora as well as the evolution of religious practices away from Turkish traditions. The imams are Prussian (perhaps "Ottoman" might be more apt) in that they harbor deeply conservative mores, an authoritarian disposition, and unswerving allegiance to the fatherland — all of which they pass on to their believers in sermons, parish work, and religion classes.

The Turkish imams’ wages are paid by the government in Ankara, which regularly vilifies integration as a betrayal of Turkdom. Turks abroad should stay Turkish, whatever their citizenship, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed. On visits to Germany, Erdogan has even called assimilation a "crime against humanity" and urged the creation of all-Turkish high schools in Germany. Ankara, which recently created a cabinet-level Office for Turks Abroad, even urges diaspora Turks to act in Turkish interests, as a kind of pro bono foreign service.

Although DITIB denies it, its imams are Turkey’s primary mechanism for keeping German Turks, now in their fourth generation, from becoming, simply, Germans. A look around the premises of just about any of DITIB’s 900 German facilities attests to their ultimate allegiance, after Allah: On sale are red-and-white Turkish flags, Turkish postcards, and made-in-Turkey sweets, games, and T-shirts. DITIB officials work hand in hand with the Turkish Embassy in Berlin and its regional consulates. The religion ministry in Ankara writes the Friday sermons both for Turkey and the diaspora, including DITIB-run mosques in Germany.

Some imams Ceylan interviewed admitted to the absurdity of reading sermons about village life in Anatolia to believers in downtown Hamburg. "Most of the [Ankara-composed sermons’] themes have nothing to do with the everyday life of the people," Ceylan writes. "Instead of addressing acute social problems like education or forced marriages, the imams in Berlin and Duisburg ramble on about the Battle of the Dardanelles Strait, Ataturk’s life, and the Zakat, the Turkish social security system."

Along with German officials, Ceylan bemoans the imams’ inability to help their believers cope with the complex day-to-day problems facing migrant communities in Germany. With limited German and scant knowledge of German society, the imported imams are helpless, say, to aid families navigating the German legal bureaucracy or using the convoluted health-care system. Their archconservatism undermines their usefulness in areas like health and relationships, where the problems of third- and fourth-generation young adults resemble those of their big-city German peers. Study after study shows the Turkish community poorly integrated, failing in German schools, and unable — Ceylan himself obviously an exception, not to mention Mesut Ozil, the ethnically Turkish star of Germany’s World Cup soccer team — to advance past the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

The outspoken Berlin Green Party member Ozcan Mutlu blasts the Turkish leadership for "perpetuating national differences." "We want German and Turkish kids to learn together," not apart from one another, he says. The Turkish prime minister doesn’t speak for the Deutschtürken, he underscores. Nevertheless, their provincialism — reinforced by the state imams — hinders them from integrating.

The issue of Germany’s Turks has become a nasty sore spot in the often troubled relationship between Turkey and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel snapped back to Erdogan that "integration" isn’t "assimilation." Germany doesn’t want to turn Turks into Germans, she says, but the one-time migrants should join in German public life.

And Merkel is taking action to bring Turks into the fold. Proponents of ethnic integration widely agree that a new generation of religion teachers should be trained in Germany, where they could better blend Islam and the values of modernity. Although neither Ankara nor DITIB has publicly opposed this idea, the barbs hurled at Ceylan by Turkish patriots at readings of Die Prediger des Islam — accusing him of bad-mouthing Islam and the patria — betrays their antagonism.

Just this year, Germany committed itself to creating several Islamic theology departments at German universities that would nurture imams, other Islamic personnel (including female clergy), and religious scholars. The thought — now in vogue across Western Europe — is that, independent of the doctrinaire Turkish seminaries, a new stripe of self-critical, democracy-friendly Islam might emerge, one better suited to life in modern Europe. At the moment in Germany, one such pilot faculty exists in the northwestern city of Osnabrück along the Dutch border, where Ceylan currently teaches. But its early years have been marred by bitter disagreements within the Islamic community and between local Muslims and German academia, a foretaste of what it means to get such faculties up and running.

And then there’s the tricky question of what mosques will house these moderate-minded, German-schooled preachers once they’ve graduated. Most of Germany’s mosque communities don’t seem to complain about the DITIB imams, who are free to local parishes, all expenses paid by Turkey. The mosques that have broken away from DITIB’s grip tend not to choose Birkenstock-shod, multikulti imams, but rather fundamentalist-minded preachers, like those from Milli Gorus, an international Islamic movement with access to external funding.

Ultimately, a new synthesis of Islam and the Enlightenment will have to come from below, namely from Germany’s diverse Muslim communities. Fortunately for the Germans, Erdogan’s patriotic bluster tends to fall on deaf ears among German Turks. Thousands of former migrants with Turkish backgrounds may attend the rallies that Erdogan holds in Germany, but they realize their future lies outside Turkey — and they may eventually invest in their adopted country through a more careful, independent choice of religious leaders. Until then, Berlin might just have to make its peace with Turkey’s handpicked Prussians, given the alternative.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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