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Imams ‘made in Germany’: country’s first Islamic training college opens its doors

Germany has launched a state-backed training centre for imams to help reduce the number of Islamic leaders coming in from abroad, but the initiative has been shunned by leading Turkish groups.

Imams 'made in Germany': country's first Islamic training college opens its doors
Books at the German College of Islam. credit: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

Around 40 aspiring religious leaders attended their first classes at the German College of Islam in the north-western city of Osnabrück on Monday, with the official inauguration on Tuesday.

The centre’s two-year imam training programme will be taught with the help of some 12,000 books imported from Egypt.

Open to holders of a bachelor’s degree in Islamic theology or an equivalent diploma, it offers practical teaching in the recitation of verses from the Koran, preaching techniques, worship practices and politics.

With between 5.3 and 5.6 million Muslims in Germany – around 6.4 to 6.7 percent of the population – the role of Islam in society occupies a prominent place in political discourse.

The new training centre is being partly funded by the federal government, as well as local authorities in the state of Lower Saxony.

Chancellor Angela Merkel first spoke in favour of training imams on German soil in 2018, telling parliament it “will make us more independent and is necessary for the future”.

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The German College of Islam is unique in two ways, according to chairman Esnaf Begic: all lessons are in German, and it aims to “reflect the reality of the life of Muslims in Germany”.

‘Made in Germany’

 “We are German Muslims, we are an integral part of society and we now have the opportunity to become imams ‘made in Germany'”, said student Ender Cetin, who already works as a volunteer imam in a youth detention centre in Berlin.

Until now, the vast majority of imams in Germany have been trained abroad, mainly in Turkey, and are also paid by their home countries.

About half of the 2,000 to 2,500 imams in the country are provided by the Turkish-Islamic umbrella group DITIB, a branch of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Ankara that manages 986 mosque communities in Germany, according to a study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The rest come mainly from North Africa, Albania and the former Yugoslavia.

These religious leaders tend to come to Germany for four or five years, some on tourist visas, and know very little about the local culture and customs.

“These imams don’t speak the language of the young people, who often don’t even understand Turkish very well,” said Cetin, himself born in Berlin to Turkish immigrants.

“It is important that they are in touch with the realities of a multicultural society where Christians, Jews, atheists and Muslims live side
by side.”

‘Political agenda’

Many of the leaders are also officials of the Turkish state who “pursue a political agenda” in Germany, he said.

The influence of Ankara has long been a thorny question in Germany’s Muslim community, especially since the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

In 2017, German police raided the homes of four imams, members of DITIB, suspected of spying on opponents or critics of the Turkish government.

But the training of imams with support from the German state is also controversial because it conflicts with the principle that religious
communities alone are entitled to train their leaders.

For this reason, both DITIB and Milli Gorus, Germany’s second-biggest Islamic organisation, chose not to participate in the creation of the German College of Islam, with DITIB launching its own training programme in Germany last year.

Milli Gorus believes that the training of imams should be “free from external influences, especially political ones”, according to general
secretary Bekir Altas.

But college chairman Begic says the institution was created with “absolutely no influence from the state, which did not interfere in the
development of the programmes”.

As for job opportunities, imams remain poorly paid and dependent on donations from the faithful. But Begic insists: “We are not an employment agency.”

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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