By Zia Weise
Among imams, Abdulsamet Demir is somewhat of a novelty: He’s one of only a handful of Muslim faith leaders who grew up, studied and trained entirely in Germany.
Some 90 percent of imams at German mosques come from abroad, usually from Turkey, often holding their sermons in a foreign language. A smaller group have been brought up in Germany but trained or studied abroad.
Demir, the 28-year-old imam of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Germany's second-largest city of Hamburg, believes that needs to change.
“I think Germany needs German imams,” he said. “German means: university-educated and ideally born or raised here, with knowledge of the customs and traditions of this country.”
Mainstream political parties and most Islamic associations agree. They worry that foreign imams hinder integration and allow countries such as Turkey to exercise undue influence over Germany's nearly 5 million Muslims. Within the community, many, including Demir, also worry that imams who can’t speak German aren’t able to connect with younger generations.
The trouble is no one can quite agree on how to achieve that — as became evident when one university announced it would establish an imam-training program.
Last month, the University of Osnabrück in northwestern Germany said it would set up a two-year course starting next summer, likely with financial support from the German interior ministry. The so-called imam college will be run by an association independent from the university, but supervised by its academics, and involve various German Islamic organizations.
Yet two of Germany’s largest Islamic groups — the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and the Islamic Community Millî Görüs (IGMG), together representing nearly half of Germany’s estimated 2,500 mosques — declined to participate, citing concerns over potential state interference.
They have their own approach to training imams, with DITIB launching its own program in early January 2020.
“We are in the middle of a societal change. Teenagers today know German better than Turkish,” said Eyüp Kalyon, coordinator of DITIB’s planned course and an imam himself. “We’re aware, and we know we have no option but to participate in this reorientation.”
Fears of foreign influence
Over the past decade, Berlin has gradually started paying closer attention to who leads German mosques. The interior ministry set up an Islam Conference in 2006; its current focus is on mosque personnel and training. The country's first Islamic studies degrees were launched with state support in 2010.
Germany isn't the only country grappling with these issues. Several European countries are also trying to foster local training courses, with varying success. In the Netherlands, Islamic theology and training courses foundered. Sweden launched its first state-funded imam course in 2016. France, which brings in most of its imams from the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world, has struggled to formulate a response due to its strict separation of religion and state.
In Germany, the issue of foreign imams has become a major subject of public debate in recent months in part because of developments in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken his country down a more authoritarian and conservative path.
DITIB, the largest German Islamic umbrella association with 960 member mosques, has close links to the Turkish state, specifically the country’s religious affairs directorate Diyanet, which answers to the Turkish president. The Diyanet sends Turkish imams, whose wages are paid by Ankara and who tend to be Turkish civil servants, to German DITIB-run mosques for a limited amount of time. The organization also sends German high school graduates who want to work in mosques to Turkey to study theology.
DITIB describes itself as politically neutral. But a number of recent controversies — including accusations that the organization called on Muslims to pray for the success of Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and a dropped investigation into allegations of spying — have thrown its connections to Turkey into sharper focus.
German politicians have reacted by calling for domestically trained mosque personnel. Mainstream parties, including opposition groups such as the Greens and the Free Democrats, want local imam-training courses, as does Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said last year, “We need imam training in Germany.” (The far-right Alternative for Germany, on the other hand, has described such courses as a step toward the “Islamization” of Germany.)
Last month, the government announced plans to introduce a German-language requirement for religious personnel coming from abroad.
The proposal was roundly criticized. Rauf Ceylan, a professor of Islamic theology at Osnabrück University, described the move as “populist,” given that while it will in theory apply to all religious personnel, in practice it will mainly hit Muslim communities.
“That’s completely missing the mark,” he said. “It’s not just a solution for people to speak German. Nationalists and fascists can speak German, too.”
The new generation
Abdulsamet Demir thinks the government’s German-language demand isn’t such a bad idea. It may sound radical, he says, but fluent German is enormously important for an imam.
“The problem is the new generation,” he said. While many first- and second-generation immigrants are often more comfortable in Turkish, younger people “speak better German than Turkish. They prefer German. And they’re not going to the mosque anymore because the imams don’t speak German.”
In his mosque — housed on the ground floor of a residential building with only a small sign marking its entrance — Demir has tried to find a balance. Friday sermons are held in German; during the week, when mostly older members attend, he leads prayers in Turkish.
Demir, with his laid-back attitude and ready laugh, has a different approach to what an imam can be.
“Today, we speak about everything — sexuality, love, drug addiction. The image [of an imam] changes to a person who still commands authority but can speak to young people on equal terms,” he said.
Demir, who described being an imam as his “dream job,” jumped at the opportunity to study Islamic theology when Osnabrück University began offering the degree in 2012. Besides Osnabrück, six other universities offer degrees in Islamic theology. But Demir thinks there should be a practical training course too.
“We were thrown into the deep end when we graduated,” he said. “What we need is something like the seminaries for priests and rabbis. It needs to meet the expectations of academics, the state, the communities, the associations — a difficult job given the diversity here.”
The program “shouldn’t reinvent the wheel,” said Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, an umbrella organization that has signed up to the Osnabrück project. But it needs a “dedicated program for our country” that addresses topics such as secularization, he added.
Besides the make-up of the course itself, many Muslim communities are wary of receiving funding from Germany’s interior ministry and potentially opening the door to state intervention in religious matters.
The interior ministry is in touch with the Osnabrück project leaders about potential government funding for the training course, a ministry spokesperson said, though the amount has not yet been specified.
The ministry stressed that although it considered developing “alternatives to foreign influence on training and work of religious personnel” to be important for the integration of Muslims in Germany, there would be no state-led imam training — for constitutional reasons alone.
Not everyone is reassured by this.
“Financial support always leads to dependence eventually,” said Mehmet Karaoglu, the chairman of the Alliance of Islamic Communities in Northern Germany, an umbrella organization of 17 mosques belonging to IGMG.
Karaoglu, who came to Germany aged 12 from the Anatolian village of Kalfat, studied alongside Demir at Osnabrück and also sees the need for more locally trained imams.
He thinks the religious associations should be in charge of the practical side, not the state. IGMG, for instance, has established a training institute meant for students that graduate from high school at 16, meaning that unlike Osnabrück and DITIB’s courses, it requires no academic qualification to enter.
Karaoglu is hoping for two graduates from that course to join his community next year. Germany, he says, is suffering from an “imam shortage."
Muslim faith leaders, including imams, do far more than hold prayers, he pointed out. They may teach, organize social clubs and offer pastoral care, among other things. Demir described his work as a 24/7 job.
Karaoglu serves as one of three imams at Hamburg's Centrum Mosque, housed in a former public bath in the city center and flanked by two striking green-white minarets. Given the community’s size, it should have four imams, he said — but it’s a struggle to find new recruits.
“We could get one from abroad, that would be easy,” he said. “But they can’t speak German.”
The availability of training courses isn’t the only issue, according to Karaoglu. The question of who pays an imam’s salary once trained is also a major point of contention.
Ceylan, of Osnabrück University, agrees. “An imam college doesn’t solve the question of who will later pay the imams. And if someone’s graduated from university here, they won’t want to work for a few hundred euros at a mosque.”
In Germany, Catholics, Protestants and Jews pay a special tax that funds churches and synagogues. For Muslims, there is no such system — though that’s being debated — and most mosques rely on members' donations, meaning particularly smaller communities are strapped for cash.
Demir said many of his fellow theology students switched to teaching due to low pay for imams; the salary ranges from €1,000 to €2,000 a month, he added, and jobs are also difficult to find, with imam vacancies rarely advertised.
The DITIB approach
DITIB, which doesn’t suffer from the same shortage as it can rely on Turkish imams, also wants to keep imam training in-house.
The organization agrees that there is an increasing demand for German-speaking imams, and for a practical training program to complement theology courses, according to Seyda Can, who leads DITIB’s academy.
Turkish DITIB imams have five or more years of experience, “while graduates are going straight from university to the communities,” she said.
But the imam college at Osnabrück is “not relevant” to DITIB communities, according to Can.
Details on the organization's own two-year course, which launches in January, are scant — Can said she was unable to disclose much before the official launch — but it will be open to women, offering a broader faith-leader training rather than a men-only imam course. (Osnabrück’s planned course also aims to be open to all genders, Ceylan said.) The program will initially have 20 participants.
For now, however, DITIB has no plans to fill all its mosques with German imams. About 120 of DITIB's 1,200 imams are "socialized" in Germany and are German-speaking, said Kalyon, Can's colleague.
“The German language will grow in importance, but we also have many first- and second-generation Muslims speaking Turkish. We cannot offer only German-language services. That's why we’re glad to have imams from Turkey,” he added.
For those worried about foreign influence, the prospect of home-grown DITIB imams does not necessarily allay their concerns. “The key problem is that [imams] should not be dependent on a foreign state,” said Ceylan, the theology professor.
But to Demir, Germany is finally on the right path. The transition needs to be gradual, he said, warning against an abrupt stop to employing foreign-trained and Turkish-speaking imams.
“What happens if there’s no more older imams, but there aren’t enough young ones yet?” he asked. Still, he’s certain that he's at the forefront of an inevitable changing of the guard in Germany's mosques.
“We are the vanguard — the third generation, the new youth that’s trained here, born here, brought up here,” said Demir. “We are the pioneers.”
Original Headline: Wanted: Imams made in Germany
Source: The Politico