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Hansjörg Schmid {*}

Concrete Dialogue

About What Muslims Talk with Christians
in Germany

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2008, P. 470-475
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In recent years the Christian-Islamic dialogue in Germany has intensified. Increasingly also mosque associations participate in the dialogue activities. A two-year research project which has just been completed shows achievements and limits of the dialogue.

 

That in this form until now unprecedented research project "Together Forming Society - Islamic Associations as Partners in Baden-Württemberg" was carried out from February 2006 to March 2008 by the Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart with the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For the first time in Baden-Württemberg dialogues between Islamic associations, municipalities and churches have been traced and evaluated. In the focus were not Muslims as individuals but Islamic organizations which concentrate activities and interests of Muslims and like other associations also play an important role in shaping the municipal life.

The project was based on a broad understanding of dialogue which includes both, the Christian-Muslim dialogues in the stricter sense of interreligious dialogues and the "municipal dialogues". That proves to be useful, as both areas are not sharply to be separated from each other. In order to do justice to the complexity of dialogue the work was methodically done mainly by the criterion of quality. Christian and Muslim actors in the dialogue were separately interviewed, in order to avoid harmonizing interpretations and to trace especially contradictions and divergent interpretations.

In all about 200 Muslim, municipal, and church leaders were questioned orally and in writing. With it it was about dialogue and cooperation experiences, conditions and obstacles to dialogue, public relations, Islamic religious instruction, target group work of Islamic associations (youth, women, seniors) and the role of imams. Main focus were 61 guideline interviews in eight selected municipalities of different size in different parts of Baden-Württemberg, carried out by a Muslima project collaborator.

 


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In order to make a broad effect possible for the project, a high degree of networking and information was aimed at from the outset. In addition, in the initial phase consultations with representatives of several Islamic associations on the national or federal level took place, in order to make safe contacts with the local level.

Here it was about the "Alevite Association Germany" (AABF), the "Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion (DITIB), the "Islamic Community of Milli Görüs", the "Association of Islamic Communities of Bosnians" (VIGB), the Association of Islamic Cultural Centres (VIKZ) and the Islamic Community of Baden-Württemberg (IGBW), which as the only umbrella organization did not want to participate in the project. Also several Alevite Associations, an Ahmadiyya Association and an association belonging to the educational network of the Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen took part in the project.

It was not the task of the project to record the dialogue activities in an even approximate completeness. It was rather about working out structural factors which shape the possibilities of dialogue. Although all the cases investigated come from Baden-Württemberg the results are nevertheless also relevant beyond it (the results are fully documented in a handbook, an accompanying CD "Ways to contact. Structures, addresses, contacts" is enclosed: Hansjörg Schmid / Ayse Almia Akca / Klaus Barwig, Gesellschaft gemeinsam gestalten. Islamische Vereinigungen als Partner in Baden-Württemberg [Together Form Society. Islamic Associations as Partners in Baden-Württemberg], Baden-Baden 2008).

 

The Islamic Associations Arrived in Germany

There is often a widespread ignorance of Islamic associations and their activities, which creates mistrust and leads to the fact that they are less included in social concerns than it was conceivable and desirable. By the fact that, with a few exceptions, all Islamic associations asked took part in the project "Together Form Society" they showed their readiness to interact with the majority of society. Many of the associations also address the non-Muslim public by invitations to the "Day of the Open Mosque", lectures, Internet sites or brochures . But such public relations work is mostly limited to general information about Islam and scarcely informs about the concrete local conditions.

With the generational change Islamic associations for several years have been increasingly orientating towards the immigration country Germany. Islamic and German identity they do not see as a contradiction. They adopt many aspects of the integration debate but oppose any kind of assimilation and emphasize, against the background of their own experience of discrimination, the reciprocity in the integration process.

From the perspective of Islamic associations German language skills are indisputably necessary for integration, which they also expect of their future imams and to which a number of associations contributes with language courses and religious instruction in German.

The imams' training and profile is still often shaped by the countries of origin (see HK 2007, 25ff.). The frequent change of imams, especially in the DITIB associations is experienced as an obstacle to dialogue. Lack of language skills often makes it difficult that imams have a "bridge builder function" in the German society, which many of them also themselves see as their task. For it the training of imams at German universities would be crucial, for which also a wide majority of Muslims declares itself in favour.

On the local level already now the first steps are possible when imams better their ability for orientation by attending language and integration courses. Cases have been reported in which municipalities, Islamic associations or other bodies share the financing of those measures.

A test case for the relations with the majority society is the introduction of Islamic religious instruction (see HK, May 2005, 239ff., and June 2007, 298ff.), which has been offered in Baden-Württemberg since the 2006/2007 school year at twelve primary schools as a pilot scheme. Many mosque associations see the pilot project as competition and fear that an "Islam light" is taught there. Some mosque associations which already in a pioneering way practise modern forms of "Koran schools" in German language see the school religious instruction as a complement to their own offers. They emphasize that the children with the help of instructions in German are in their environment better able to communicate with others about their religion.

 

Women Start to Speak

But it was conspicuous that many of those questioned were only little informed about the school pilot project, what contributes to mistrust and rejection. It would therefore be an important task of the state authorities to inform in a broader and more intense way than up to now about the school experiment

 


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and the steps under consideration towards an overall introduction of Islamic religious lessons. Since Islamic associations do not cover the whole spectrum of Muslim parents and pupils they cannot claim a monopoly. The clear definition of their position regarding Islamic religious instruction and the support of the project can however contribute to hostilities being broken up and the Islamic associations being included as constructive co-operators.

A further main focus of the project was the role of women in mosque associations. The general trend shows: Muslim women are underrepresented in community life and organizing associations. Already since the eighties in almost all Islamic associations women departments with a board of their own were established which autonomously organize their work within the association. The work of the women's departments mostly consists in organising meeting-places, outings, Koran courses and prayer facilities for women of the community.

Women partly visit sick community members and collect donations for good causes. They present themselves in public mainly by taking on the job of providing food and drink with invitations and festivities of their associations. In many mosque associations women are no longer satisfied with their traditional role and call for participation opportunities. Where that wish is not heard an exodus of the women interested can be observed, who partly establish independent women's groups. The dialogue too offers women the opportunity independently to fulfil responsibility and to appear in public.

 

Churches in Dialogue with Islamic Associations

Altogether it could be observed that the local Islamic associations to a large extent independently regulate their external relations. With first approaches associations of the VIKZ and IGMG consult the higher organs, but a real intervention of the higher structures could in no case be found. With associations of AABF and DITIB contacts from the outside often prove to be easier. Polemical demarcations between mosque associations which belong to different umbrella organisations are hardly any longer to be found. That can also be a consequence of nationwide rapprochement processes. The Muslim side emphasized that just the dialogue has positive effects on the inner-Islamic relations: "Thanks to the Christians we too come sometimes together" (Imam, DITIB).

Although in many places church contacts with Islamic associations exist, a co-ordination of the different activities can be seen at most in its initial stages. Up to now the interreligious dialogue does usually not belong to the area of responsibilities of church employees. A large part of the church employees working on a full-time basis see their participation in the dialogue as a private commitment, so one could call it a "voluntary work in matters of dialogue of those working on a full-time basis" (see also Hansjörg Schmid, Anwälte, Vermittler oder Partner? Zur sozialen Rolle kirchlicher Akteure im christlich-islamischen Dialog, in: Peter Hünseler [editor], Im Dienst der Versöhnung. Für einen authentischen Dialog zwischen Christen und Muslimen [Festschrift für Christian W. Troll], Regensburg 2008, 115-145, 133) (Hansjörg Schmid, Lawyers, Mediators or Partners? About the Social Role of Church Actors in the Christian-Islamic Dialogue, in: Peter Hünseler [editor], Serving Reconciliation. For an Authentic Dialogue between Christians and Muslims, [Festschrift for Christian W. Troll])

Especially in Protestant, but also in some Catholic deaneries or parishes specific mandates for Christian-Islamic dialogue exist which however as a rule are of an informal nature. With it from below the need of orderly channels of communication is expressed, which the Diocese of Essen, the Protestant Church of Westphalia and the Protestant Church of the Rhineland have already for years institutionalized with corresponding regional representatives.

Not different to the Islamic side also on the part of the churches it is often open who the contacts are and what skills they have at their disposal. Consequently, the Christian-Islamic dialogue in the local church communities is only to some extent structurally embodied. That contributes to the fact that the effect of interreligious dialogue is limited to those who immediately participate in it.

In several dialogue contacts of many years a continuing difference of interests appears. Church interlocutors mostly want a dialogue on theological issues, whereas Muslims usually prefer a dialogue that is orientated towards action and criticize a merely verbal exchange, "Until now they really have spoken enough and done - nothing" (leader of a Muslim women's group).

In the first place social discrepancies between an established middle class and an immigrant group with greater social needs are decisive for it. Muslims want to be recognized and to get access to social resources by the dialogue, whereas Christians want to acquaint themselves with the new often foreign to them religion, so that they often take up the role of the askers, as a result of which Muslims are pressed into the role of the respondents. Certainly also the unequal qualifications of the dialogue actors is of importance. For instance, often on the local level church officials with a theological training face Muslims in an honorary position.

Coming from the Christian-Islamic dialogue the churches publicly appear in quite different ways. Partly they completely keep out of the municipal framework of contact with Islamic associations,

 


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so that the interreligious and municipal dialogues to a large extent take place separately from each other. Only in some municipalities the churches act within the network of municipal forms of dialogue.

Here arrangements and synergies between church and municipal activities lead to a stabilization of the dialogue. In some cases the churches have a pioneering role, act as contact agents and have the function of a bridge in the communication between local institutions and Islamic associations. There municipalities use the existing contacts of churches to Islamic associations and partly rely on their assessments.

 

Church Representatives Can Stimulate the Dialogue

Especially in municipalities where no direct contacts between the administration and Islamic associations exist or uncertainties regarding certain Islamic associations occur church representatives can boost the dialogue. If the churches in addition more than up to now combine also experiences in the field of Caritas and Diakonie with their dialogue activities, they can also play a key role in the municipal dialogue.

As the dialogue with Muslims and Islamic associations in municipalities becomes more significant, for the churches it is ultimately about the question of whether they want to contribute their specific skills and experiences or leave that field to other players. With regard to the public role of churches it could therefore be worth it to regard the Christian-Muslim dialogue, which is considered as extremely important also for the whole society, as a central field of church action.

In recent years local authorities have increasingly worked out integration programmes involving the intercultural opening of the municipal administration and the embodiment of integration as a cross-section task. The widespread openness of Islamic associations for contacts and dialogue can be used to include them in communities on as many levels as possible and in this way to build binding and permanent communication structures: Foreigners' advisory committees, international committees, Stadtjugendring [umbrella organisation of urban youth organizations], integration committees, fields of action related to districts, neighbourly help, local councils, political parties, trade unions, existing networks for integration, etc.

However, municipalities take different positions on organised Islam: A small part of the municipalities regards Islamic associations as rather segregative and therefore directs its attention to the integration of individuals. From it the position of municipalities differs which on principle regard the Islamic associations as contacts, disseminators and cooperation partners. Another part of the municipalities is still in a process of clarification regarding its assessment of the role of Islamic associations.

That dialogues come about is due to the fact that Islamic associations open from inside or are activated from outside. In both cases reciprocity in the dialogue is important:

 


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The opening of Islamic associations needs resonance by municipal or church institutions, in order not to come to a standstill. Since Islamic associations are often still little integrated and established and have relatively few human and institutional resources at their disposal, other institutions have often to take the first step to a dialogue instead of demanding advance concessions from the Islamic associations.

Only in a few cases, as e.g. in Friedrichshafen, the initiative for dialogue came from Islamic associations. The participation of Islamic associations in the dialogue cannot be enforced. If certain associations do not respond to invitations or refuse cooperation, the search for the reasons for that decision can open a dialogue process of its own. Since especially in the case of small mosque associations the time resources are partly not sufficient, it must be accepted that there are - like in other fields - also associations which develop only internal activities.

 

With Building Mosques Islamic Associations Appear more and more in Public

The usual offers of social services and educational institutions do often not reach the Muslim target groups. They are often characterized by the fact that they are intended for Muslims but were not negotiated with Muslims. The mosque associations too see it as their task to be contacts in migration specific issues. But they only little succeed in taking up existing structures, what one of the Muslims questioned succinctly expressed, "We ourselves integrate our people" (Chairman DITIB). In this way parallel structures without mutual coordination, can result.

Mosque construction projects play an important role in municipal discussions. Many municipalities place mosques as inconspicuously as possible in industrial areas in order to avoid conflicts. Some municipalities, such as Mannheim or Schwäbisch Gmünd took the opportunity of mosque building to establish lasting dialogue structures. This reinforces the tendency of Islamic associations through the new buildings also finally to become natives in the German society. The building of Mosques helps Islamic associations to appear more and more in public.

This has often another side effect: Municipalities see associations with outwardly visible mosques often as their main contact, and in many cases it is about DITIB-mosques, which are regarded as politically unsuspected. As a result here is a risk that privileges are granted which increase the difference among the Islamic associations. But a positive consequence may also be that other associations make every effort to get the status of a "model mosque" ["Vorzeigemoschee"] and in return to win municipal support. That is the case in Mannheim, where many and diverse municipal contacts exist far beyond the outwardly recognizable "Yavuz - Sultan Selim Mosque" (DITIB), which also include cooperation projects.

For the municipalities there is an increased need of clarification with IGMG associations, since they are under observation of the office for the defence of the constitution. It's reports, which with the IGMG above all on the basis of analysis and evaluation of literature establish Islamist and anti-integration trends, do not contribute to a sufficient clarification, because the municipal employees are interested in specific information about the local associations.

IGMG associations partially belong to the pioneers, as regards public relations, dialogue activities and services in German language. In Mannheim the "Fatih Mosque" could gradually remove mistrust by entering into a dialogue with the office for the defence of the Constitution and by letting itself be involved in numerous municipal projects. How far the readiness to dialogue is actual conviction or only owed to political calculation cannot definitively be answered. Interlocutors of the "Fatih Mosque" however point out that the IGMG-management could not act in two different ways, because by its public appearances and its commitment it was publicly bound.

In the case of several IGMG associations it became evident that they are in a transformation process, and it is open whether reformist or traditional forces will gain the upper hand. An involvement in municipal affairs can strengthen inner openings and changes. Exclusion in principle, on grounds of observation by the office for the defence of the constitution would leave that opportunity unused. Altogether, it becomes clear that in the case of IGMG as well as with the other umbrella organizations it is important to differentiate between different local forms (so also the Church Office of the Protestant Church in Germany [editor], Klarheit und gute Nachbarschaft. Christen und Muslime in Deutschland [Clarity and Good Neighbourliness. Christians and Muslims in Germany], Hannover 2006, 97).

 

How Can Dialogue Obstacles Be Overcome?

Many of the persons questioned regard the unclear structures and the unpublished data of contacts as the decisive obstacle to the contact with Islamic associations. But for them the municipal and church structures often prove to be equally opaque. So e.g. church representatives for Islam on the local and diocesan level are often only internally known and cannot be found in the Internet. The aim should therefore be that municipalities, churches and Islamic associations present their contacts and institutions in such a way that this information arrives at the potential addressees. In addition, it makes sense that Islamic associations,

 


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municipal and church authorities regularly inform each other about their activities and also when the contacts change.

Up to now it is mostly owed to the commitment of individuals that a dialogue takes place. But for the sake of continuity, reliability and a widespread effect a more structural embodiment in the Islamic associations, municipalities and churches is desirable. This can be done by authorizations, internal information and by shifting the centres of activities. Furthermore, the relevant people should better than up to now be prepared for the dialogue. That includes the strengthening of dialogue skills and an intense consideration of the respective other religion during the student days or in special training measures.

Fatigue due to fruitlessness of the dialogue can often be observed. In order that dialogue can succeed the parties must realize what it is to aim at. Ideally the reflection about it takes place at the beginning of the dialogue. Due to the dynamics of dialogue processes the goals and next steps must however always anew be sounded out. So on the one hand it is important that dialogues increasingly produce concrete, visible results on the spot: projects orientated towards action, an increased intercultural opening of social services, and a growing integration of Muslim groups into society. Many and diverse stimuli for it give for instance materials from Berlin (Muslim Academy in Germany / The Representative of the Senate for Integration and Migration, Fields of Action in Cooperation with Islamic Associations in the District, Berlin 2007 give many and diverse stimuli for it. See: www.berlin.de/imperia/md/content/lb-integration-migration/publikationen/religion/handlungsfelder.pdf

That does not mean that the field of theological justifications of the dialogue should be ignored: So Muslims must also take into consideration the majority society's interest in the question whether the dialogue for them has only a social function or is also of theological necessity. Answers to that question however you will expect less from people in honorary capacities on the local level than from the professors of Islamic theology, the heads of the umbrella associations, and from the future imams trained in Germany.

 

    {*} Hansjörg Schmid (born in 1972) Doctor of Divinity, is expert at the Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart with the focus on Christian-Islamic dialogue. He edited, inter alia, the volumes "Identität durch Differenz? Wechselseitige Abgrenzungen in Christentum und Islam" (Regensburg 2007) and "Prüfung oder Preis der Freiheit? Leid und Leidbewältigung in Christentum und Islam" (Regensburg 2008).

 

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