The Interior Ministry of Germany started to get in talks in 2006 with Muslims communities in Germany - to find common ground in several fields from imam teaching to prison ministry. This year the Fourth of it started.

After more than a year of preparation, the fourth German Islam Conference (DIK) began on the 28th of November. More than 200 people from religious and political life, accompanied by academics, sat through panels discussing the role of Islam in Germany.

We talked to Murat Gumus, Deputy Secretary General of the Islamic Community Milli Gorus and Secretary General of the Islamic Council for the Federal Republic of Germany, at the Fourth German Islam Conference (DIK) and he gave us his thoughts on the future of Muslims in Germany.

What do you think is the goal of the DIK? Was this year's eventing a success in this sense?

The title of the conference was German Muslims - Muslims in Germany. During the discussions at the kick-off event it became clear that the first part "German Muslims" did not meet with the approval of the majority of the participants. 

One was unanimously of the opinion that there can be no German Islam, as there is also no Turkish, Arab Islam that exists. The event brought us clarity at least in this point, that discussions about such constructions meeting with widespread rejection and we must, therefore, concentrate on the essential topics.

One main issue is that Muslims are currently facing major challenges. The rejection of Islam and Muslims has increased significantly in recent years. According to recent studies, the majority of our society has a negative image of Islam. 

According to a survey by the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), almost one in three people believe that Muslims should not be part of everyday life in Germany.  

According to the results of the Leipzig Authoritarianism Study 2018, the devaluation of Muslims has risen "alarmingly high". 

Compared with past studies, it can be stated that the mood towards Muslims and Islam has never been as negative as it is today. This widespread attitude is reflected in daily Muslim life in Germany: Muslims experience discrimination in work, at school and in everyday life. For example, it is statistically proven that Muslim applicants find it much more difficult to find a job according to their qualifications than non-Muslims. 

Added to this is the constantly high number of attacks on Muslims and mosques.  Muslim life in its various manifestations is more often perceived as a cause of conflict. The most well-known and recurring topic is the headscarf debate. It often leads to an escalation of polarised and polemicised public discussions. In some cases, there are even calls to banish the visible Muslim from the public sphere either in part or in its entirety.

This image is diametrically opposed to the current situation of Muslims and their commitment to contribute to society: they have better school achievements than before, have significantly higher qualifications and are anxious to get involved in society.  Furthermore, Muslims identify strongly with their "new home".  Finally, it is stated that Muslims are largely integrated in Europe, but are still not sufficiently accepted.

We wanted these problems to be given greater consideration. Especially since the Federal Ministry of the Interior had set itself the goal of tackling practical questions of Muslim life in Germany. Unfortunately, we were disappointed because the most acute problems facing Muslims in Germany were hardly addressed. Instead, topics such as imam training, identity discussions and the integration of mosques were particularly favoured.

For a stronger home for Muslims in Germany, however, it is important that our principal problems are tackled and solved. The Federal Ministry of the Interior must set itself this as its main goal and solve it.

A vandalised campaign poster of the AFD in Berlin saying
A vandalised campaign poster of the AFD in Berlin saying "New Germans? We'll do it ourselves." (AFP)

What claims do you make against the DIK?  Is it in your opinion democratic, representative, inclusive, unbiased, balanced?

In Germany, freedom of religion is accorded special importance, not least on the basis of past experience. According to the constitution, the state must respect this freedom, regardless of the religion to which the individual adheres. What is special about the German interpretation and exercise of religious freedom is that the state does not displace religion from the public sphere, but offers it scope for shaping and acting in the public sphere and supports it in doing so. 

This special characteristic of German religious freedom must be valued and maintained. This was partly the case with the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 2015, which allowed Muslim teachers in the majority of the federal states to wear religiously motivated clothing. Unfortunately, the unjustifiably restrictive interpretation of neutrality has not yet been corrected in all federal states.

In addition, the negative attitudes towards religiously motivated garments are gaining momentum again on the basis of a wrongly understood neutrality. In both public institutions and companies, attempts are being made to exclude Muslim women with headscarves from the employment relationship "legally" in advance.

On the other side, the introduction of Islamic religious education and the establishment of Islamic-theological centres at universities are the first steps in cooperation between Islamic religious communities and the state. 

Even if the modes of cooperation between the parties do not yet correspond to the requirements of the given legal framework, we are confident that a recognition of the status of Islamic religious communities still to take place will replace the provisional arrangements (transitional models) and transfer the cooperation between religious communities and the state to the regular procedure under religious constitutional law. 

I believe I heard clear signals on this from the Federal Ministry of the Interior at the kick-off event. In his keynote speech, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer spoke twice about "Islamic religious communities". If one considers the wording of the Interior Ministry from the past, this can be regarded as a novelty or a positive signal. For the recognition of religious communities in the sense of the Basic Law is particularly important to give Muslims a feeling of belonging in Germany.

We hope that the recognition processes in the federal states, which have become bogged down in the past due to the mixed political situation, will be put to the test and that a factual discussion will be held with those affected, based on the religious and neutrality of the state, the principle of parity and the respect of their right of self-determination and the self-administration of religious communities.

How do you rate the selection of guests for DIK by the organizer?

The Islamic Council with its more than 450 mosque communities has been providing advice and assistance to its members in the mosque communities for decades and the offers of the Islamic Council cover all areas of life of its members. 

The other Islamic religious communities offer similar services to their members. By these characteristics, they clearly distinguish themselves from the other participants in the German Islam Conference. Because both in the quality of the services they offer and in the quantity of their sphere of activity the religious communities are very broadly positioned.

Other participants in the conference, on the other hand, represent either only themselves or only a small circle of people. Despite this situation, however, they receive oversized attention from politicians and the media. If the state wants to talk to them, please do so. They can do that with pleasure. However, it is questionable whether a mixture of qualitatively and quantitatively different - sometimes contradictory and reactionary - participants is purposeful.

Police stand in front of a mosque that was attacked overnight in Berlin. German Muslim associations are asking for greater solidarity from officials and the general public over a series of attacks against mosques Thursday, March 15, 2018.
Police stand in front of a mosque that was attacked overnight in Berlin. German Muslim associations are asking for greater solidarity from officials and the general public over a series of attacks against mosques Thursday, March 15, 2018. (AP)

What do you think of Horst Seehofer's "German Islam"?

Minister Seehofer caused great disappointment and annoyance within the Muslim community right at the beginning of his term of office with the sentence "Islam does not belong to Germany". 

It is a short sentence with great effect: Muslims also want to feel accepted in Germany with their religious convictions. Through this sentence they have the feeling that after 60 years they are still not comprehensively accepted.

Subsequently, the Federal Ministry of the Interior said at the conference that he wanted to talk about how Islam could be in Germany. The content of a "German Islam" should be filled by Muslims themselves in the conference.

We are of the opinion that there is no such thing as a national Islam. There is no German or British Islam, just as there is no Turkish or Bosnian or Arab Islam. However, Muslims' life practices may differ geographically and from culture to culture, while at the same time observing Islamic norms. 

These differences can best be seen in the respective mosque architectures. However, this imprinting does not take place as a one-way street. Muslims also shape and influence the culture in which they live. This is also natural.

We welcome the fact that this view was also shared by many participants in the panel discussions at the conference kick-off event. I think that politics should be more relaxed with regard to the question of national imprinting and let things take their natural course.

What significance does the conference have for Muslims and the majority society in Germany?

As an Islamic religious community, we see the German Islam Conference first and foremost as a dialogue platform with state representatives on which the problems of Muslims can be addressed, the solution of which requires indirect and direct support from the state where cooperation is sensible.

Our motivation to participate in the event, therefore, presupposes that the state, guided by the principle of neutrality, by the principle of equal treatment and under preservation and respect of freedom of religion and the right of self-determination of religious communities, is aware of its responsibility towards its citizens, including Muslims.

In the end, the conference is what one makes of it. It can meaningfully contribute to solving the problems Muslims are confronted with. Or it can set goals for the future. It did this in the third German Islam Conference when important topics for Muslims such as denominational welfare or denominational pastoral care in prisons or hospitals were addressed. 

Also, in the past topics such as Islamophobia and disproportionate negative reporting about Islam and Muslims were discussed. That was right and good. However, there are problems in the implementation of the agreements. This is often because politicians do not take the necessary steps.