Germany, Turkey and Islam

THIS is a very difficult moment in one of Europe’s most important relationships. A leaked report from the German interior ministry has accused Turkey of fomenting Islamism in the Middle East, and Turkey has responded angrily. An agreement between Turkey and the European Union to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, which is essentially a Turkish-German deal, hangs in the balance.

And, as your correspondent writes in this week’s print edition, arguments over the future of Islam in Germany are both a symptom and a cause of those broader German-Turkish tensions. As German politicians consider the ways in which the Muslim faith is organised, practised and taught in their country, they find themselves delving ever-deeper into the arcana of Turkish Islam, however little they may want to do so. Last month’s coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought fresh complications as Turkey’s bitter internal feuds spread westward.

For decades, the Turkish diaspora in Germany was a field of competition between secular Turkish governments and more zealous groups which flourished among migrants to Europe, of which the best known was the Islamist movement Milli Gorus (National Vision). In those days, Turkey’s religious-affairs directorate tried to keep Turks both home and abroad within the confines of a relatively anodyne form of Islam which sat comfortably with modernity. The German government quietly welcomed Turkish officialdom’s role, with the security police keeping an eye on Milli Gorus. More recently, as Turkey’s government has taken on a more Islamist tone, the Ankara-based directorate (and its German arm, Ditib) seem to get along much better with Milli Gorus, though there is still some rivalry.

That rapprochement made it somewhat easier for German federal states to negotiate with a broad range of local Islamic players and strike deals over matters like education, public holidays, ritual slaughter and so on. In 2012, Hamburg led the way by concluding a comprehensive accord with most of the Muslim groups in the city, including Ditib, mosques close to Milli Gorus, and a large group of pietistic ones (they follow a Turkish Sufi teacher called Suleyman Hilmi Tunahan, who died in 1959). The accord is known as astaatsvertrag, literally a state treaty. (Even in Hamburg, one Turkish group stayed out: the Alevis, practitioners of a relatively liberal form of Islam in which men and women pray together.) So far Bremen and Hesse are the only other two regions to have a similarly wide-ranging agreement, but Ditib and its rivals are present across Germany and all federal states have to deal with them at some level.

Only a couple of months ago, it looked as though the way was clear for German Islam eventually to receive a level of official acknowledgement comparable to that which has long been enjoyed by the Protestant and Catholic churches. (Although Germany is a secular state, the churches have an entrenched position as advisers on education and other matters of public interest, like broadcasting.) But last month’s putsch in Turkey complicated things. Ditib’s role is seen by some as ever-more political and controversial. A sermon drafted in Ankara was distributed through Ditib mosques; its text clearly followed Mr Erdogan’s line that the coup was fomented by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher based in Pennsylvania.

The Gulen movement does not found mosques but in Germany it runs dozens of educational and cultural centres, including night schools which boost the skills of children who are struggling at, say, maths or history. All these establishments have complained that they are receiving unfriendly attention from Ditib and other pro-Erdogan forces in Germany’s diaspora. Ditib denies making any threats. But a Gulen-inspired night school in a poor district of Hamburg, with no obvious connection with religion, said about 10% of its pupils had been withdrawn by parents under pressure from pro-Erdogan forces. This unpleasant situation has emboldened the large body of opinion in Germany which thinks the government should simply sever ties with Ditib.

North Rhine Westphalia, the most populous federal state, already accepts Ditib as a member of an advisory council, but moves towards a broader relationship were put on hold in recent days. The state premier, Hannelore Kraft, said “doubts are growing” about the legitimacy of the agency’s claim to be an independent religious community. Two other states, Lower Saxony and Rhineland Palatinate, went slow on negotiations on formal collaboration with Ditib. In response, the agency insisted that it is already politically independent of Ankara and that it planned over time to become financially independent too. But some of the strongest calls for cutting ties with Ditib have come from centre-left and Green politicians in Germany who are of Turkish descent and therefore feel they have a keen nose for government influence; they are sceptical that Ditib is anything other than a tool of Mr Erdogan. Ditib is formally constituted as a Geman organisation, in whose governance Ankara participates.

Meanwhile Germany’s top politicians, federal and regional, are caught in the middle. Paradoxically, their dilemma has arisen because of the great religious liberty that is enjoyed in the Federal Republic. Muslims appreciate that too. In the enthusiastic words of Mohamed Taher Sabri, imam of a large mosque in one of Berlin’s poorer districts, Germany’s constitution is a “God-given” document which enables all kinds of religion to flourish and offer moral guidance. Not many Muslim countries tolerate such diversity. But for better or worse, Germany’s masters have to live with the messy consequences of freedom.


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