In the coming weeks, a new instalment of Germany’s controversial Islam Conference (Deutsche Islam Konferenz, DIK) will take place under the auspices of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. The DIK functions as a discussion forum at which state-picked ‘Muslim representatives’ meet with high-level policy-makers in order to debate the place of Islam in German society.

The DIK, created in 2006, has achieved some modest practical successes, such as the kick-starting of Islamic theology teaching at several German universities. Overall, however, the Conference has been derailed by its lack of clear remit, by the securitarian and populist agendas pursued by successive federal governments, as well as by infighting and intransigence among Muslim participants.

Who represents Muslims?

A particular bone of contention has been the DIK’s composition: given the fact that Islam does not possess an ecclesiastical structure of authority, and since no ‘Muslim leaders’ of clear public stature have emerged in Germany, the selection of Muslim ‘representatives’ has fallen to the Interior Ministry. This has always been problematic, particularly in light of the Ministry’s aim to conclusively and enduringly shape Muslim life in Germany through the DIK.

In the Conference’s early years, the Interior Ministry chose to include Muslim public figures not affiliated with any of the larger, traditionalist Islamic associations. After some of these individuals contributed to sabotaging the Conference with their shrill rhetoric, in later years the Ministry chose to focus on dialoguing predominantly with the Islamic associations. It is also these associations who actually run a large number of mosques.

This focus on associational Islam, however, has been met with an unceasing barrage of public criticism: the four major associations are routinely vilified as ‘conservative’ and as having a deleterious influence on German Muslims. The state’s recognition of these organisations as partners in dialogue is presented as a perilous recognition of retrograde and extremist factions.

Unaffiliated ‘secularists’ join forces

In order to avoid being side-lined once more, the ‘unaffiliated’ figures are currently busy enhancing their public profile ahead of the DIK’s reconvention. Their most notable coup has been the creation of the new ‘Initiative Secular Islam’ (Initiative Säkularer Islam) earlier this month.

The ten public figures who signed the declaration announcing the Initiative’s creation include:

  • Hamed Abdel-Samad, a self-styled critic of Islam who has published a string of best-selling crude pamphlets likening Islam to fascism and presenting Prophet Muhammad as a maniacal proto-terrorist.
  • Lale Akgün, a former Social Democratic member of parliament who has just released a new book titled Move along! Here Come the Enlightened Muslims. Stop the Dominance of Conservative Islam in Germany.
  • Seyran Ateş, a former women’s rights lawyer known for her anti-hijab activism. Her current activities include counter-extremism work, as well as a ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin. Hardly any worshippers attend her mosque, and her counter-extremism initiative has remained ineffectual; yet both have helped to further enhance Ateş’ already outsized media presence.
  • Ralph Ghadban, a theorist of the clash of cultures who sees a post-Christian Europe pitted against an inherently violent and retrograde Islamic civilisation.[1] He has authored books on Lebanese crime networks in Berlin – whom he describes has having created an Islamic ‘parallel society’ – as well as on the dangers of the Islamisation of Europe.
  • Necla Kelek, Germany’s archetypal ‘critic of Islam’, who has pioneered the co-optation of a feminist language to a racist political project. When influential pundit Thilo Sarrazin published a pseudo-scientific bestseller claiming that Muslims were culturally and biologically inferior, Kelek vigorously defended him.[2] Already in 2006, when she hijacked the first round of the Islam Conference, 60 scholars signed a call seeking to curb Kelek’s public influence by pointing to absence of all scholarly standards from her massively popular books.[3] To no avail: Kelek continues to serve as an ‘expert’ on all matters Islamic.
  • Ahmad Mansour, a counter-radicalisation activist who has positioned himself as a relentless fighter against leftist political correctness. He doubled down on this assertion in a lachrymose interview with Die Zeit newspaper accompanying the launch of the new ‘secularist’ initiative.[4] While Mansour routinely presents himself as silenced by a liberal mainstream, he has been an omnipresent fixture on political talk shows. His books – which promise to deliver unvarnished ‘truths’on the failures of integration – have been best-sellers.
  • Cem Özdemir, former Green Party chairman. Özdemir’s participation has enormously enhanced the Initiative’s media reception. While he became Germany’s first Turkish-German MP, his relationship with the Turkish-German community has been fraught: many have accused him of selling out to the political mainstream; and his resolute criticism of President Erdoğan has deepened some of these divides. (The German Islam Conference published a celebratory yet deeply patronising biography of Özdemir in 2010, gushing the praise of the well-integrated Turk.[5] )
  • Susanne Schröter, a professor of anthropology at Frankfurt University. Schröter has in recent years come out as a strong critic of Islamic fundamentalism and patriarchy. Fellow scholars have criticised Schröter for her undifferentiated and populist punditry.[6]
  • Bassam Tibi, a political scientist who has repeatedly warned that “the German state is capitulating before Islam” because a “left-green minority is dominating the media”.[7] Ditching the principles of scientificity, Tibi has remade himself as a populist commentator with an avid following in the right-wing blogosphere.[8]
  • Ali Ertan Toprak, a member of the CDU party and the chairman of the Federal Union of Immigrant Associations. He has emerged as a prominent public voice, criticising the “fundamentalist Islam” espoused by President Erdoğan and many German Turks[9] , as well as the laxity of German integration policy.[10]

Muslim tokens of the far right

Anyone wishing to compose a list of public figures who have, in recent years, served as Muslim ‘insiders’ legitimising present-day anti-Muslim ressentiment in Germany must look no further.

Indeed, just in October, a leading politician of Germany’s far-right populist AfD party lauded Tibi, Abdel-Samad, Kelek, and Ateş – four of ten signatories: according to Beatrix von Storch, these courageous fighters against Islamisation would be welcome to join the AfD.

Ich bin gefragt worden, ob auch Muslime sich in der AfD engagieren können. Meine Antwort: Einige der mutigsten Kämpfer…

Posted by Beatrix von Storch on Monday, October 8, 2018

What is more, the list of signatories is interesting insofar as it unites trailblazers of ‘Muslim tokenism’ – such as Necla Kelek – with more recent converts to the cause. Particularly significant is the addition of powerful new voices – such as Özdemir’s – to the choir of self-styled secular critics of Islam.

The activist careers of the ten signatories also demonstrate the ‘radicalisation’ – to use this unfortunate term in a somewhat unusual context – of a number of critical commentators: while many of the participants had started out from a range of conservative or progressive political positions, a long process of rapprochement has led them to share a stage with what can only be termed rabid Islamophobes.

‘My concern is a debate on secular Islam’

Such an extensive focus on individual signatories might be construed as unfair. Indeed, as he undoubtedly faced backlash from Muslim constituencies – as well as from some of the Green Party’s urban-liberal voters – Özdemir tweeted: “It is regrettable when names are discussed more than contents. When you sign such a paper, you don’t need to agree with everybody. My concern is a debate on secular Islam.”

Yet this does not quite cut it. Lamya Kaddor, herself the founder of the Liberal Islamic Union (LIB) splinter group, pointed out that the content of the initiative’s founding proclamation could not simply be separated from its authors. She drew a comparison with the far-right AfD party: “Even the AfD at times says some correct things – and still you wouldn’t associate yourself with that if you reject the party’s fundamental orientation.”[11]

Kaddor has been the one of the few figures of a self-styled ‘liberal’ Islam who has been outspoken in her attempt to guard against co-optation by an Islamophobic mainstream. Needless to say, her public profile is lower than that of the new Initiative’s signatories; and her impact within Muslim communities continues to be small. And, in a particular insidious shift, her unwillingness to endorse the new secularist Initiative has earned her the accusation of being a closet conservative herself.[12] … Continue reading

The initiative’s programme

Turning to the actual content of the Initiative’s founding document, one is indeed struck by its comparatively restrained nature. Unlike the individual publications of a majority of its participants, the Initiative’s programmatic document does not spew virulent Islamophobia and racism.

Instead, it sticks closely to a more respectable line: it calls for “positive state neutrality and a broad separation of religion and politics”; it wishes to enhance the “civic inclusion of Muslims” while refusing to grant them “special rights”; it calls for a critical hermeneutics of the Quran and takes a stance against “the growing power of an undemocratic and politicised Islam” with a “totalitarian understanding of religion”.

In signatories’ view, “Islamophobia [Muslimfeindlichkeit]” is a concern; yet “Muslims are themselves under the obligation to positively counteract the worries of the non-Muslim population”. To do so, they must develop a genuinely “German” Islam that respects universal human rights and the principle of individual self-determination.[13]

Lazy commonplaces

To many German observers, there is little to criticise in such a seemingly noble agenda. Indeed, even where left-leaning media outlets have raised eyebrows at the composition of the new Initiative, its founding proclamation has, by and large, escaped scrutiny. (The manifesto was even published exclusively on the pages of the highbrow liberal-left Die Zeit newspaper.) Arguably, this constitutes one of the benefits the Initiative offers to its most hard-line signatories: it bestows a respectable face to many of their much more offensive positions.

In terms of content, then, what is perhaps most irksome about the proclamation is its intellectual laziness. The signatories pander to dominant commonplaces of Muslims living in ‘parallel societies’, rejecting the ‘liberal-democratic basic order’ of the German constitution, and following the backward customs of the Anatolian and Syrian villages of their ‘origin’.

While anti-Muslim sentiment is briefly touched upon – surveys routinely reveal the rampant nature of such prejudice among the German population – the text simply engages in victim blaming: Muslims themselves are responsible for their social marginalisation by virtue of the fact that they are not enlightened and liberal enough.

‘Politicising’ religion?

Similarly, the call for a “separation of religion and politics” merely echoes an omnipresent trope of public discourse. It must not be forgotten, however, that the Initiative was founded with a view to the next round of the German Islam Conference – arguably the most concerted political effort to manage religion undertaken in Germany since 1945: as noted, the Conference is predicated on the idea of policy-makers from the Interior Ministry hand-picking Muslim representatives in order to give a novel, authoritative, and distinctly ‘German’ shape to Islam.

Somewhat ironically, then, the Initiative’s signatories apparently fail to notice that in present-day Germany they are the single most powerful group of actors hammering away at the distinction between religion and politics.

The ‘Islamists’ that signatories apparently see as operating at all levels of society have virtually no public presence in Germany; and the nationalist preaching prevailing in mosques affiliated with the Turkish state at least goes on behind closed doors. By contrast, it is Özdemir and his band of ‘critics of Islam’ (Islamkritiker) who have for years done everything to foster the relentless politicisation of all facets of Islamic religiosity and Muslim lives.

Old wine in new bottles

At the same time, none of the demands voiced by the new Initiative are actually novel. Recent years have witnessed the creation of a number of ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ Islamic alliances and platforms. Thy includes, for instance, the Muslim Forum Germany (Muslimisches Forum Deutschland) or the Freiburg Declaration of Secular Muslims, as well as Seyran Ateş’ ‘liberal’ mosque in Berlin.

These initiatives have, roughly speaking, always voiced the same agenda; they have always been part of a similar dynamic of political posturing; and they have always been hailed with much public fanfare as the heralds of a ‘liberal’ Islam. None of them have, however, ever managed to obtain the slightest shred of legitimacy from Muslim audiences.

The new Initiative perhas scores lowest when it comes to the quality of these successive ‘secular’ offerings: while the Muslim Forum Germany was incapacitated from the start by its partisan affiliation with the Christian Democrats, it could at least mobilise the support of several respectable Muslim figures, such as theologian Mouhanad Khorchide or journalist Abdul-Ahmad Rashid. By contrast, the new Initiative appears to lack a comparable fig leaf of decency.

Conservatives’ and progressives’ frustration

Unsurprisingly, representatives of Islamic associations and mosques routinely identified as ‘conservative’ have criticised the Initiative. Lest they be seen as endorsing fundamentalist positions, conservatives have nevertheless taken care to stress their respect of the opinions of the Initiative’s founders.[14]

Progressives were equally frustrated. Muslim activist and blogger Akif Sahin vented his anger: “The ‘Initiative secular Islam’ is a troupe of losers, who can maybe enrich themselves in some way by selling books and giving lectures. Yet they do not play any role in the everyday life of secular Muslims, and no reasonable Muslim gives a damn about this troupe.”

The initiative’s deleterious impact

“Once again”, Sahin continues “this group is proof that in Germany you can get up to any kind of nonsense and start any kind of initiative, no matter how stupid, in order to be courted by the media without being relevant in any shape or form.”[15]

Indeed, the only ones who will benefit from the Initiative are its founders: they will be hailed as the courageous avantgarde of an ‘Islamic reformation’, while their political project will play out to the disadvantage of ordinary German Muslims. And the dogmatic recalcitrance and lack of transparency reigning in the ossified structures of the ‘conservative’ associations will only be reinforced by the Islamophobic flames the self-declared ‘liberals’ are continuously fanning.

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