German Interior Ministry seeks to revive controversial ‘Islam conference’

Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, has announced his intention to restart the country’s controversial German Islam Conference (Deutsche Islamkonferenz, DIK) in autumn.

The DIK first convened in 2006, upon the request of Seehofer’s predecessor in office, Wolfgang Schäuble. In Schäuble’s words, the DIK’s stated aim has been to “facilitate the integration of Muslims and to safeguard societal unity”.1

Who speaks for German Muslims?

From the start, the DIK has been rocked by a number of fierce disagreements. Notably, it has been hotly debated who has the authority to legitimately represent German Muslims as their official interlocutor with the federal government. In the DIK’s early stages, the conference was partially manned by ‘independent’ Muslims, hand-picked by the Ministry of the Interior itself.

Particularly prominent were figures such as Necla Kelek or Seyran Ateş, who have consistently used their considerable media presence to pander to Islamophobic sentiment. At the time, this caused another independent member of the forum, writer Feridun Zaimoğlu, to resign from the DIK in protest. (He complained that although the hijab was one of the enduring hobby horses of the debate, not a single pious Muslim woman wearing the headcovering had been invited to the conference.)2

The DIK’s later instalments were, conversely, dominated by delegates from Germany’s largest Islamic associations. To their critics, these associations are not representative of the country’s heterogeneous Muslim population, given the fact that only a fraction are actually members of any of these umbrella associations. Yet the knock-out argument against these organisations is the charge of ‘conservatism’ – an accusation that, in spite of its quintessentially undefined nature, nevertheless delgitimises them by rendering them ideologically suspect.

Extracting commitments

Quite aside from the thorny issues surrounding the personnel in attendance, the DIK’s substance and remit have been equally contentious. The first few years of the conference in the late 2000s were dominated by the debate as to whether Islam could ever be reconciled with the German constitutional order and with the ‘consensus of values’ the Ministry of the Interior stipulated as reigning in German society.

Subsequently, the DIK managed – at least partly – to move past the deadlocked and unproductive debates on a ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ Islam and on the ‘constitutionality’ of either of these options.

This did in fact allow the forum to address a number of more concrete issues – ranging from the construction of mosques to the creation of chairs of Islamic theology at German universities. It is with a view to these achievements that some participants and observers have, at the end of the day, come to see the DIK as a partial success.

State paternalism and interventionism

What the DIK has never managed to shake off, however, is its thick veneer of paternalism: The state’s agenda – even where its actors have had well-meaning intentions – has remained the domestication of Islam. Muslim religiosity continues to be construed as something fundamentally alien to Germany, as an external force requiring ‘integration’ into a supposedly homogeneous German interior – and as a potential danger that must be tamed through educational and securitarian governance.

Hence, the Islamic associations routinely vilified as ‘conservative’ are fully right to point out that the DIK has been the vehicle for the Interior Ministry’s attempt to arrogate itself the right to intervene in religious matters and to cherry-pick Islamic doctrine. To be sure, the fact that these organisations are at times deeply entangled themselves in the attempts of Muslim-majority countries’ governments to forge their own version of a compliant Islam takes away some of the force of their complaint.

More broadly, however, those criticising state attempts to refashion ‘Islam’ stand little chance of being heard, let alone understood: That the state should intervene as drastically as possible so as to regulate and shape Muslim lives is, by now, taken for granted across Europe. The recently agreed upon Danish initiative to submit so-called ‘ghettoes’, inhabited above all by Muslim immigrants and their descendants, to a series of discriminatory rules is only the tip of the iceberg in this regard.

Seehofer’s Heimat

Against this backdrop, the persona of Germany’s current Interior Minister hardly bodes well for the resumption of the DIK. Here, Horst Seehofer stands in contrast even to Wolfgang Schäuble, the DIK’s inaugurator: The latter had used his opening address to the DIK to state that “Islam is part of Germany and of Europe, it is part of our present and of our future. Muslims are welcome in Germany.”3

Conversely, Seehofer started his tenure as Interior Minister earlier this year by loudly and unapologetically announcing that ‘Islam’ did not belong to Germany and could never be a part of the country’s make-up. Seehofer’s statements were institutionalised by a renaming of the Interior Ministry, adding the term of Heimat (homeland) to its moniker – a nod to ethnonationalist exclusivism.

Marcus Kober, CSU State Secretary in the Interior Ministry, nevertheless did not hesitate to justify the renewal of the DIK. He pointed out that “many Muslims in Germany are looking for a German-Muslim Heimat [homeland] and cannot find it”4. After the Minister himself had roundly excluded Muslims from the German collective, this shouldof course hardly come as a surprise.

Emerging faultlines

The Interior Ministry has yet to announce the composition of the DIK’s next round. Ministerial representatives have already emphasised their willingness to break the hold of the ‘conservative’ associations, however.

This seems to imply a return to the early days, when state-picked individuals were the forum’s centrepiece. Given Seehofer’s penchant for identity politics, the roster of ‘independents’ will most probably include a fair share of Islamkritiker – ‘critics of Islam’, as those Muslim men and women are referred to in Germany who are seen as courageously exposing the rottenness of Islam from an insider’s perspective. (The international equivalent would be public figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.)

Hence, the old frontlines are already reconstituting themselves with renewed vigour: the representatives of the so-called ‘conservative’ groups have already criticised the government’s arrogance in demanding an Islam to its liking.5 Self-declared ‘liberals’ and ‘critics of Islam’ have in turn criticised the conservatives for propagating a “ghetto faith through seclusion”.6

The room for compromise – or even for asking genuinely relevant question that would have the potential of ameliorating the lives of Muslims in Germany – seems rather slim in this context.

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