German policy-makers are debating the introduction of a so-called ‘mosque tax’, to be paid by German Muslims and collected by the German state in order to fund the provision of Islamic religious services.
The ostensible model for such a levy is the ‘church tax’ (Kirchensteuer) already in existence: depending on their Land of residence, members of the Catholic or Evangelical Church have eight or nine per cent of their income tax transferred by the state to the Church. In 2015, this swept 6.09 billion Euros into the coffers of the Roman Catholic authorities, while their Evangelical counterparts obtained 5.36 billion Euros.(( https://www.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/panorama/kirchensteuer-einnahmen-der-kirchen-2015-auf-rekordniveau/13769240.html ))
The tax serves as the most important source of revenue for the Churches by far, funding not only strictly religious but also a whole gamut of social services open to all members of society. A plethora of smaller Christian denominations also levy such a contribution, as do Jewish congregations (where it is dubbed a ‘cult tax’).
Curtailing ‘foreign influence’
The call to extend this financing model to Germany’s growing Muslim population is not entirely new. It has been voiced repeatedly by conservative politicians, who tout it as a means to create a ‘German’ Islam. However, some Muslim associational leaders have also backed the idea in the past – notably Aiman Mazyek, the media-savvy chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), one of the country’s smaller Islamic umbrella organisations.(( https://www.ekhn.de/aktuell/detailmagazin/news/vom-grundgesetz-bis-zur-moscheesteuer.html ))
In late December 2018, it was Seyran Ateş who returned the ‘mosque tax’ to the public agenda. Ateş, a controversial public pundit and self-styled ‘secular Muslim’, flouted such a levy as a way to wrest Germany’s Islamic places of worship from foreign control and to rein in a supposedly rampant extremism:
“In mosques, there is not just a very radical Islam enforcing gender segregation that is being taught”, Ateş claimed in an interview with the right-wing Welt newspaper. What is more, she continued, “a downright parallel society has been founded, from within which a hostility to Germans [Deutschenfeindlichkeit] and to Germany [Deutschlandfeindlichkeit] is being spread.”(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article186074576/Moschee-Steuer-Deutsche-Muslime-sollen-finanziell-auf-eigenen-Beinen-stehen.html ))
Support from policy-makers
Ateş’ intervention clearly situates the renewed drive for a mosque tax in the context of security concerns and of an increasingly repressive stance on ‘integration’ prevalent in German political debates. This has ensured that her call has been eagerly taken up across the political spectrum. Conservatives from the Christian Democratic Union party were among the first to express their support. Yet the Social Democrats followed suit, as did leading Green Party politicians.(( https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/moschee-steuer-103.html ))
The major issue policy-makers aim to address is the real or supposed control foreign governments and donor agencies have over Germany’s mosques. Turkish- and Saudi-financed mosques in particular are seen as not just hotbeds of terrorism but also as sites where German national identity is subverted through the construction of retrograde ‘parallel societies’.
Amidst souring diplomatic relations with the current Turkish government, it is above all the DİTİB association – the largest provider of Islamic religious services in Germany – that has come under fire for being the ‘long arm’ of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This stands in stark contrast to the historical role accorded to DİTİB in Germany: during the 1980s and 1990s, successive German governments had been happy to outsource religious care to DİTİB and used it to side-line alternative Islamic religious associations.
There is thus a fair bit of political posturing involved in the call for a mosque tax: Seyran Ateş’ personal politics has for a long time been defined by a crusade against Germany’s major Islamic associations, in the course of which has not shied away from endorsing conspiracy theories and consorting with rabid Islamophobes. Politicians who took up her proposal often seemed ignorant of the constitutional and practical complexities a mosque tax would actually involve – more on that below.
Yet it is worth pointing out that the call for a taxation model is linked to a genuine problem at hand: most local Muslim communities in Germany are in urgent need of funding. With the exception of a few prestige projects – such as the Cologne central mosque depicted above – their overcrowded places of worship are situated in ramshackle buildings in undesirable locations; often, prayer space is lacking altogether. And while Christian Churches provide a host of social services, Muslim communities’ are hamstrung by a lack of financial resources: although Islamic congregations have become important centres of civic activities, they often remain limited due to missing resources and deficient professionalism.
How important are foreign funds?
In this context, financing from abroad has been appealing to some communities. However, the precise scale of such foreign funds flowing to Germany’s Islamic institutions is unclear. A 2017 report from the German parliament’s research division asserts: “the question how mosques and mosque associations finance themselves cannot be answered with concrete figures.”(( https://www.bundestag.de/blob/561164/a2d2edb637da4a8386d9f70aa7ec99d3/wd-10-028-18-pdf-data.pdf ))
The parliamentary report subsequently highlights that even the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, parent organisation to the DİTİB association and most systematic foreign sponsor of Islamic activities in Germany, only funds Imams – and not the remainder of local mosques’ needs. “The thesis – routinely advanced in the media and in popular scientific commentaries – that mosque associations in Germany rely above all on foreign sources of funding is not accounted for by the numbers”, the report concludes.
Hence, when the advocates of the new ‘mosque tax’ flatly claimed that “until now mosques in Germany are being financed above all from Turkey and Saudi Arabia”, some commentators cried foul: it was donations from local communities that kept mosques afloat, they asserted.(( https://twitter.com/goldi/status/1079345254099283968 ))
Against this backdrop, a mosque tax might appear promising not necessarily because it ‘Germanises’ the Federal Republic’s Muslims and prevents the formation of an Islamic fifth column, as the defenders of the tax have it. Rather, it might simply help local communities build a better religious infrastructure. However, there are numerous hurdles complicating such a simple assessment.
The first, eminently practical point involves asking who is supposed to pay the tax. After all, only 15 to 30 per cent of German Muslims are formally (i.e., legally) members of mosque associations. Writing for the Islamische Zeitung newspaper, sociologist Cemil Şahinöz points out that “as a Muslim you can be a member in no mosque at all, or in ten different ones at the same time. Membership numbers are meaningless.”(( https://www.islamische-zeitung.de/moschee-steuer-juristisch-politisch-und-theologisch/ ))
Conversely, even if it were clear who should pay the tax, it is far from obvious how the resultant revenue should be distributed. After all, the Islamic landscape in Germany is marked by the proliferation of associations of diverse ethnic composition and theological outlook. There is no centralised coordination mechanism for the administration and allocation of funds. Yet if a mosque tax comparable in size to the existing church tax were to be introduced, revenues would amount to hundreds of millions of euros.
Furthermore, the mosque tax proposal encounters substantial legal difficulties. For, according to Article 140 of the German Basic Law, such religious taxation is a privilege granted only to those religious groups that have attained the status of ‘corporation of public law’ (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts).
A host of different Christian churches and Jewish groups have obtained this status. The only Muslim organisation that has been awarded this legal pedigree, however, is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat. It unites a mere one per cent of German Muslims. And even Ahmadis have only claimed corporation status in two of Germany’s sixteen federal states. In the absence of such a formal corporation status, however, the very legal basis for Muslim groups to be recipients of a special tax is lacking.
Lack of ecclesiastical structure…
It is frequently argued that Islam cannot become a corporation of public law because it lacks centralised, ecclesiastical structures. Taking up this argument, Muslim theologian Lamya Kaddor responded to the call for a mosque tax by asserting that “no religion can be forced to develop quasi church-like structures just to make it easy for the state.”(( https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/kommentar-zur-moscheesteuer-theologisch-schwer-zu-rechtfertigen-15969253.html ))
Whether it is really Islam’s decentralised governance model that renders it ineligible for corporation status is up for debate, however. After all, numerous small evangelical splinter groups have obtained this status. In contrast to mainstream Lutheran organisations, they are not marked by a strong hierarchical apparatus. (Interestingly, like the Ahmadis, many of these small churches nevertheless refrain from levying a tax on its members, preferring voluntary contributions as expressive of a more genuine religious commitment(( http://www.migazin.de/2019/01/11/freiwilligkeit-gemeinschaft-freikirchen-beauftragter-muslimen/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter )))
In fact, the criteria for the conferral of corporation status are so unspecified in the constitutional text that jurist Rudolf Smend once characterised this legal pedigree as an “enigmatic title of courtesy” – a turn of phrase that has since become proverbial. Pointing to this quintessential vagueness, many legal commentators have pointed out that it is unjustifiable to attach demanding conditions to the granting of corporation status. This casts doubt on the claim that it is Islam’s lack of ecclesiastical structures that undergirds its second-class status in the German legal order.((compare e.g. Hans Michael Heinig’s magisterial legal study Öffentlich-rechtliche Religionsgesellschaften: Studien zur Rechtsstellung der nach Art. 137 Abs. 5 WRV korporierten Religionsgesellschaften in Deutschland und in der Europäischen Union. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2003.))
… or political issue?
Indeed, many German Muslims – especially those sympathising with one of the country’s larger Islamic associations – have concluded that “the non-recognition of Islamic religious communities […] is more political in nature rather than due to legal problems”.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2016/01/10/14843/ )) After these associations had hankered after the corporation status for decades, they have by and large abandoned their efforts, concluding that legal recognition is not forthcoming.
In this light, many of the proponents of the mosque tax want to have their cake and eat it, too: On the one hand, they have been uncompromising in their demand that major Islamic associations be denied corporation status because they too ‘conservative’. On the other hand, they are now advocating in favour of a mosque tax in order to domesticate and control these groups’ mosques – even though such a tax is contingent on that very corporation status being granted to Islamic associations.
In fact, legal specialists at the German Bundestag have repeatedly warned of attempting to introduce a mosque tax ‘top down’, i.e. by state fiat. This, they argue, would constitute a flagrant violation of constitutional principles. They have also stressed that if foreign donors were to be banned from funding religious activities in Germany, this would have to be implemented across the board and not just in relation to Muslim congregations. This would prevent Catholics from receiving money from Rome and Jews from accessing funds from Israel. ((https://www.bundestag.de/blob/537344/e7fe1905a57ceaf610220d48d2d4b78d/wd-10-006-17-pdf-data.pdf ))
Mixed Muslim reactions
Muslim reactions to the call for a mosque tax have been decidedly mixed. Islamic theologian Bülent Ucar observed that the idea might be good in principle but in practice “unrealistic and completely impossible to implement at this stage”. He added that “everybody agrees that congregations need more financial support. But many Muslims distrust the German state, they are afraid of too much paternalism. Some fear that the Federal Government might want to install a religious authority following the Turkish model.”(( https://de.qantara.de/content/vorstoss-zu-moscheesteuer-sorgt-fuer-debatte-unter-muslimen ))
Conversely, some of the bigger Islamic associational players supported the introduction of the tax. Notably, the ZMD’s Aiman Mazyek praised the levy as a way to strengthen the community work of local mosques.(( https://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/politik/inland/moschee-steuer-zentralrat-muslime-zustimmung-100.html )) Implicit in this appraisal was the possibility that, if there was an agreement on the necessity of a mosque tax, politicians could not avoid budging on the issue of corporation status and finally grant the ZMD and others the long-desired legal recognition.
It is perhaps when realising that her suggested tax would potentially enhance the position of groups such as Aiman Mazyek’s ZMD that Seyran Ateş quickly retreated from her proposal: “It’s not a good idea to declare the current Islamic associations corporations of public law and to introduce a church-like mosque tax”, she asserted. Instead, Muslims should be enabled to make voluntary contributions to their mosques – something which they are of course already doing as of now.(( https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/berliner-moschee-gruenderin-imamin-ates-will-freiwillige-abgabe-statt-moscheesteuer/23801216.html ))
Abolishing the church tax?
Finally, some commentators wondered whether it was not time to dispense with any ‘church tax’ altogether, instead of attempting to extend it to Muslim communities. In fact, this mode of financing religious services – with its fiscal entanglement of church and state – has been the object of legal challenges and is massively unpopular: in a 2015 YouGov survey, only 16 per cent of respondents approved of the current church tax model.(( https://www.katholisch.de/aktuelles/aktuelle-artikel/deutsche-wollen-kirchenreformen ))
Writing in the liberal-left Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, political commentator Heribert Prantl asserted that any kind of religious tax constituted an anachronism and ought to be abolished.((https://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/islam-muslime-steuer-1.4265802 )) This reflects the growing strain in German ‘religious policy’ (Religionspolitik): while the increasing detachment of the country’s Christian majority from the organised structures of the Churches leads to calls for liberalisation, the Federal Republic’s Muslims are submitted to increasingly stringent regulations.