New ‘Academy for Islam’ aims to shape public debates in Germany

Public broadcasters’ political talk shows are a staple of the German television landscape, routinely racking up top spots in TV ratings. Yet although there are a large number of competing programmes on offer, these shows have been criticised for being monothematic. As journalist Dunja Ramadan wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, programming abides by the principle: “You can’t go wrong with Islam”.1

In June 2018, Germany’s most high-level cultural body even called for the plug to be pulled on all talk shows for an entire year: their relentless and hysterical focus on refugees and Muslims had played an important role in amplifying the message of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, carrying it from the airwaves into parliament – or so Olaf Zimmermann, head of the German Cultural Council, argued.2

Re-balancing public debates

Yet the issue is not limited to talk shows’ obsessive fixation on issues (construed as) linked to Islam, immigration, and identity. It is exacerbated by the fact that discussion rounds routinely accord pride of place to self-styled ‘Islam experts’ (Islamexperten). These pundits have few qualifications beyond their willingness to enhance their own brand by criticising a supposed liberal-leftist mainstream for its politically correct failure to recognise the civilisational challenge posed by Islam. As a result, it is often the shrillest and least sophisticated voices taking centre stage.

It is also in order to provide a counterweight to such punditry that the Academy for Islam in Research and Society (Akademie für Islam in Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft, shortened to AIWG) has been founded at the University of Frankfurt in late 2017: one of the AIWG’s objectives is “to set public discourse on Islam on a factual basis by publishing expert opinions and providing experts on Islam-related topics.”3

Bringing together civil society and the university

In short, the AIWG aims to render visible existing academic research, and to make available commentators that observe a modicum of rigour in their work and their pronouncements. To this end, the Academy aspires to create a network bringing together researchers from different disciplines and institutions. Central nodes of this network are the departments of Islamic Theology that have been established during the past decade at a number of German universities.

The Academy offers two kinds of platforms. First, research fora are designed to foster inquiry into Islamic (textual, jurisprudential, or theological) issues. Here, the AIWG’s first major initiatives focus on Qur’anic commentaries – aiming to make major early tafsir texts accessible online – and on the Qur’ans normative precepts – notably on “the notion of individual self-determination as an ethical principle”. Both of these projects explicitly aim to provide practical guidance for Muslims living in present-day Germany.4

The Academy’s second platform is oriented not towards scholarly knowledge production but towards society: cooperation with civil society groups and public engagement are to popularise evidence-based perspectives on topics of social and religious import. What is more, a mentoring programme seeks to bring together young Muslims and established figures from academia, politics, media, and culture – and thus to enable Muslim students and activists to become involved in public debates and policy-making.5

Funding from the Federal Ministry for Education

The Academy has been given funding for 5 years, totalling € 11.8 million. The lion’s share – € 8.5 million – comes from the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF); the remainder is supplied by the private Mercator Foundation.

This not only confines the new institution to a rather short-lived funding cycle. Rather, ministerial funds also come with some political strings attached. A leading, Christian Democratic representative of the Ministry gave the following rationale for the decision to finance the AIWG:

“Introducing Islamic Theology at German universities was a historical step. With the creation of the Academy […] we are now continuing this path of scientific-theological contention with Islam. By funding this Academy, the BMBF is also contributing to provide a factual basis for debates on Islam when it comes to social and integration policy.”6

Political interests at play

There are, therefore, clear expectations on which the AIWG must deliver. Notably, it has to demonstrate the relevance of its programme for the requirements of ‘social and integration policy’. This is not to say that ministerial donors will dictate the Academy’s agenda. Yet the new institution is clearly situated in a field marked by very immediate political stakes and interests. (A seminal German-language book recently diagnosed the thorough “politicisation of research on Islam [Islamforschung]” in Germany and beyond7.)

Thus, the Academy’s desire to respond to pressing societal debates and to offer immediately workable policy recommendation might also have its downsides.

The AIWG’s director, Bekim Agai, is not unaware of these dangers. Yet the 45-year-old Professor at the University of Frankfurt is animated by a sense of urgency: researchers and scholars “have to break down their own expertise in such a way that it is being heard”, he argues. For in current debates on Islam and Muslims in Germany, unqualified commentators’ claim to expert status “is the magic cloak under which fundamental rights are being hollowed out.”8

Limited public profile

So far, the Academy has had a limited public profile, perhaps due to the necessary work of administrative consolidation following its formal establishment. While work on its research projects has begun, its attempts to build an engaged social presence have barely started. Notably, the promised database of experts willing to respond to media questions and to weigh in on public debates has not been made available as of now.

And while the call for applications for the first round of the AIWG’s mentoring programme has concluded, the Academy’s relationship with Muslim civil society is not fully clear yet. So far, Muslim figures beyond the confines of the university have remained relatively silent on the new institution.

The extent to which the Academy and its offerings will be taken up thus remains to be seen. Yet, given the fact that Germany’s major political talk shows have not stopped broadcasting and remain as preoccupied with Islam as ever, any voice of reason on their panels would be much appreciated.

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  7. See Schirin Amir-Moazami (ed.), Der inspizierte Muslim: Zur Politisierung der Islamforschung in Europa. Bielefeld: transcript, 2018