Muslims’ frustration with established religious associations spells sea change in German Islamic landscape

Germany’s major Islamic associations are in the midst of an upheaval – a development exemplified by the DİTİB organisation. A subsidiary of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), DİTİB is the largest of a bewildering array of Islamic associations operating in Germany, running 950 of the country’s roughly 2,600 mosques.1

The organisation has, however, been embroiled in the nationalist – anti-Gülenist and anti-Kurdish – turn in Turkish politics after the July 2016 coup attempt. To be sure, the precise amount of control the Turkish government can exercise over DİTİB’s mosques is not always easy to ascertain: contrary to popular perceptions, the financial heft of Diyanet is often rather modest. Nevertheless, pressures from Turkey have been notable – only to be matched by renewed anti-Turkish resentment welling up in Germany. In this context, DİTİB, formerly the preferred cooperation partner of German policy-makers, has fallen from favour.

The impact of acrimonious post-coup politics on the internal workings of DİTİB (as well as the second largest Islamic association, the Turkish-dominated Islamic Community Millî Görüş or IGMG) has been equally considerable: as a Turkey-oriented old guard proceeded to assume the reins of power, dissenters – notably younger and many socially active members – were pushed out.

‘Grassroots upheaval’ against established associations

As a result, dissatisfaction with DİTİB, IGMG, and others is on the rise – also among many Muslims. Convinced that established players have lost any ability to function as credible and effective voices in public debate, some Muslim activists have proceeded to create new, alternative institutions. Engin Karahan – a former Vice-Secretary General of IGMG, who left the organisation already in 2014 over its focus on Turkish affairs – even observes a “grassroots upheaval” against ossified associational structures.2

Karahan lambasts associations’ leaders for being satisfied with their – real or imagined – positions of power within the German-Turkish or German-Muslim communities. At the same time, their “deficiencies in terms of speech and habitus” have condemned these associational figures to “powerlessness and withdrawal” in relation to society at large, Karahan observes.

He points out that this retreat from public engagement at the leadership level has coincided with ordinary Muslims’ increased social involvement on the ground: especially the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has boosted Muslims’ charitable and voluntary activism – a development that received no support from above. Frustrated by this recalcitrance and lack of responsiveness, activists have begun to abandon established associations in droves. Explaining her decision to go independent, the founder of a new Muslim youth club asserts:

“We were fed up with the fact that we had to go begging for every little thing at the mosque board, the women’s board, and then even at the regional board. Now [after mounting her own project] we’re doing things as we see fit.”3

‘Now we’re doing things as we see fit’

In fact, Engin Karahan himself co-founded one of the most ambitious and most active alternative Muslim organisations in 2017: the Alhambra Society (Alhambra-Gesellschaft). Other founding figures include Murat Kayman – a former high-level German DİTİB functionary who left the organisation in February 2017 – as well as journalist Eren Güvercin. The Society is chaired by Green Party politician Ali Baş; and the governing board includes further Green party member Hasret Karacuban, as well as Islamic theologians Nimet Şeker and Aydın Süer.4

Yet the Society’s founding was not driven only by DİTİB’s and IGMG’s politicisation in the wake of the Turkish coup attempt: despite occasional reports on anti-Gülenist activities and nationalist sermons, DİTİB imams in particular are not reputed for being political firebrands. To the contrary: Eren Güvercin describes his dissatisfaction with sermons’ political and social irrelevance, and with a staid intellectual climate where no meaningful debate about the possibilities and challenges of Muslim life in Germany was even attempted.5

In its mission statement, the Alhambra Society criticises precisely this inability to make a meaningful contribution to Muslims’ lived realities: while dominant identity narratives constantly externalise Muslims as foreigners alien to European histories and values, many Muslims react by retreating into an idealised vision of their own imagined national and cultural communities. The Society’s name, alluding to Granada’s Alhambra Palace, aims to reclaim a European Muslim terrain – without romanticising it as free of conflicts and contestation.6

Alhambra Society of ‘European’ Muslims

As a union of avowedly European Muslims, the Society declares to

“reject all attempts at domination by external actors – be it in the spirit of a supposed conservatism and traditional authenticity, or of a supposed liberality and enthusiasm for reform. Not a modification – however imagined – of Islam is the solution but rather the acceptance and further development of intra-Islamic diversity – which is already present as a European reality but cannot find self-confident articulation just yet.”

In particular, the Society seeks to “enable Muslims to develop their own thoughts and positions without compulsively having to assume the roles of the ‘Islamic apologist’ or the ‘reformer who is critical of Islam’”.7

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that both these groups might be sceptical of the Alhambra Society’s attempt to forge a new path. While ‘apologists’ of Erdoğanist sympathies will perceive the new society as a thorn in the side of Germany’s Muslims, they have remained comparatively silent. Conversely, self-styled liberal critics of Islam such as Seyran Ateş or Susanne Schröter have been much louder, vilifying Alhambra’s founders as arch-conservative reactionaries in cahoots with the old associations.8

Theological, spiritual, and social themes

The Society’s activities consist in seminars, public discussion events, workshops, and a debating club. It strives to engage Muslim audiences as well as a wider interested public.9

Every Friday, it publishes ‘Friday words’ (Freitagsworte), aimed to offer a more challenging and socially relevant take on Muslim religious issues. Past instalments have ranged from discussions of pride as a vice, to thoughts on Islamic dietary requirements as necessitating a commitment to an ecological lifestyle, to critiques of some Muslims’ unwillingness to address racism and homophobia within their own communities.10

Alhambra’s public outreach agenda notably involves Das muslimische Quartett, a discussion group in which three of the society’s board members invite a fourth, renowned public figure. Aiming to provide a forum for critical debate beyond reigning populist discourse on Islam, the Quartett has hosted public intellectuals such as Feridun Zaimoğlu or academics Naika Foroutan and Schirin Amir-Moazami.11

Grassroots ‘Islam Academy’

In its aim to be an independent Muslim forum for debate, the Alhambra Society is comparable to another new player in German Muslim affairs: the Deutsche Islam Akademie. While its name echoes the new Academy for Islam in Research and Society recently inaugurated at the University of Frankfurt, this Berlin-based initiative is less academic and more civil society-driven.

Like the Alhambra Society, the Islam Akademie has been created in part by disgruntled former DİTİB activists: spear-headed by 36-year-old Pınar Çetin, the Academy’s founding was initially driven by 30 young Muslims formerly affiliated with DİTİB’s Şehitlik mosque in Berlin’s Neukölln district. After Pınar and Ender Çetin had turned the mosque into a vibrant public forum for intra-Muslim debates and into an important fixture on the city’s religious scene, they were ousted from their posts in 2017 – a dismissal widely perceived as politically motivated.12

Seeking to emancipate themselves from the constraints of established associational spaces and of mainstream representations of Islam, the Academy’s founders note that

“Muslims often have little room to set their own agendas, to articulate their needs in accordance with their daily lives, and to be able to debate openly and critically. In this context, we understand the diversity that inheres in the debates among Muslims themselves as a resource we consciously want to foster. We do not define ourselves through catchphrases such as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ but instead appreciate the diversity within the Muslim community. Everyone who appreciates controversy and diversity of opinions will receive a warm welcome.”13

Overcoming intellectual ‘asphyxiation’

In line with this ecumenical approach, Pınar Çetin does not see the Academy as an act of confrontation vis-à-vis established mosque communities and the Islamic associations maintaining them: she stresses that the Academy’s 60 initiators “continue to feel at home” in their old mosques but resent the intellectual “asphyxiation” that has taken hold in many of these places of worship.14

Against established community leaders’ unwillingness – or simple inability – to discuss new topics in an open manner, the Akademie proposes working groups on animal and environmental protection, interreligious dialogue, volunteering, as well as a group organising public debates on a range of topics.

After several months of preparatory meetings, the Akademie began its substantive work in late 2018: among its first activities were a visit to a retirement home, a charity event distributing food and blankets to the homeless, as well as discussion events on the relationship between individualism and religiosity, and on religious life in a pluralist society.15

Unrest in the Islamic associational sphere

Projects such as the Alhambra Society and the German Islam Academy consciously avoid striving to supplant existing Islamic associations: while they present their social activism as springing from their Muslim faith, they do not pretend to be pastoral or theological actors properly speaking. And while they have begun to build their own institutions, they do not aim to found their own mosques or replace existing mosque federations.

Nevertheless, the reconfigurations in an Islamically conscious Muslim civil society might not leave official Islamic associations and their mosques untouched. The region of Lower Saxony offers some indications of this possibility: in this north-western Land, a number of Muslims are currently attempting to form a new Islamic association independent of the dominant DİTİB.

This move has been promoted by Avni Altiner, the former leader of the SCHURA federation. SCHURA is a peculiar institution bringing together a number of Islamic associations active in Lower Saxony, aiming to offer a coherent representation of local Muslim communities. Altiner had been defeated by an IGMG candidate in the SCHURA leadership elections in 2016.16 Now, he aims to create a new Islamic formation capable of transcending the ethno-national divides and orientatios that still structure the Lower Saxon institutional Muslim landscape.17

Trouble for DİTİB and the others

To be sure, the precise politics of Altiner’s initiative differ significantly from the motivations driving the Alhambra Society and the German Islam Academy. In all three cases, however, there is a similar back story of dissatisfaction with established Islamic institutions at work.

Events from November 2018 are indicative of this: back then, the entire governing board of the Lower Saxon DİTİB branch resigned, together with the leaders of the organisation’s local divisions for youth and for women’s affairs. All of them pointed to their frustration with DİTİB leaders, as well as to growing interference from Turkish political actors, as reasons for their departure.18

Sources close to the Lower Saxon DİTİB leadership have fought back and criticised Altiner’s attempt to go it alone as a selfish and politically inopportune vanity project.19 Irrespective of the merits of these allegations, such recriminations can hardly conceal the fact that DİTİB is in deep trouble: the appetite for alternative institutional arrangements threatens to spill over from civil society at large into DİTİB’s core fief of Islamic religious organisation.

Opportunities and challenges ahead

The emergence of new initiatives carried by disenchanted former associational players and previously unaffiliated Muslim grassroots activists holds significant potential. Perhaps above all, they are able to move beyond the strictures imposed by old leadership cadres; strictures that are sometimes linked to Turkish nationalist political orientation and sometimes simply due to ossified structures and inadaptable mentalities.

Abandoning established associations also comes at a cost, however. As younger, creative, and media-savvy members leave their boards, DİTİB and others will be less and less able to function as credible and effective voices in public debate. At the same time, for the foreseeable future these associations will remain the most formidable Islamic institutions in Germany – all the more so because they actually run many of the country’s mosques.

The new youth clubs, debating societies, welfare organisations, and neighbourhood centres mushrooming at the local level may be propelled by their members’ enthusiasm; yet they often lack material resources, know-how, and – frequently – a larger, national-level political voice capable of defending (at least some of) their interests. How these novel initiatives will develop in the future, the extent to which they will consolidate and/or even acquire political heft thus remains to be seen.

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