Germany plans Islamic studies institutes to curb extremism

Germany has long-established faculties for Christian and Jewish theology, but no centres for the study of Islam.

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BERLIN // Germany plans to set up institutes for Islamic studies to train new generations of imams and religious teachers more attuned to western society, and to exert subtle control over how the country's growing Muslim population is taught about its faith. The government has welcomed a proposal by its academic advisory council to set up centres of Islamic theology at two or three state-run universities. "The number of children and young people of Islamic faith in Germany is high and increasing," said Annette Schavan, the education minister.

"That is why it is important to educate Islamic religious teachers and Islam scholars. This is part of an effective, modern integration policy." Peter Strohschneider, the chairman of the advisory council, said: "The point is to prevent fundamentalism of any kind. We hope this will contribute to the intellectual wealth of universities and also help to integrate Muslims into German society." Germany has long-established faculties for Christian and Jewish theology, but no centres for the study of Islam, even though it has four million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Europe after France. "That doesn't do justice to the importance of the biggest non-Christian religious community in Germany," the council said in a statement.

It said each institute should have four to six professorships and other staff and would cost ?1.5 million (Dh7.5m) per year. It asked the central and regional governments to fund the centres, and to set them up as soon as possible. Germany has 700,000 Muslim pupils but has been unable to provide nationwide religious education in their faith because schools lack the necessary teaching staff. The advisory council estimates there is a shortage of 2,000 teachers. In addition to teacher training, the institutes should also train Muslim scholars and pastoral workers for the Muslim community, the council said.

The faculties would train German-speaking imams and lessen the need to bring them in from other countries. At present, most of the imams at Germany's estimated 2,300 mosque communities come from abroad, many of them from Turkey, the country of origin for two-thirds of Germany's Muslim immigrants. Consequently the sermons are often delivered in Turkish. Armin Laschet, the integration minister of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, said: "We need more imams who come from our society and were educated at German universities. Imams who don't speak German, don't know German society and just come over here from Turkey for a few years like diplomats don't fit in with a modern policy of integration. That's why the council's recommendations must be implemented as quickly as possible."

The September 11 attacks sparked concern across Europe that some mosques were preaching hatred of western society, and led to calls for Muslim worship to be made more transparent. Germany in particular has felt a need to exercise greater scrutiny, not just because of the size of its Muslim population, but also because several of the September 11 suicide bombers lived, studied and prayed in Hamburg.

"Professors are appointed in an academic public arena, not in back rooms," said Christoph Markschies, a Protestant theologian who is president of Berlin's Humboldt University. "That means one can make sure that they don't represent any backward theories." Attempts to increase the number of imams and Muslim teachers taught in Europe are under way in other countries as well. France has an imam training course in Paris.

Until now, the only German university training for Muslim teachers is in the western city of Münster. The course sparked controversy in 2008 when the theologian teaching there, Mohammed Sven Kalisch, a German convert to Islam, voiced doubt about whether the Prophet Mohammed actually existed. The council, which is made up of education experts, senior civil servants and representatives from business and science, recommended that Muslim organisations should join advisory boards to help set up the institutes and choose faculty members. That helped to persuade several large Muslim groups, including the German Muslim Co-ordination Council, to back the recommendations.

Burhan Kesici, the vice president the Islamic Federation in Berlin, said: "It would make sense if universities were to co-operate closely with the religious communities to increase the acceptance of the courses among Muslims." But critics say it may prove difficult to get groups representing the various branches of Islam to agree on a curriculum for teaching imams, and on the professorial appointments.

"Which branch will gain the upper hand, and how will the state exert influence in the process? Will the Muslim associations leave the training of teachers entirely up to a secular state?" wrote Berliner Zeitung, a left-wing newspaper, in an editorial. It said the advisory council had been unable to resolve those issues in the two years of debate it had taken to draw up its recommendations. "As long as these questions remain unanswered, the recommendation of the council is little more than a nice encouragement to expand the scientific profile of German universities. It will strengthen inter-religious dialogue among scholars and help the religious sciences. But it's not a contribution to modern integration policy."