Training centre launched for German imams, sparks Turkish unhappiness

The German authorities have in the past accused Turkish imams of spying on Turkish opposition activists on behalf of the Erdogan government. Turkish pro-regime Imams were clearly displeased with the German move.
Wednesday 16/06/2021
Students attend class at the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrueck, western Germany. (AFP)
Female students take part in a Qur’an recitation lesson at the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrueck, western Germany. (AFP)

BERLIN, Germany - Germany has launched a state-backed training centre for imams to help reduce the number of Muslim preachers coming in from abroad, but the initiative has been shunned by Turkish groups loyal to the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government.

Foreign financing of mosques and imams is suspected of links to radicalisation and alignment on the agendas of extremist organisations and those of foreign governments.

The German authorities have in the past accused Turkish imams of spying on Turkish opposition activists on behalf of the Erdogan government. Turkish pro-regime Imams were clearly displeased with the German move.

Around 40 aspiring religious leaders attended their first classes at the German College of Islam in the north-western city of Osnabrueck on Monday, with the official inauguration on Tuesday.

The centre’s two-year imam training programme will be taught with the help of some 12,000 books imported from Egypt.

Open to holders of a bachelor’s degree in Islamic theology or an equivalent diploma, it offers practical teaching in the recitation of verses from the Koran, preaching techniques, worship practices and politics.

With between 5.3 and 5.6 million Muslims in Germany, around 6.4 to 6.7 percent of the population, the role of Islam in society occupies a prominent place in political discourse.

The new training centre is being partly funded by the federal government, as well as local authorities in the state of Lower Saxony.

Chancellor Angela Merkel first spoke in favour of training imams on German soil in 2018, telling parliament it “will make us more independent and is necessary for the future”.

The German College of Islam is unique in two ways, according to chairman Esnaf Begic: all lessons are in German and it aims to “reflect the reality of the life of Muslims in Germany”.

– ‘German Muslims’ –

“We are German Muslims, we are an integral part of society and we now have the opportunity to become imams ‘made in Germany’”, said student Ender Cetin, who already works as a volunteer imam in a youth detention centre in Berlin.

Students attend class at the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrueck, western Germany. (AFP)
Students attend class at the Islamkolleg Deutschland in Osnabrueck, western Germany. (AFP)

Until now, the vast majority of imams in Germany has been trained abroad, mainly in Turkey and are also paid by their home countries.

About half of the 2,000 to 2,500 imams in the country are provided by the Turkish-Islamic umbrella group DITIB, a branch of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Ankara that manages 986 mosque communities in Germany, according to a study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The rest come mainly from North Africa, Albania and the former Yugoslavia.

These religious leaders tend to come to Germany for four or five years, some on tourist visas and know very little about the local culture and customs.

“These imams don’t speak the language of the young people, who often don’t even understand Turkish very well,” said Cetin, himself born in Berlin to Turkish immigrants.

“It is important that they are in touch with the realities of a multicultural society where Christians, Jews, atheists and Muslims live side by side.”

– Turkish activities –

Many of the leaders are also officials of the Turkish state who “pursue a political agenda” in Germany, he said.

The influence of Ankara has long been a thorny question in Germany’s Muslim community, especially since the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

In 2017, German police raided the homes of four imams, members of DITIB, suspected of spying on opponents or critics of the Turkish government.  Turkish intelligence is said to use Imams and mosques to spy not only on possible members of the Fethullah Gulen network  but also on Kurds and secular activists who oppose the current Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated government in Ankara.

The training of imams with support from the German state is also controversial because it conflicts with the principle that religious communities alone are entitled to train their leaders.

For this reason, both DITIB and Milli Gorus, Germany’s second-biggest Islamic organisation, chose not to participate in the creation of the German College of Islam, with DITIB launching its own training programme in Germany last year.

Milli Gorus believes that the training of imams should be “free from external influences, especially political ones”, according to general secretary Bekir Altas.

But college chairman Begic says the institution was created with “absolutely no influence from the state, which did not interfere in the development of the programmes”.

As for job opportunities, imams remain poorly paid and dependent on donations from the faithful. But Begic insists: “We are not an employment agency.”