Why Islam Gets Second-Class Status in Germany – The New York Times

Interesting commentary by Alexander Gorlach:

Religion in Germany is not a private affair. Government at all levels recognizes religious communities as public institutions, and encourages participation in them — Germans who register with the state as Roman Catholics, Protestants or Jews pay a “religion tax,” which the government then sends to their respective institution. Religious groups are also allowed to give faith-based instruction in public schools: It’s not uncommon for a small-town pastor, priest or lay person to have a spot on the local high school faculty.

To enjoy this privileged status, religious communities must have a defined set of beliefs, their members must be recorded, and they must have historical and social significance. The Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious communities are organized as public institutions; in the state of Berlin, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church are as well.

It might seem as if Islam, with 4.3 million adherents in Germany, would have qualified easily. But so far, the German government has resisted including it.

The reason is both simple and complex: Muslim communities are separated along ethnic lines as well as along denominational lines among Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites. Often there is little unity among these groups, hence they fail the most important state criterion: a unified religious body with shared goals and doctrines.

These requirements for a religion to get a privileged status in Germany highlight the anachronistic state of the secular federal republic in its approach to faith. The idea that the state can cooperate with religious groups in the same way it cooperates with, say, labor unions presumes a certain unity and hierarchy on the part of those groups. But Islam doesn’t work that way. It simply doesn’t fit within criteria written for the structured Christian churches that have shaped Europe, with bishops and baptismal registers.

For quite some time, there have been demands that the law be renamed to the Religionsrecht (State and Religion Law), and for it to include a wider diversity of religions. Though nothing much has changed on the national level, there has been progress in the states, where most of the country’s religious laws are promulgated. Bavaria, a conservative Catholic state that polls very high in measurements of xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment, nevertheless has been running an Islamic-education pilot program in schools; it is also home to Germany’s oldest mosques. Perhaps the Bavarians, precisely because they protect their own religious and cultural traditions so ferociously, are also the most willing to recognize and support the traditions of others.

But it’s not only in Bavaria that reform is moving forward. In the Protestant-dominated north, Christian Wulff, a premier of Lower Saxony, set up training courses for future imams and Islamic religious teachers at the universities of Münster and Osnabrück. Later, when he was president of Germany, Mr. Wulff said, “Islam belongs to Germany.”

Though Mr. Wulff served just two years as president before resigning in 2012 over allegations of corruption (since dropped), his actions on behalf of Islam — and that quotation in particular — set off a debate that continues across the country. Critics of Islamic religious education in the schools, including many Muslims themselves, say that there is no group in the country that can speak for all Muslims. And indeed, it is estimated that the Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Council for the Federal Republic of Germany, the two groups that have the best claims to speak for Islam in Germany, represent no more than 20 percent of German Muslims.

Germany is a secular country, but the German legal framework approves of institutionalized religions in a biased way. The religions must organize themselves according to state standards, and those standards are tailored toward the structures of the Christian religion.

The result is a delegitimization of the state’s relationship to religious groups in the eyes of many non-Christians, particularly Muslims — a dangerous prospect at a time when rapid integration is essential to maintain social peace. In the context of a growing Muslim community and a rising number of citizens affiliated with no religion at all, Germany may not be able to maintain an order that arose many generations ago.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Why Islam Gets Second-Class Status in Germany – The New York Times

  1. swanpride says:

    That is a gross misrepresentation of the role of the religion in German society.

    1. Yes, the state collects the Church taxes. But that money goes to the churches and is a voluntary tax. The reason why it is done is efficiency, nothing more, nothing less. You are totally free to say “yeah, I don’t want to pay this tax anymore”. It would exclude you from some advantages church members have, like using the local church for free when you marry, being limited to kindergarten run by the state aso, but if you aren’t Christian anyway, no harm, no fool (in fact, the church kindergartens tend to have some places for people of “other faith” for inclusion purposes, but not for people of “no faith at all”).

    2. Yes, there are religion lessons. But they are rarely conducted by priests, but usually done by trained religion teachers. Said religion lessons tend to be about more than just the own religion, you usually learn about other religions, too. My own religion lessons for example included the visit to a synagogue and a local Moshe, to learn about said religion first hand from someone who believed in said faith (and my childhood wasn’t exactly yesterday, so no, this isn’t a recent development). And, like the church tax, participation is voluntary. The questionable part in my eyes is not that there are lessons in religion, the questionable part is that those who aren’t Christians have a “free hour” during them instead of sitting at the very least in a class about Philosophy or History of Religion. The actual teaching of belief doesn’t happen in said religion lessons, that is a matter of the church and an entirely different set of lessons which is conducted by the church itself.

    3. Yes, our holidays are Christian….but those are also more or less the only holidays we have. The reason for this is that those holidays are actually Germanic celebrations which were coopted by the church along the way. Meaning they are cultural holidays celebrated under the guise of being Christian (meaning the Christian church basically adapted to the celebrations which already existed, not the other way around). The only official state holiday which exists is the Day of Reunification and in order to introduce it, there was the need to remove a Christian holiday from the calendar. It is simply not possible to have a nationwide free day for every religion out there (btw, those holidays are usually a federal matter anyway – meaning there is a free day for Carnival in some states, where there are big celebrations, but not in others. Those have another holiday in exchange). Also, in general, schools aso are very understanding when it comes to special religious holidays, as long as this understanding isn’t misused.

    BTW, there is also a lot of interaction happening between the Christian churches and the more open Muslim churches. The problem is not that the German system isn’t accepting, the problem is more that a lot of religious organisations refuse to accept the basic ideas of freedom of religion and the definition of what a religious organisation actually is. In fact, scientology has to this day not been accepted as a religious organisation by the German government because it doesn’t fit the standards either. But the German government lowering said standards would send the wrong signal. Germany has been the place of one of the most bloodiest religious war in Christian history. We have very good reasons why we won’t risk a repeat of that.

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