One of my history students this past spring semester wrote a research paper that cited an article by Paul Hockenos, "Educating Imams in Germany: the Battle for a European Islam" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2010) and even though nearly a year has passed since its publication, the article is still worth reading because the issue of how to integrate Islam into European civilization will likely be with us for a long time.
The background to the issue is the growing Muslim population -- and not only in Germany, but throughout much of Western Europe -- for the second and third generations are not assimilating well, nor is Islam integrating well. Most Muslims live in enclaves where Islam is the leading religion, and the religious leaders are foreign to Europe, often funded by conservative oil money, and preach a very conservative form of Islam. Moreover, these religious leaders often know no European languages and understand little about European cultures. But let's turn to Hockenos:
In a Germany struggling to come to grips with its burgeoning, four-million-strong Muslim population (about 5 percent of the populace), the use of imams sent from Turkey and other foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, has come under sustained fire from integration-minded critics. After all, argue some intellectuals, politicos, and other citizens across Germany's political spectrum, including the more moderate currents in the Muslim community, how can the foreign clergy advise believers -- many of whom grapple with profound disadvantage in Germany -- without mastering the lingua franca and knowing the world they live in? The imams have, in part, been held responsible for Muslims' ghettoization, as well as fundamentalism in some pockets of the country.Germany thinks that it has an answer to this problem: education with the aim of producing an Islamic education that will make critical thinking an integral part of the pedagogical approach and thereby assist in the integration of Islam and the assimilation of Muslims:
Fostering a generation of German-schooled imams, seen as central to breaking the vicious circle of Muslim exclusion, is the chief aim of an Islamic-theology initiative announced by the government in January . The effort is a vital front of the Islam Conference, started in 2006, an ambitious, wide-ranging process set in motion by the German government to consider the yawning gap between mainstream Germany and its Muslims. The conference, designed to map out a long-term integration strategy, painted a dismal picture of the reality faced by German Muslims. It is a reality marked by meager integration; growing alienation and even fundamentalism among the second and third-generations; the ossification of a Muslim underclass; and dysfunctional communication between Germany and its Muslims, nearly half of whom are German citizens. One of its key recommendations is to focus on the training of the Islamic community's personnel, including religion teachers, as well as the dearth of Islamic theology in German academe.This is a visionary undertaking that aims to ground Islam in the European Enlightenment and thereby create a rational, critically self-reflective European Islam. The goal is a worthy one, and I think that it has to be attempted, but I also foresee problems, partly due to Islam's decentralized state (partially resulting from the fall of the caliphate). I'm not alone in this. A man whom I knew when I lived in Tübingen and pursued doctoral research there at Eberhard Karls University, Christoph Markschies -- who did his doctoral and post-doctoral studies under Professor Martin Hengel and also took part in seminars led by Professor Alexander Böhlig -- holds similar views:
Bringing Islam into the classrooms at the very highest level, Germany hopes, will have an educational and cultural trickle-down effect. And so the country's foremost academic advisory body, the German Council of Science and Humanities, announced the creation of cutting-edge academic institutes -- hybrids of seminary and religious-studies programs -- to examine Islamic theology with a critical bent and teach it to Germany's Muslims in a university setting. "This," stated the council's 158-page report, "is the best way to insure the academic quality of research and instruction, to intensify the discourse with other disciplines with different worldviews, and to create a reliable theological foundation for interreligious dialogue."
Although the institutes will be anchored in state-financed colleges, the country's Muslim communities will have a substantial voice in their curricula and management, just as Christian churches do in theology departments across Germany. The council's recommendations are not blueprints for the two or three new planned institutes, estimated to open in 2012 and to cost about $4-million annually in government funds, but rather a visionary démarche, the specifics of which -- the study program, size, and composition of faculty and students -- will be hammered out by the vested parties over the next few years. Certain, however, is that these new academies will nurture not only German-speaking imams with European orientations, but also -- if everything goes according to plan -- new ranks of male and female Muslim religion teachers, public intellectuals, scholars, and faith-based social workers. The long-anticipated proposal explicitly mentions the training of qualified religion teachers for the estimated 700,000 Muslim pupils in Germany who do not enjoy faith-based religious instruction on a par with that of their peers who belong to the major Christian denominations.
The establishment of faculties of Islamic theology "could change the very character of Islam in Germany and Europe," says Christoph Markschies, president of the prestigious Humboldt University of Berlin.There's also the matter of an intransigent Islam, due either to fundamentalism or lack of education:
The issue of Islam in Germany's public sphere is explosive -- and certain to stir up pique before the faculties open their doors. "The execution of these plans will bring up a lot of difficulties," predicts Markschies, a Protestant theologian. He welcomes the consensus around the project but warns that when it comes to establishing the institutes, "there's going to be bitter conflicts, not least within the large number of different Islamic communities, that will pit conservatives against progressives, Sunnis against Shiites, and so forth." Before concrete steps to create the institutes can be taken, the German universities have to locate a single, authoritative institution in the Muslim community to act as an interlocutor; the inability to do so in the past has proved the major stumbling block in establishing Islamic theology courses on a much smaller scale.
Against the backdrop of international terrorism, including a foiled bomb plot in Germany in 2007, and studies documenting failed integration, Germany's foreign imams have come under intense public scrutiny. One study discovered a pronounced conservative, fundamentalist streak among up to 20 percent of Islamic preachers in the country. Many of the imams possess little higher education, and some come from extremist ranks.I'm surprised that the number is only 20 percent, for I suspect that the percentage is higher. But the German state believes that the academic institutes called for by the German Council of Science and Humanities offers an answer, and Markschies agrees:
The kind of academically rigorous theology that will be offered at Germany's universities, says Humboldt University's Markschies, is something rare even in the Muslim world. "Islam lacks a Western-type theology, characterized by a critical, open-minded discourse about its texts, its assumptions, and its history," says Markschies, who'd like to see one of the institutes find a home in Berlin. "The Christian religions have engaged with the Enlightenment and issues like human rights and personal liberty for some 200 years, which still has to happen in Islam. Bringing Islam into the German universities will compel it to face discourses about democratic norms and will ultimately change it, the way Christianity changed when it confronted modernity."I hope so, but success in attaining this goal will come only if Muslims themselves accept the aims and the institutes, and this acceptance would have to come not only through openness on the part of German Muslims but on the part of Muslims throughout the world, for Islam in Germany -- as in Europe generally -- cannot be isolated from religious currents within global Islam. There will be great resistance to an Enlightenment-based Islam in the worldwide Muslim community, for as Markschies has pointed out, "Islam lacks a Western-type theology, characterized by a critical, open-minded discourse about its texts, its assumptions, and its history," and that's a fact about the 1.5 billion Muslims of the Islamic world, not just about Germany's four million Muslims. And even German experts warn of unintended consequences:
Ulrike Freitag, a professor of Islamic studies at Berlin's liberal-minded Free University, warns that the introduction of Islam into academe is open-ended, with no guarantee that something progressive will emerge. "On the one hand, there's enormous potential for a new interpretation of Islam," she says. "There's the possibility of a new kind of discussion between Sunnis and Shiites or an alternative reading of the Koran." On the other hand, she is wary that German universities "could wind up with something very conservative. The orientation of the migrant communities and their descendants is overwhelmingly traditionalist," she says, referring to their interpretation of the Shariah on matters such as gender, family law, clothing, and moral codes in general. "They could unite around a minimum conservative consensus rather than dare to try something new."Markschies himself acknowledges doubts:
Although the Islam Conference and the planned Islamic institutes are enormous steps forward, those involved admit that the road ahead is treacherous. Markschies, for example, wonders whether there are enough qualified Muslim academics to fill the new posts.Even if qualified scholars from the Muslim community do step forward, who will protect them from the fundamentalists as these scholars begin to offer a more open Islam based on a "Western-type theology, characterized by a critical, open-minded discourse about its texts, its assumptions, and its history"? Such scholars will be subjecting the Qur'an to skeptical analysis and raising questions concerning the traditions about Muhammad, and such an approach will not be tolerated by radical Muslims, either worldwide or in Europe itself.
A bloody fight looms . . .