Western governments want to have more influence on Muslim practice with their own borders


Making Islam their own

Feb 14th 2019Print edition | Special report

HORST SEEHOFER, the German interior minister and then-leader of Bavaria’s Christian Socialist Union, was in a conciliatory mood. Addressing a conference of Muslims in Berlin last November, he publicly reversed his earlier position that Islam did not belong in Germany. It could belong, he told his audience, as long as it embraced German, not foreign, values. His call for assimilation was underlined by the bill of fare at the official reception that evening, which included riesling wines and pork-topped canapés. If Muslims did not like the country’s nudity and alcohol, tutted an official, they could go elsewhere.

The drive to integrate Islam on Germany’s terms is the brainchild of Markus Kerber, a top civil servant at the interior ministry and founder of the Islam Conference, a gathering of Muslim representatives that Germany has been holding intermittently since 2006. He wants to wrest control of the country’s mosques from foreign hands, a task he likens to that of Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, when he tried to prise the Catholic church from the Vatican’s clutches in the 19th century. Instead of relying on foreign support, Mr Kerber thinks, mosques in Germany could be funded in the same way as Christian and Jewish places of worship: through a voluntary religious levy on registered members of the faith. Foreign imams should be replaced by German ones, who would be trained at the new Islamic-theology departments that some of the German Länder have established at a handful of universities. Within a decade, Mr Kerber hopes, imams will need German certificates to be able to officiate.

Across the West, governments are developing ways of addressing mounting public concern. The run of jihadist attacks (albeit by a small fringe of extremists) and public resistance to mass Muslim migration have helped propel far-right movements into power across Europe. Policies initially designed to focus on security breaches have broadened, first to curb support for and contact with violent extremism and then to counter extremism of all kinds. Many Western leaders, having previously encouraged multiculturalism and diversity, now echo Mr Seehofer’s call for Muslims to adapt their faith to Western norms.

Hands on or hands off?

Security remains a key element. Intelligence agencies monitor known extremists. Parliaments have passed laws making it a criminal offence for their countries’ citizens to fight abroad. Some radical preachers have been expelled or jailed. Dozens of mosques have been closed down. But policymakers are also using other branches of government to tackle what a German official calls “the biggest exogenous influence on the West”. Rather than rely on foreign governments to cater for the needs of their Muslim residents, many Western policymakers now prefer to draw up their own strategies. “We’re fed up with their religious preachers,” says a Belgian security official. “Their sermons are never about being European and always about being Turkish. It turns [the Muslim communities] into a ghetto.” He is even more concerned about the sway held by Saudi Arabia.

It is easy to blame foreign management of Islam; harder to tailor a workable alternative. After the jihadist attacks on London’s transport system in 2005, successive British governments tightened up on their laissez-faire approach to Islam in Britain and became more interventionist. In 2007 Tony Blair, a Labour prime minister, unveiled a programme that initially tried to build local partnerships with non-violent Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups to rein in the violent ones. As jihadist attacks spread in Europe, a Conservative government greatly expanded the definition of extremism and made it clear that it would support only liberal Muslims.

France has long struggled to reconcile its desire to keep Islam out of the public domain with a growing wish to control it. In 2016 its then prime minister, Manuel Valls, labelled the religion a problem, but found that the principle of laïcité (secularism in public affairs) and a law from 1905 stating that “the republic shall not recognise or subsidise any religion” prevented him from tackling it. The current president, Emmanuel Macron, is considering relaxing that law and supporting the creation of an independent foundation to manage Muslim affairs. The new body, the Muslim Association for French Islam (AMIF), aims to raise funds by issuing licences for France’s (currently unregulated) market in halal food and permits for French Muslims to go on the annual haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Proceeds will be used to pay imams and vet them for radicalisation or anti-Semitism. “It will make Islam better accepted in France,” says an AMIForganiser.

The European country with the most experience of state supervision of Islam is Austria. When the Austro-Hungarian empire pushed the Ottomans out of the Balkans in 1878, a substantial Muslim population was left behind, mainly in Bosnia. As was customary, the victorious soldiers ransacked the mosques, and the Catholic church built a cathedral on the ruins of the Ottoman barracks in Sarajevo. But instead of expelling Bosnia’s Muslims, Emperor Franz Joseph I formally accepted them as his subjects. He set up a new body, the Islamic Community, to minister to Muslim affairs, and appointed a mufti to run it. A law passed in 1912 made Islam an official religion and put it on a par with Christianity. It survived Austrian governments of many colours until 2015, when an incoming right-wing one amended it to curb Turkish influence and ban foreign funding of mosques. Last June 40 Turkish imams were expelled and seven foreign-run mosques ordered to close.

Newly arrived refugees now have to take a compulsory course in Austrian values, and the religious curriculum for Muslim schoolchildren has been revised. The official at the education ministry in charge of the overhaul is the picture of Muslim orthodoxy; not a wisp of hair pokes from under her headscarf. But she is an ardent supporter of strong measures to end “Muslim self-isolation”. She is in favour of the government’s closure of Muslim kindergartens, a ban on headscarves for girls under ten, and encouraging Muslim girls to attend swimming lessons and go on school trips. Her new curriculum requires students to write sermons opposing forced marriage and demonisation of homosexuals rather than learn religious texts by rote. “If we don’t contextualise our religion, we’ll lose our children,” she says.

Many Muslims respond well to efforts to include them. The government’s integration centre in the heart of the Austrian capital, Vienna, is lined with old photographs of Egyptian women in bikinis and unveiled Afghan students before the Islamists dominated public space. The mixed class of young Iranians and Afghans attending the one-day course in Austrian values listen intently. A translator relays the lessons on Mozart’s sonatas, Gustav Klimt’s paintings, Austria’s descent into Nazism and its post-war recovery, but most of the class speak German well enough not to need him. Some volunteer to give presentations in their host country’s language on democracy, the dangers of anti-Semitism and the protection of gay rights. “If only all Austrians had to sit [this test],” says the instructor.

Of booze and burqas

Austria has joined France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria in banning the burqa, as have a number of cities and regions. Denmark has gone further than most. The country has one of western Europe’s lowest rates of jihadist attacks, but fear of Islam is pervasive. Last year the right-wing government introduced a rule requiring children from designated poor districts inhabited mainly by immigrants, which it calls “ghettos”, to attend a day-care centre for 25 hours a week from the age of one (as almost all Danish children do). Another recent law requires new citizens to shake hands at naturalisation ceremonies, even though some Muslims oppose touching members of the opposite sex on religious grounds. Government subsidies to Muslim (but not Christian or Jewish) schools have been cut, and some have closed down. To many Muslims and Western liberals, such policies seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive. Unlike in other Western countries, young Muslims in Denmark are more observant than their elders.

After a century of separation of church and state, many worry, too, about state intervention in religious affairs. Some Muslims fear that government efforts to form representative bodies will be dominated by large communal organisations. Others warn against trying to replicate government controls on Islam that have proved stifling in much of the Muslim world. “If you opt for state-sponsored Islam, you’re no better than Iran,” says Muddassar Ahmed, who leads Concordia, an international caucus of young Western Muslim leaders. Letting Islam develop organically as a matter of personal faith, he says, would be more in keeping with the norms of Western modernity.

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