A major conference on German-Muslim relations has ended in failure after Muslims attending the event refused to acknowledge the government's concerns about the threats to security posed by radical Islam.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich had wanted the eighth annual German Islam Conference, held in Berlin on May 7, to focus on finding ways the government could work together with "moderate" Muslims in Germany to combat Islamism and extremism.
But Muslims attending the gathering were apparently offended by the insinuation that Islam could be radical or violent, and demanded instead that the German government take steps to make "Islam equal to Christianity" in Germany.
The German Islam Conference was launched by former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in 2006, and has been billed as the "central forum for dialogue" between German politicians and representatives of the estimated 4.3 million Muslims now living in Germany.
The stated aim of the annual event — where Muslim organizations and individuals are invited to sit at the table with representatives from federal, state and local government — is to promote Muslim integration into German society.
This year's event was focused around three main themes: institutional cooperation between Muslims and the German state; gender equality as a common value, and prevention of extremism, radicalization and social polarization.
Muslims attending the conference evidently wanted to focus only on the first theme, which included "promoting the introduction of comprehensive Islamic religious instruction in public schools, including through conferences and publications." Although the government has already made many concessions in this regard, Muslims complained about German "interference" in selecting the teachers who provide Islam training in German schools.
In respect to the second theme — gender equality — the German government had hoped to find solutions to the problems of honor violence and forced marriage. But Muslims refused even to acknowledge any connection between Islam and forced marriage. Instead, they managed to turn the gender issue on its head by demanding that German employers promise not to discriminate against Muslim women who want to wear burkas to work.
The third theme — the prevention of Islamic extremism and radicalization — undoubtedly caused the most controversy at this year's conference.
Interior Minister Friedrich had been hoping to enlist the support and cooperation of Muslims at the conference to help in the fight against the radicalization of young Muslims in Germany.
Since taking office in 2011, Friedrich has led Germany's multifaceted response (here, here and here) to the rise of radical Islam there. Friedrich and other German security officials are increasingly concerned about the threat posed by home-grown terrorists inspired by Islamic extremists, who openly state that they want to establish Islamic Sharia law in Germany and across Europe. (A recent poll found that more than half of all Germans view Islam as a threat to their country and believe it does not belong in the Western world.)
But Muslims were perceptibly furious when Friedrich refused to give in to their demands to drop discussion of security-related aspects of Islam at this year's conference.
The director of inter-religious dialogue at the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs [Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion (DITIB)], Bekir Alboga, complained that Friedrich had rendered the conference "pointless" by bringing "security policy themes too far to the fore." Alboga said the German Islam Conference "makes no more sense in its current form. I do not see any genuine partnership." He added that "we [Muslims] do not want to be seen as being a security factor."
Later, in an interview with the German news agency Deutsche Welle, Alboga said he was hoping that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be defeated in federal elections in September 2013 so that the Muslim-German dialogue could continue in a more positive way with a new government led by the more Muslim-friendly Social Democrats. "I yearn for a real partnership," he said.
It should be noted that Alboga's DITIB is a branch of the Turkish government, which controls over 900 mosques in Germany. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long used DITIB to dissuade Turkish immigrantsfrom integrating into German society.
Alboga's complaints were echoed by the Secretary-General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany[Zentralrats der Muslime in Deutschland (ZMD)], Aiman Mazyek, who said the Islam conference "urgently needs a general overhaul" because it is not a "dialogue among equals."
The head of the Turkish Community in Germany [Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland (TGD)], Kenan Kolat, called on the German government to create a new Integration Ministry that would take the responsibility for organizing the German Islam Conference away from the Interior Ministry.
The director of the Islamic Council of Germany [Islamrats für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (IR)], Ali Kizilkaya, described the German Islam Conference as "a train heading in the wrong direction" because the event is built on "security concerns and mistrust."
The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), eager to court disgruntled Muslim voters in a desperate bid to unseat Merkel this fall, has jumped on the anti-Friedrich bandwagon with enthusiasm.
The Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, the SPD's Boris Pistorius, accused Friedrich of fomenting "Islamophobia" by making "insensitive comments." Pistorius said the original goal of the German Islam Conference "was to talk about Islam" but Friedrich and his predecessor, Thomas de Maizière, changed the focus to "security and terrorism" and this shift has "alienated" Muslim participants. Pistorius said that after the federal elections, a victorious SPD would re-conceptualize the conference by "carefully separating the concepts of Islam and Islamism."
The parliamentary secretary of the SPD, Thomas Oppermann, accused Friedrich of leading the Islam Conference to an impasse, and said, "We want to put the dialogue with Muslims on a new basis." The Integration Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, SPD politician Guntram Schneider, hinted at what such a "reorientation of the conference" might entail when he complained that the event did not address "Islamophobia."
Potential SPD coalition partners also joined the electioneering. Left Party politician Christine Friedrich Buchholz accused Friedrich of not being really interested in a genuine dialogue with Muslims. Green Party leader Renate Künast said the conference needed a "reset" because Friedrich had "smashed too many dishes."
In any event, this is not the first time the German Islam Conference has ended in failure. The official focus of theconference in 2012 was to find ways to deal with the spiraling rates of forced marriages and domestic violence among Muslims in Germany.
But Muslim representatives attending that event were in no mood for compromise. Then, like now, they refused to accept responsibility for any of the innumerable irritants in German-Muslim relations. Instead, they insisted that the German government amend its "misguided" approach to Muslim integration.
The 2012 event ended without a joint press conference because of lingering Muslim pique at "offensive" comments that were allegedly uttered at the press conference that ended the 2011 event.