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German universities move to train next generation of imams

Concerned about the influence of foreign imams on Germany’s Muslim community, the government is funding Islamic theology departments in its public universities to train imams at home. 

For years Aysen Yüsra Yilmaz, the daughter of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany as guest workers, looked for a way to ground her religion in the German culture she has adopted as her own.

She finally found it this year in Germany’s first publicly funded university Islamic theology department, connected to Tübingen University in the Black Forest’s foothills and one of Germany’s oldest universities.

“We live in Germany, so we have to be able to represent our religion in German,” says Yilmaz, who is one of 36 students enrolled in a brand new bachelor’s degree program there.

The opening of the department at Tübingen will be followed by openings later this year in Osnabrück, Nürnberg and Frankfurt. Funded by the government to the tune of €20 million ($25.4 million) for the next five years, the goal of the theology departments is to ground a new generation of Islam religious leaders and scholars in German culture and root out what experts say is one of the main causes of radicalization of young Muslims in Europe – the lack of imams trained in the country.

Germany has four million Muslims, counting both immigrants and those born there, making up about 5 percent of the population. But the lack of religious training in the country means that most of Germany’s 2,000 imams come from abroad, mostly Turkey, staying an average of four years. The predominance of foreign imams in the education of Germany’s Muslims exacerbates difficulties they might already have integrating into German society.

The imams imported from abroad tend to promote a more radical interpretation of the Quran, experts say, and they’re often unprepared to deal with many aspects of their job in Germany.

Here, they have to not only lead Friday prayers but act as counselors, community organizers, and youth workers – in short, they have to be a bridge between the mosque and day-to-day secular life in Germany. But they have no context for answering how the Quran would deal with many of the dilemmas confronting young Muslims living in Western Europe: a young Muslim man who wants a girlfriend like his secular friends or a Muslim girl who wants to take swimming lessons in school, for example.

“Most deal with their home culture, their home language, their homeland,” says Bülent Ucar, a professor of Islamic religious education at the University of Osnabrück, which last year pioneered a crash course for foreign imams on German society and language. So far 30 imams are enrolled, with many more on the waiting list, he says. This fall, Osnabrück will house the second of the four publicly-funded centers for Islamic theology in addition to its already existing training program.

“Imams have good intentions but they can’t fulfill their jobs. They can’t fulfill the conditions to bring about integration because they don’t speak German,” says Mr. Ucar.

The rarity of German-speaking imams who can connect with young German Muslims is also a problem in Germany’s eyes because of the increased popularity of a new cohort of young, radical, German-speaking imams, such as Pierre Vogel, a former boxing professional who converted to Islam and draws enormous crowds in public. He also has a strong following online.

A German citizen in his thirties who attended a Catholic school as a child, Vogel later turned to Salafism, the fastest-growing Islamic movement in Germany. He knows how to connect with young people, especially those who feel adrift in German society but find the Turkish imams brought to the country out of touch. The presence of people like Vogel, who wears a long red beard and calls himself Abu Hamza, makes the need for German-trained imams all the more obvious, experts agree.

“For young people seeking direction, contact with these types of imams can be the first step toward slipping into Islamist violence,” says sociologist Rauf Ceylan of Osnabrück University.

When she officially opened the Islam theology center in Tübingen in January, Education Minister Annette Shavan said the center’s new graduates would be the best antidote to “hate preachers.”

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