Making Islam Part of Germany

An interview with Saudi gynecologist, Dr. Nadeem Elyas, who has lived in Germany since 1964.

Dr Nadeem Elyas is a doctor of gynecology and cytology originally from Mecca, Saudi-Arabia. Dr. Elyas is married and has four children. He came to Germany in 1964 to complete his medical degree and has always been active in Muslim organizations in Germany. He heads the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, which was founded as an umbrella organization uniting 19 Muslim organizations with approximately 700 mosque-communities. It embraces Muslims of different nationalities - Turks, Albanians, Bosnians, Germans and Arabs - in their respective organizations. Germany has a population of about 82 million, and Muslims make up about 2.8 million. In this interview, Dr. Elyas speaks to Islam Online's Juliane Hammer on the situation of the country's Muslims.

Q: How would you evaluate the general situation of Muslims in Germany?

A: From a legal perspective, we Muslims have a good starting position because of the guaranteed right in the Basic Law (German constitution). What makes a Muslim a Muslim - an Islamic way of life - is guaranteed and protected by the Basic Law. But we have to say that of the approximate 2.8 million Muslims who live in Germany today - many of whom are second- and third-generation - many have a hard time benefiting from these rights. These rights are abandoned on many levels, in municipalities, on the community and town level, not to speak of discrimination in daily life. It sums up and spurs the impression that Muslims are without rights in Germany. We do not accept that, but think that there are vacant spaces where the law should be applied. We try to solve these disputes with discussion and argument, but also in legal ways if necessary.

Would you say that there is progress in the acceptance of Muslim religious practice?

A: In the last 10 to 15 years there has definitely been progress, which is based on the new self-understanding of Muslims, namely the realization that most of them will stay in Germany for good. Especially the third generation, but also many in the first and second generations accept that now as well. That leads to new attempts to arrange ourselves within society, to shape their own institutions differently, and to adjust the programs of the Muslim organizations according to that. It is an opening process, a search for dialogue, and it involves the election of people to higher positions in order to work for these new goals. And these are often members of the third generation who were born here, went through the school system here, speak German as their mother tongue and understand the society better than their parents or grandparents.

That brings a new approach of dealing with the society, the media and the authorities. Muslims demand other forms of spatial representation. Unlike the backyard mosques we used to have, we now need mosques and community centers as places where people can meet to pray, participate in community life, learn and discuss topics of their interest.

There is a new self-confidence and self-awareness that express themselves in the way guaranteed rights are asked to be implemented. The problem with building permits is often a problem with local authorities, who either create problems or genuinely see them and make the permission process to build a new mosque or Islamic center long and complicated. A special problem is permission for "adhan," which usually leads to protests from the neighbors. Politicians, and especially priests, think that they have to protect society from "adhan." Many problems are based on prejudice and a lack of knowledge.

We usually try to solve these problems through dialogue, communication and only as a last resort, legal action. It is as much a challenge from society as it is one from within the Muslim community. The progress we see here is based on the understanding that it is wrong and dangerous to ignore the problems of a community as big as the Muslim one in Germany, because those problems will reflect on society as a whole.

Do you consider integration of Muslims in German society possible?

A: Integration is difficult, but not impossible, because the laws are already there and because Germany already is a multi-cultural and multi-religious country. It is an immigrant's country despite the denial of that fact by German politicians. Different religions and worldviews have been present for a long time, so it is not the foundations we have to lay. But co-existence has to be transformed into one state of togetherness with each other.

First, Muslims have to be willing to be integrated and secondly, society has to be willing to help this integration with legal action, through projects, changes in local restrictions and so on. The planned anti-discrimination law could be a step in the right direction. We don't want Germany to be a uniform society where the individual member has to lose his identity; that would not be beneficial for either the individual or Germany. We want to keep our identity as Muslims in Germany, as German Muslims. We want to be able to be different, stay in the framework of German society, but keep our religious values and lifestyle.

Society does not have the right to decide for us what parts of Islam are acceptable and what are not. This step has to come from us and we also have to be willing to use the flexibility of Muslim rules and regulations in the future to develop something you can call an Islam with German character. This is not a new invention. If you look around in the world you find many different faces of Islam in different regions of the world where Muslim communities adjusted to the country they live in and nevertheless kept their character as a Muslim community.

Is there a theological debate about how to adjust regulations to the situation in Germany, even more so now that Muslims decided to stay here for good?

A: There are discussions about that, not only in Germany, but more generally in Europe. There is the notion of "Fiqh al-Mughtarab," the Islamic Law Outside the Muslim World. It produces new interpretations of Islamic rules. Many prominent Muslim thinkers and members of the Muslim communities participate in these discussions and try to find solutions. There are problems, such as the traveling of women without male company, life of a single woman with a family, Islamic slaughtering, and others that are discussed and they lead to reasonable solutions that are at the same time Islamic and timely.

Which role do young Muslims play in your organizations? What part of your work deals with the specific problems of young Muslims who were born and raised in Germany?

A: We have a working group on family and social problems and they also deal with problems of the young Muslims. It is a group of sociologists, psychologists, teachers and other specialist who discuss all the questions concerning this important group of our community. Not so long ago, we had a hearing about problems of young people in German society, in their families and in the schools. We looked at whether or not Islamic activities offered by Muslim youth organizations grant sufficient programs to young people. This meeting will be transformed into an action program with recommendations for how to tackle some of the raised issues.

Another group deals with questions in schools, such as headscarves, swim training, class excursions and sexual education in school. We try to collect further information to suggest realistic solutions. But on another level, it seems important to me to mention that many third-generation Muslims are present in the leaderships of different Muslim organizations. We don't have a number and they don't function as a quota, but are an integral part of our organizations.

How many children of Muslim families in Germany are becoming practicing Muslims themselves? A recent estimate in the US said that about 10 percent of these children call themselves practicing Muslims. What are the numbers in Germany?

A: I don't know about the numbers and I already find the term "practicing" irritating. If a person prays and fasts regularly, things are clear. But what about all the people who go to the mosque once a week, which is sufficient if they go for Friday prayer? A young person who prays occasionally at home is not so different from many Muslims in the Muslim world. We have to be aware that fasting in Ramadan is often also a social occasion or a traditional one, less a religious one. But all these are expressions of faith and that I would call a success because it is a confession to Islam. I would call a person non-practicing who does not perform either prayer or fast and also doesn't consider these things important.

Can you tell us a little more about your personal experience as a Muslim in Germany?

A: During my studies I started to be active in Muslim organizations. After I finished my studies, I was so involved in Muslim activities that I thought it was irresponsible to just leave. From that time on, I did professional and Islamic work hand in hand and it never happened that finishing a professional goal coincided with a good time to hand over Muslim responsibilities to others. During that time, I also married and our children were born. We wanted to give our children a chance to get a school degree so that they could take the next steps without disadvantages. So we always found a reason to stay here. I am convinced that I am solving my task in life better as an active member of the Muslim community in Germany than as a doctor somewhere in Saudi Arabia or the Arab world. That doesn't mean that I decided to stay here forever, but I still see my stay in Germany as justified and useful for the community and so I stay.

How do you see your connection to the Ummah?

A: We define ourselves as Muslims in Germany or German Muslims. We are a part of the Ummah, but an independent part. We reject dependency and demand that the Muslims in Germany show loyalty for Germany, they should make Germany the focus of their life and activities. We do work for cooperation with the Muslim world, but don't want to be patronized by anyone in the Muslim world. At the same time, we criticize every event in the Islamic world or Germany that hurts Islamic principles or human rights. The Ummah is for us a frame of reference, but we are an independent member of it. Many regimes and organizations try to use the Muslim Diaspora in Europe and America for their own purposes, but they have understood that Muslims in the West are grown up and that it is not in favor of any side to abuse them for any purpose.

We have our own bodies. As a few examples, we have the Islamic expert council, where we attempt to make our own legal decisions. We also have a diwan that is trying to establish our own decisions about lunar movements, to decide about Ramadan and the feasts, independent of decisions in the regions of the Islamic world.

Juliane Hammer is a freelance writer from Berlin, Germany. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Studies at University of Humboldt in Berlin



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