Questions of equality at the fore in German Islam Conference

At an annual conference, Muslim organizations in Germany will discuss changes they hope will lead to more parity with German Christians. But the event has drawn criticism both from participants and others.

In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, children no longer have to go to a mosque to learn about the Koran - Islamic religious education is available as part of the curriculum at state schools. But there are no cemeteries under Muslim management, or public holidays to mark important Muslim festivals. So far, only two federal states - Hamburg and Bremen - are in favor of an interstate agreement guaranteeing such rights to Muslim organizations.

Launched by former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in 2006, the German Islam Conference, which takes place on May 7 this year, is the central forum for dialogue between the German state and representatives of Muslim organizations in the country. The aim is to improve cooperation between religious communities and the state. Over the years, discussion has focused on how to put Muslim communities on par with Christian communities, Islamic religious education in schools, recommendations for the construction of mosques, as well as religious fanaticism and its effects on safety in Germany.

The various parties represented have disagreed, however, and two years ago, two large Islamic organizations disappeared from the negotiating table: the Central Council of Muslims bowed out, saying recognition of Muslims as a religious community was not making headway. The German Islamic Council also was barred from participating because German authorities were in the midst of investigating its member association Milli Görüs.

Misguided approach?

Schäuble's successor Thomas de Maiziere increased the focus on security issues in a move criticized by representatives from the Muslim community. Ahead of Tuesday's conference in Berlin, Hans-Peter Friedrich, the current interior minister, also faces accusations of making security and terrorism too central in the event.

Five percent of the German population are Muslim. More than half of all Germans belong to either the Catholic or Protestant Church. "Despite their increase in numbers, Muslim miss out," says historian and religious affairs expert Thomas Grossbölting of the University of Münster. The Christian churches and the state are still closely linked, Grossbölting adds. "Much has remained the same - church tax, religious education in state schools and church representation on public broadcasters' boards."

The historian argues that Germany's existing Church Law should be supplemented with a law to reorganize the relationship between the state and religion. The state can only expect all religious communities to adhere to laws if it maintains the same amount of distance to all religious communities, Grossbölting told Deutsche Welle. "They must all receive the same degree of support."

Muslim communities lacking formal membership in associations should modify their organizations in order to participate politically and legally in German society, he adds. Grossbölting welcomes the introduction of Islamic religious education at state schools as "visible progress," adding that demands for public Muslim holidays in Germany are not absurd, either.

Empty seats

"The Islam Conference urgently needs a general overhaul," Aiman Mazyek told DW. The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany that represents about 300 Muslim communities believes the conference is by no means a dialogue among equals.

"A train heading in the wrong direction" was how Ali Kizilkaya described the Islam Conference in a newspaper interview. The head of the Islamic Council says the event is built on "security concerns and mistrust."

Once again, both organizations will not participate in the gathering on Tuesday in Berlin. There will be quite a few empty chairs. Apart from the Federation of Islamic Cultural Centers, the Turkish Community in Germany and the Turkish Ditib organization, only the Alawite community and two small religious groups will be seated around the conference table.