In March it seemed as if Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) wanted to smile away at what his Turkish host, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had just suggested to the Germans. Scholz had traveled to Ankara to explore mediation options in the Ukraine war.
But at the joint press conference, Erdogan suddenly brought up another topic: the training of the imams who work in the thousands of Turkish mosques in Germany.
Erdogan suggested having the Islamic prayer leaders trained at the Turkish-German University (TDU) in Istanbul in the future. An institution that was founded in 2008 as a cooperation project between the two countries and is partly financed by federal funds. A mainstay should also be established in a federal state in Germany.
In order to advance the project, he, the Turkish President, has already named two negotiators. Erdogan reported that the Chancellor had also promised to “appoint two officers” in order to prepare “appropriate steps”. Scholz left that uncommented. And the public didn’t give a damn about the Turkish head of government’s idea.
The project could have serious consequences for the future of Islam in Germany.
Mosque associations like Ditib, which are subordinate to the Turkish state, have had problems covering their need for imams for years. According to estimates, around ninety percent of the Islamic clerics who work in Germany are sent from abroad; in the case of Ditib by the Turkish religious authority Diyanet. The federal government wants to end this practice in the medium term. Since 2020, she has been demanding proof of German language skills from imams, which makes entry more difficult. And it supports theological training courses based in Germany.
The hope: political sermons in line with the nationalist Turkish government policy, anti-Semitism scandals, espionage, militarism – everything that many associate with the places of worship of the large Turkish mosque associations could soon be a thing of the past thanks to imams who have been socialized in Germany.
But Turkey is not willing to give up its influence on the believers in Germany. At the beginning of June, the Turkish President created facts. By decree, he decided – hardly noticed in Germany – to found a theological faculty at the TDU, which has been considered increasingly loyal to the AKP for years.
The journalist and Islam expert Eren Güvercin says: “Behind this lies the goal of the Turkish government not to lose the monopoly and ideological influence on theologians and imams.”
Has Erdogan convinced the federal government of his project at the TDU since the press conference with Scholz? The Chancellery does not want to comment on the events. The TDU falls within the purview of the Ministry of Education. There is also no information on the question of whether Scholz actually took Erdogan’s request to name a contact person for further planning into account. A government spokesman said there was no comment on “internal government action”.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is surprised by the presidential decree from Ankara. A spokeswoman says that the founding of a theological faculty can be decided solely by the TDU committees responsible for this and jointly by the German and Turkish sides. The equal German-Turkish steering committee is responsible.
On the German side, this includes representatives from the Ministry of Education and the Federal Foreign Office. According to the Ministry of Education, the committee has not yet dealt with the topic. The TDU website also says nothing about the opening of a new faculty. The university left a question about this unanswered.
It seems: Erdogan has pushed ahead. And he believes: The others will follow.
The traffic light is taken by surprise. The Federal Government has only known since March that Turkey is planning to found a theology faculty at the TDU, according to the Ministry of Education.
However, this is demonstrably wrong. According to WELT information, Turkey’s plans for the TDU were already discussed with the federal government in October 2021. The occasion was a trip to Istanbul by Markus Kerber, then State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of the Interior.
There, the deputy president of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet, Selim Argun, reported that the rector of the TDU was interested in cooperation with the religious authority Diyanet. This could “possibly be part of the future approach to imam training,” says a protocol of the meeting that was prepared by the German Embassy in Ankara and is available to WELT.
Argun and a representative of the Turkish Foreign Ministry made it clear to the German government how urgently a solution to the imam problem was. 87 imams are still waiting for a visa because their knowledge of German is not sufficient. The posts are vacant in 70 percent of the mosques affected. The problem: The online German courses during the pandemic are significantly less effective than face-to-face courses. The federal government promised to “exchange a solution”.
As a recommendation for action, the embassy document states: “Keep a critical eye on the TDU’s interest in a course of study in theology”.
This leads to the conclusion that there were reservations on the German side about the idea of an Islamic theology course at the TDU.
The recent history of the university is one of small and medium-sized scandals. In March 2021, a lecturer made homophobic, racist statements. And he attacked Germany: The Germans would only accept Islam “as cultural diversity, like in a zoo”. And he tweeted: “We spit on your fucking EU.”
In May 2021 there were devastating headlines again: The TDU reported the internationally renowned migration researcher Mehmet Murat Erdogan because he had criticized the Erdogan government. The political scientist Burak Copur from Essen criticized WELT that the TDU had degenerated into a “politicized lobbying institution of the Erdogan regime”.
The federal government, which invested almost 30 million euros in the university by 2020, left the incident untouched. Andreas Görgen, then head of department at the Foreign Office, put it on record that his authority would not intervene. Because then the matter ends up “on a political level where you don’t want them to be”.
Volker Beck, lecturer at the Center for Religious Studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum, warns that the degree program announced by Erdogan could thwart Germany’s efforts to establish its own Islamic theology. Erdogan wanted to “declare war on the unloved university Islamic theology in Germany,” said Beck WELT.
Last year, for example, an Islamic college opened in Osnabrück, which is intended to train imams independently of the large umbrella organizations. The Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) and the State of Lower Saxony are funding the project.
For Beck, therefore, there must be no support for a possible theological faculty at TDU. “As long as Erdogan and the Diyanet rule everything in the German mosques of Ditib, one must not respond to such advances,” he says.
Expert Güvercin also sees a connection between German efforts to train their own imams and Erdogan’s decree. Turkey sees the establishment of Islamic theology at German universities as an attempt to push back the influence of Ankara and the Turkish religious authority Diyanet. “Erdogan’s decision to found a theological faculty at the TDU is an expression of mistrust of Islamic theology at German universities,” says Güvercin.
Ditib representatives would discredit such training courses located in Germany as “state Islam”. Any attempt by German Muslims to emancipate themselves and break away from the state and ideological influence of Turkey and the AKP is “denounced as treason.”
Will there actually be a theological faculty at the TDU? So far this is unclear. It would be a delicate development for the federal government. Because it could mean that tax money flows directly into the training of Ditib imams.