New university departments seek to shape Islam in Germany and Austria

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In Germany and Austria, migration is primarily viewed from a security policy perspective. As a result, immigration is fundamentally seen as a challenge. Various terrorist attacks in Europe, including attacks on Austrian and German soil, have reinforced this view.

The social, political, and economic potential inherent in migration tends to be neglected in the public’s perception. Yet there are many examples demonstrating this potential, notably the two Germans from an Alevi-Turkish migrant background who developed Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

One reason for the rather constrained perception of migration in Germany and Austria is the historical failure of both countries to advance a national integration policy, as previously argued by this author. As a result, an atmosphere of scepticism toward Islam and Muslims prevails, with the public debate dominated by voices arguing that Islam does not belong in Germany or Austria.

This has led to the creations of a blanket social image of Muslims within Austrian and German majority circles that does not correspond to reality. To counteract such developments, the Austrian and German governments are undertaking efforts to systematically and scientifically engage with the role of Islam in their countries.

These efforts have been borne out in ensuring the Muslim diaspora maintain a quality religious socialisation that leaves little room for foreign influence. This is intended, for example, to counter a Wahabi or jihadist expansion of Islam in German-speaking countries, or restrict a political Islam that explicitly rebels against the religiously-open secularism on European soil.

To this end, institutes and departments for Islamic religious education and theology have been established at various academic institutions, including the University of Erlagen-Nuremberg and the University of Vienna.

These new Islamic faculties must fulfil several important tasks while overcoming significant challenges. They must survive in the context of academic competition, achieving rigorous standards of research and teaching. They must simultaneously represent Muslim plurality, externally through interfaith dialogue, and internally through intrareligious dialogue.

They must capture everyday Muslim life within the framework of a practical theology and integrate it into the social realities of their respective country, providing Muslims with a way to establish and position themselves in their non-Muslim environment. In doing so, they have the chance to offer Muslims and non-Muslims living together in Europe the possibility to understand their each other’s religions and theologies without judgment.

These tasks become more challenging when they fall foul of representatives from Muslim organisations. To put it somewhat simply, the issue is sovereignty over the interpretation of Islam. When university research is not only dedicated to researching the “authentic” history and teachings of Islam, but also initiates controversial debates, representatives of Muslim organisations try to prevent such developments.

This became very clear regarding the Islamic theologian Mouhanad Khorchide, who teaches at the University of Münster. Some Islamic associations tried to declare his theological positions as non-Islamic and to deprive him of his professorship. For them, the practical knowledge of the religion, knowledge of rituals and their proper practice are utmost.

In parallel, certain Muslim organisations do not only represent specific religious or theological convictions, but also national interests. For example, the offshoots of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) known as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) in Germany and the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association (ATIB) in Austria.

Criticism of this understanding of Islam comes not only from Austrian or German authorities, but also from local Islamic organisations, which consider a nation-state orientation of Islam inappropriate.

The relationship between Islamic university institutions and Islamic organisations is unlikely to continue without friction. But there is no alternative to a productive cooperation. Both parties are aware of the heterogeneous and dynamic development of the Muslim diaspora in Europe. A considerable part of this diaspora will continue to emancipate itself in Europe and accept a Muslim-national Islam only to a limited extent. The great volume of publications and research on Muslims in Austria, Germany and Europe shows this development has already advanced significantly.

Ahval

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