"Islam Needs a Fair Chance in Germany"
Hamburg, the second-largest city in Germany, has concluded a "historic treaty" with its Muslim communities that grants Muslims broad new rights and privileges but does little to encourage their integration into German society.
The November 13 agreement, signed by Hamburg's Socialist Mayor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of four Muslim umbrella groups, is being praised by the proponents of multiculturalism for putting the northern port city's estimated 200,000 Muslims on an equal footing with Christian residents.
But critics say the agreement, the first of its kind in Germany, will boost the growing influence of Islam in Hamburg and will encourage the perpetuation of a Muslim parallel society in the city.
The most controversial part of the accord involves a commitment by the city government to promote the teaching of Islam in the Hamburg public school system. The agreement grants the leaders of Hamburg's Muslim communities a determinative say in what will be taught by allowing them to develop the teaching curriculum for Islamic studies.
Moreover, Muslim officials will also be able to determine who will (and who will not) be allowed to teach courses about Islam in city schools. In practice, this means that only Muslims will be allowed to teach Islam and that pupils will not be exposed to any critical perspectives about the religious, social and political ideology of Islam.
Under the wide-ranging accord, Muslims in Hamburg will also have the right to take three Islamic holidays as days off from work. Up until now, it has been up to individual employers to decide whether or not to grant Muslim staff religious days off on a case-by-case basis. In addition, Muslim students will be exempt from attending school on Muslim holidays.
The agreement also includes provisions for the construction of more mosques in Hamburg, the upkeep of cultural Islamic facilities, the authorization for Muslims to bury their dead without the use of coffins, as well as the counseling of patients and prison inmates by Muslim clerics.
Hamburg has also pledged to incorporate Muslim broadcast slots alongside Protestant and Catholic broadcasts on public and private radio and television, as well as broadcasting council seats for Muslims with the northern Germany's NDR public broadcaster and Germany's federal ZDF television channel.
Muslims for their part undertake to respect fundamental rights and support equality between the sexes, although the document provides no specifics on how these notions are defined or how they will be enforced.
Mayor Scholz, who is a former federal labor minister of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), described the signing at the Hamburg city hall as a "milestone" for integration, adding: "With the signing of these agreements, we are strengthening the societal foundation of our city: we are all Hamburg."
Hamburg's agreements were made with the city's Alevi community (Alevis are a liberal sect within Islam based mostly in Turkey) and three Muslim umbrella organizations: the DITIB Turkish-Islamic Union (DITIB), the Council of Islamic Communities (Shura) and the Federation of Islamic Cultural Centers (VIKZ). Together these four groups are said to represent about 90% of the Muslims living in Hamburg.
Zekeriya Altug, chairman of the Hamburg branch of the DITIB Turkish-Islamic Union (DITIB is actually a branch of the Turkish government's Ministry of Religious Affairs), called it a "historic day" for both Hamburg and Germany. In a statement Altug said: "With it, Hamburg has today set a precedent for the future of our country. Many Muslim employees didn't dare ask for days off on those days for fear of being seen badly. Now they will be able to say: 'It's my holiday, it's governed by law.' That makes an enormous difference."
The agreement still requires final approval by Hamburg's Parliament, in which Scholz's Social Democrats hold a majority. Mayor Scholz said he hoped for a "broad consensus." The opposition Greens have welcomed the accords; Green Party spokesperson Christa Goetsch called them "a new chapter in the history of equality." And Hamburg's Protestant Bishop Kirstin Fehrs said the agreement proved that Hamburg was "open to the world and tolerant."
Nevertheless, SPD parliamentary leader Andreas Dressel urged caution. In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, he said political leaders should "take their time before approving such important matters." He said the Hamburg Parliament's Constitutional Committee will convene an expert hearing on the agreement and that a vote will not take place until the spring of 2013.
The leadership of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) has also expressed skepticism about the agreement. Party leader Marcus Weinberg and party chairman Dietrich Wersich issued a joint statement saying that although they welcome the conclusion of the talks, after six years of negotiations there are key issues that remain unresolved: "The agreements contain a number of points, the implementation of which need to be clarified. For this reason, the CDU will not take a final position on the matter until it concludes discussion with representatives of the churches, with scientists and with lawyers. The unresolved questions involve detailed issues such as the regulation of the school day, the teaching of religion in public schools and the holidays."
The agreement has also been met with vociferous opposition from the classical liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). In a statement, FDP Deputy Anna von Treuenfels characterized the agreement as "an unnecessary and imprecise treaty unacceptably negotiated behind the backs of the citizenry." She added: "Moreover, this agreement is totally imprecise when accuracy is required more than ever. On the issue of wearing religiously motivated clothing by public servants, especially teachers [sic]. Even the future of the heretofore successful interdenominational model of religious education in Hamburg is being jeopardized. Plus the fact that the lengthy negotiating process and final signature has been carried out without parliamentary involvement is also unacceptable, yet another reason why the FDP rejects this treaty."
The Central Council of Ex-Muslims, a Cologne-based group representing former Muslims who have been sentenced to death for apostasy, said the signing of the accord on November 13 represented a "black day" for Germany. Chairperson Mina Ahadi said: "The city of Hamburg has bowed to pressure Islamic organizations and has made concessions that are a step backwards and do not improve the rights of women."
Muslims for their part hope the Hamburg treaty will establish a precedent for the rest of Germany to follow. The spokesperson for the Alevi community in Germany, Aziz Alsandemir, says: "We hope that this accord will be viewed as a trigger by other provinces."
Bremen, the second-largest city in northern Germany, is close to finalizing its own treaty with local Muslim umbrella groups. According to the Socialist mayor of Bremen, Jens Böhrnsen, "Muslims form a significant part of the population of Bremen." The German states of Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein, both of which are run by Socialist governments, are also looking at negotiating treaties with the Muslims in their regions.
At the national level, the SPD has said it would like to see Islam recognized as an official religion in Germany. In an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, SPD politician Dieter Wiefelspütz said: "It would be an important signal to the four million Muslims in Germany, if the state recognizes Islam as a religious community." He added: "Islam needs a fair chance in Germany."
Why are Germany's Socialist politicians, who are usually militantly proud of their secular credentials, bending over backwards to accommodate Islam? The SPD hopes to unseat German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the German elections in the fall of 2013, and Muslim voters may very well determine the outcome.
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