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September 12 2011 16:00 | Künstlerhaus am Lenbachplatz, Clubräume

Islam in Europe by Susanne Bühl

Susanne Bühl

Community of Sant’Egidio, Germany

Islam is permanently present with a larger number of believers in Europe for only half a century. This is a new historic situation. Of course, Islam has already played a role in Europe for centuries. Let us shortly look back into history: during the Arab expansion, parts of Europe came under Islamic rule for shorter or longer periods of time – the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, Sicily in the 9th century and large parts of South-Eastern Europe since the 14th century. Historically speaking, Europeans rather perceive Islam on the basis of conflicts: thinking of the crusades, the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 or the Turkish siege of Vienna in early modern times. However, it should not be forgotten that these conflicts are contrasted by diverse cultural contacts. The Arab language is an important bridge of European culture to antiquity: Scientific and philosophical writings of Greek philosophers were preserved in Arabic translations and thus found their way into European culture. Since the age of Enlightenment, the reception of oriental culture has played an important role in European art and literature. This can be seen, for example, in Goethe's "West-Eastern Divan".

Due to larger migration flows, a more intensive contact with Islam than ever before occurred in the 20th century. In the 60ties, Germany was in need for workers and recruited foreign workers, among them also Muslims mainly from Turkey. At first, the state authorities did not think of permanent immigration. However, a quarter of the workers, which came as so-called "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers) stayed as permanent residents. Recruiting was stopped in 1973 due to a recession. Since then, there has been no immigration of workers except for some exceptions. Foreigners, who immigrate to Germany today, mainly come within the framework of joining their families or are refugees due to political persecution or civil war. After the recruiting in the 60ties, it took decades until Germany was called a country, which attracts a large number of immigrants. For a long period of time it seemed that one did not want to tackle this social reality. Therefore, up to the 90ties few measures were taken to integrate foreigners. 

This also affected the living conditions of Muslims in Germany. Especially for those who stayed permanently, questions arose about the possibilities to practise their religion. So-called "backyard mosques" were built, rather provisional places. Only after the immigrated Muslims gained more foothold in Germany, mosques could be built so that it became visible that Islam had arrived in Germany. 

How does Muslim life in Germany look like today? I shortly want to comment on some results of a current study of the German Islam Conference. According to this study 3.8 to 4.3 million Muslims live in Germany. They represent about 5% of the population and approximately a quarter of the people with a migratory background living in Germany. Thus in Europe, Germany comes after France where 10% of the population are Muslims, then the Netherlands with 5,2% and Sweden with 5%. 63% of the Muslims in Germany are of Turkish origin, 14% come from south-eastern European countries and 8% from the Middle East. 45% of them acquired German citizenship. 90% of the Muslims living in Germany state that they are religious. The religious practice of Muslims is different depending on their region of origin and their denomination. About one third often goes to the mosque, another third rarely and another third never. Their degree of organisation is rather low; only approx. 20% of them are organized in religious associations and communities. It is rather unknown to the German public that the Muslims living here strongly identify themselves with Germany: 70% of them are closely involved with Germany; 36% have a stronger relation with Germany than with their country of origin. According to International studies, 40% of the Muslims living in Germany have a close bond with the Federal Republic in contrast to only 34% of the entire population. Furthermore, the trust of Muslims in important German institutions is considerably higher than the trust of the entire population– e.g. trust in the judiciary system is at 73% compared to 49% of the entire population. Studies like these are valuable because German society knows relatively little about their fellow citizens even after having living together for many decades. 

By and by Muslim life becomes rooted in Germany. Up to now, there has been no Islamic religious education according to Art. 7 III GG (Basic law), which is equal to the religious education of the Christian churches or the Jewish religious community. The reason is the missing organisational structure of Muslims compared to the churches or the Central Committee of Jews in Germany. According to the majority's opinion this would be the constitutional prerequisite for such religious education. However, in several Federal states, pilot projects were initiated or a school subject called, for example, "Islamic instruction" was introduced to guarantee that Muslim children and adolescents could learn about their religion in public schools. There are also endeavours to educate imams and Islamic religious teachers at German universities. German scientists and politicians alike keep demanding this. Starting with the next winter semester, Islamic scholars will be educated at the University of Tübingen for the first time. 

An important milestone on the way of Islam to "arrive" (feel at home) in Germany was the establishment of the German Islam Conference by the Federal Government in 2006. Interlocutors are state representatives and representatives of Muslims in Germany, while representatives of Muslim associations as well as single persons can be appointed. The participants of the conference regularly meet for discussions and deal with a variety of subjects such as integration and combating of discrimination, but also homeland security. 

Besides the social dialog there is also a dialog between the religions on different levels in Germany, which certainly can and has to be intensified. In the Catholic church the II. Vatican council was an important turning point. The church entered unknown territory with the subject of dialog with other religions. Here special reference is made to the Declaration Nostra Aetate in 1965, which named especially Islam and Judaism as interlocutors. Pope John Paul II. implemented these ideas of the Council when he invited the world religions to a day of prayer for world peace in Assisi in 1986. He was convinced that religions can fulfil their mutual responsibility for world peace. This "Spirit of Assisi" prompted the Community of Sant’Egidio to invite to the International Peace Meetings since 1987, in which important Muslim representatives participated right from the start and considerably influenced the course of these meetings. 

However, the Community of Sant’Egidio is also committed in other ways in the dialog among religions. Our service for the poor in 70 countries of the world is always for people of all religions and this often offers opportunities for inter-religious encounters. I would like to contribute to this with a personal example: within the framework of my commitment at Sant’Egidio I visit foreigners, which have to wait for their deportation in prison. When talking to them, religion often plays a role. I particularly remember an afternoon in prison, when 3 Muslims talked to me about the death of John Paul II., who had died the day before. They expressed their condolences and called him a great man. I was very much impressed by their sympathy. 

An important place for inter-religious encounters are the language and culture classes of the Community of Sant'Egido where immigrants from different cultures and religions are taught the language of their host country. At the end of the 90ties, Sant’Egidio founded the movement "Peace People" with many of them. Today, more than 20.000 men and women from more than 120 countries belong to this movement. Delegations of this movement from different countries are here in Munich in these days, too. The founding manifesto of the movement states: "All of us have a dream: that people can live together, no longer thought of as foreigners. We want to live this Movement of ours amongst the most diverse peoples, where this very diversity is seen as a positive value. We realise that respect for each other, that non-violence, justice, solidarity and mutual esteem, are not just dreams, but are the real secret of saving this world in which we live."

In this manifesto, the members of the movement commit themselves to work for peace, to respect every man and woman, to non-violence and to solidarity with those who suffer and are weak. 

For the "Peace People" some appointments during the year are especially important because they make the spirit of the movement visible: on Christmas, the Community of Sant’Egidio invites their friends from different cultures and religions to a mutual festive Christmas dinner; thus showing them that when everyone is celebrating with the family, the Community is thinking of all their friends and wants to celebrate with them. "Peace People" help to prepare and realize this feast. Other fixed appointments of the movement are the Muslim "Eid al-Adha" and "Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. Many Muslims participate in these feasts and are thus able to continue to live their traditions with others even when they are far away from their countries of origin. Among those who help and serve during these feasts are, of course, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindu and non-believers. In some prisons in Europe, the Community of Sant’Egidio also invites Muslims to the feast of breaking the fast. The feasts of the different religions are always an occasion for the movement Peace People to transmit greetings to their friends and to take interest in the tradition and religion of the other. 

I think these examples show how the Community of Sant’Egidio promotes with their work the dialog between Christian and Muslims, not only between the leaders of the religions, but also among "simple" believers. Especially these days of the International Peace Meeting show that it is a precious contribution when religions and cultures meet. It is even more: an indispensable prerequisite for peace where everyone of us can contribute. 


Munich  2011

of H.H. Pope
Benedict XVI

09.11 - Destined to live together: New York - München
Destined to Live Together
Semptember 11, 2001
Link New York-München 

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