Meet Germany’s first Islamic affairs consultant – DW – 08/13/2023

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There are about 2,800 mosques in Germany. Often, they find themselves at the center of discussions or disputes, especially whenever Islamic houses of worship with distinctive characteristics, such as a tall minaret, appear as part of the cityscape.

Although the same standards generally apply to mosques as to churches or synagogues, much depends on the local regulations of each municipality.

These sorts of situations are where 44-year-old Hussein Hamdan can step in. A doctor of Islamic and Religious Studies, he has become Germany’s first Islamic affairs consultant, in which capacity he helps to resolve conflicts between Muslim communities and local government authorities. For the past eight years, Hamdan has worked as an Islamic affairs consultant in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. 

He remembers exactly how his first assignment went: “It was June 2, 2015, and a district administration office asked me for an appraisal of a Sufi association,” he told DW. Sufis are followers of mystical Islam, known for their music and spiritual dance. There are only a handful of these communities in Germany. The religious scholar was able to assuage some of the uncertainties among local politicians.

Construction of the mosque in Esslingen near Stuttgart was long a contentious issueImage: Bernd Weißbrod/dpa/picture alliance

First Muslim in the Catholic diocese

Hamdan is employed by the Catholic Church, where he has worked since 2012, the first Muslim at the Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. About 11 million people live in the state of Baden-Württemberg, about 800,000 Muslims among them. The first mosques were built in the state in the 1990s.

Initially, Hamdan was responsible for a project called “Young Muslims as Partners.” Supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, he is available as a consultant for local government authorities and decision-makers.

He often deals with everyday questions. Is the minaret too high? How can local authorities best understand the who’s who of all the individual Islamic groups in their communities? How can a municipality best integrate young Muslims? On the other hand, how can a mosque community promote the integration of their young people?

Most of the time, there are no blanket answers to these questions. The height of a minaret must be based on the relevant building regulations for the urban area in question. In areas where Muslim believers have lived for decades, there might be more exchange between their communities and the local governments than in others.

Mixed reactions to Germany’s first liberal mosque

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Hamdan also explains to mosque communities how the process of local government works in Germany. Who can they contact for assistance? Hamdan says a prerequisite for successful dialogue is for the mosque communities to put forward trusted spokespeople.

Almost 50 local authorities throughout Baden-Württemberg have made use of his consulting services. “Sometimes, it is only a conversation that takes one or two hours. In other cases, it could take two or three appointments,” he says. In a few cases, he needs to walk the parties through a longer process. “It is not about providing ready-made solutions, but about recommendations for action,” the Islamic affairs consultant emphasized.

Hamdan understands the differing views when it comes to building mosques in Germany. While some see it as part of a process of “Islamization,” others find publicly visible mosques, which are often built as replacements for facilities tucked away in backyards or industrial parks, as a sign of a more open, cosmopolitan society. 

One of the cases Hamdan advised on involved a town of 8,000 inhabitants whose local council ultimately rejected the construction of a minaret. Hamdan said that at least it was possible for both sides to continue talking with each other.

Open house at Germany’s mosques

Up to 1,000 mosques are opening their doors to visitors on October 3 under the slogan “Good community, better society.” DW takes a look into this community event at the Islamic houses of prayer.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

German mosques – German unity

The “Day of Open Mosques” has taken place since 1997 on the Day of German Unity – Germany’s national holiday. The date was deliberately chosen to express Muslims’ connection to the German people and how they consider themselves part of German Unity, the Central Council of Muslims explains. About 100,000 visitors are expected – here, some are seen standing in front of Berlin’s Sehitlik Mosque.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

On this day, Muslim communities want to give visitors an understanding of Islam, so where better than an actual mosque? Far more than just places for prayer, mosques also serve as gathering points for creating community and social interaction. The word “mosque” derives from the Arabic word “majid,” which means “place for prostration in prayer.”

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Paul Zinken

Part of getting to know Islam is becoming familiar with its rituals and rules. One initial ritual before entering the mosque involves removing one’s shoes before entering the prayer room. There is a focus on cleanliness and purification: before each prayer, Muslims carry out a ritual ablution. Because worshipers touch the prayer rug with their foreheads, the carpets must always be clean too.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

Most mosques offer guided tours, as seen above with this mosque in Hürth near Cologne. Here, visitors can get a picture of Islamic architecture, history and day-to-day life in a mosque, and hence understand more about how Islamic communities in Germany gather and build community.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

The Merkez mosque in Duisburg, opened in 2008, is the largest mosque in Germany. Integration work is one of the focal points for Duisburg’s Muslim community. Besides guided tours through the mosque, visitors get the chance to attend noon and afternoon prayers. Afterwards, visitors are invited for a cup of tea.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

Experiencing an Islamic prayer is one point of the agenda for the October 3 event. But the actual area for prayers is off-limits for visitors. As can be seen in the Sehitlik mosque here, visitors listen to prayers from a grandstand. The word for prayer in Arabic is “salah” or “salat,” which literally means “connection to God.”

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hanschke

This boy was given a chain with prayer beads during the Day of Open Mosques at the Frankfurt. The faithful move the beads through their fingers to repeat prayers and chants, just as is done in Christendom and Buddhism. This chain, consisting of at least 33 beads, is called “tasbih” or “misbaha” in Islam. The beads prove to be useful when reciting Allah’s 99 names.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

Mosques in Germany open their doors for cultural understanding on other occasions, too. For instance, during the German Catholic Convention, Catholic nuns take part in guided tours, as seen here in the Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque in Mannheim. Such occasions offer an opportunity for Catholicism and Islam to cultivate a close relationship.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Mosques in Dresden invite visitors to cultural exchange as well. The Al-Mostafa mosque has already published a schedule of events: there will be lectures held by the imam about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran, as well as conversation hours to share refreshments, learn and discuss. In a city where the Islamophobic PEGIDA group made headlines, this offering is especially important.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

Critical questions about Islamic groups

He also informs local authorities about Islamic groups that are being watched by the German constitutional protection authorities, which are charged with tracking extremist movements.

In addition, he warned against generalizing all mosque communities that belong to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), whose political influence in Germany has been criticized in the past. “We must always look at each individual mosque community. Because the communities could vastly differ from city to city,” he told DW. Mosques that are part of DITIB, the largest umbrella organization of mosques in Germany, have been criticized because they are subordinate to, and allegedly controlled by, Turkish religious authorities.

“Part of having an honest dialogue is addressing critical questions,” Hamdan emphasizes. He recommends that representatives from local authorities and mosques get together to exchange views more often. “It requires sharing a meal, drinking coffee together, celebrating together. But it also needs exchange about how we handle critical questions, which of course also impact our lives together here in our local municipalities.”

Hamdan places a lot of value on the inclusion of Muslims, especially young Muslims, in local government projects.

His efforts have been praised by the anti-Semitism commissioner for the state government of Baden-Württemberg, Michael Blume. “Hussein Hamdan proves that the coexistence of religions is truly playing out at the grassroots level,” Blume told DW. “Countries which do not want to experience clashes like those seen in France should invest now in local dialogue and advice regarding Islam.”

This article was originally written in German.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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