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11 / January / 2016

The Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue in Germany as an Instrument for Preventing Extremism

As an exclusive contribution to the Madrid+10 process, Dr. Ehrhart Körting introduced a German perspective on CVE. Involvement at a local level […]


As an exclusive contribution to the Madrid+10 process, Dr. Ehrhart Körting introduced a German perspective on CVE. Involvement at a local level of federal states, with partnerships between churches and mosques, to the highest level of government; intercultural and interreligious dialogue is essential to fight Islamic extremism

Even though Germany was mostly untroubled by terrorist attacks in the previous years, it was not spared completely.

Focus of the political debate and the authorities of security are on the one hand acts of right-wing extremist influence. We all remember the ten murders from 2000 to 2007. Nine of them directly targeted migrants and were committed by a group of three who called themselves “National Socialist Underground”. Additionally to that, only a few weeks ago attacks were directed at housings for asylum-seekers in Germany. Luckily, the buildings were mostly unoccupied.

On the other hand, in 2011 an Islamic extremist murdered two US-soldiers at the airport in Frankfurt. Additionally, there was a set of failed attacks: these include the preparation to assault the Iraqi prime minister Allawi in 2004 by three delinquents of Iraqi origin. In 2006,  there were bombs placed in trains in Cologne planned by offenders who sympathized with the Hizb ut Tahrir. There were the attacks planned by members of the Islamic Jihad Union in 2010 directed at accommodations of American soldiers and in 2012 there was an attempt of bombing the main station in Bonn by attackers who were thought to belong to the Salafist movement.

The main focus of attention is currently on the extremist Islamists who leave Germany to join the IS or other terrorist groups in Syria or the Iraq. The phenomenon is well known. Since ten years, people have been leaving to support terroristic activities in Afghanistan or Chechenia. A new part of that phenomenon is the high number of people leaving Germany to support the IS or similar groups in Syria. Public authorities now estimated that about 750 people have left for that purpose so far. Not only do they want to fight for the IS or die as suicide attackers but also do young girls leave to marry IS-militants.

By now there is no scientific knowledge about the mechanisms existing to radicalize these people. Most of them belong to the Salafist movement. Of the seven thousand followers of Salafism in Germany, three- to four thousand are believed to belong to political Salafism and hereby the Islamic extremists. The ones that have left to support terrorism are mainly men of all ages with an average age of 25. In most cases these men were not raised religiously but turned towards religion later in their lives. 10% of those men are converts, 90% have a migration background and come from Turkey and other Islamic countries but also the Kosovo and Bosnia. Their career opportunities in Germany are predominantly complicated and many of them lack graduation from school. Surprisingly though, quite a few were in an apprenticeship training or studied at the university. Many of those who have left to support terrorism have a history of criminal conviction for smaller criminal offences such as burglary, assault and battery or damage to property.

One of the motivations for joining extremists is the feeling of social exclusion because of religious beliefs. Migrants often suffer discrimination in Germany, especially whilst seeking a job or a place to live. In addition, there is the fear of the general public of Moslem followers, especially after the events of September 11th 2001. A hidden rejection not only by the right party but also the center ground of the community adds to that social exclusion.

Acts of prevention have to focus on two goals: they have to be able to show the migrants in the Federal Republic of Germany  – particularly  the four million Moslems – that they belong to us. It has to tell them: you are part of our country. Also it has to tell the general public that the Moslems are a natural part of our society. Both of these messages can help against radicalization. They are one medium to do so, but not the only one.

An important narrative of the movement of radicalization is the emphasis of the Moslems as victims in Germany. An unequal treatment of the Islamist religion is a common accusation. Parts of that are discussions in politics and the media for example about the equalization of men and women, the prohibition of the headscarf (hijab) for teachers, the swimming lessons for Moslem girls, the biology lessons which include sex education in German schools, the proper butchering of livestock and the circumcision of boys.
An accusation of disregard of the Islam by artists like Salman Rushdie or the caricaturist Westergaard and the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” adds to that matter.
Radicalists are able to derive a total rejection of the democracy from these discussions. Especially the freedom of opinion and press are thought to be contradicting the Islam.

At this point the intercultural and interreligious dialogue has to offer clarity.

In 2006 an initiative of the German Federal Government launched an Islam conference which now holds annual meetings. The Federal Minister of the Interior takes the chair in this conference. Moslem representatives of collectives, individuals and representatives of the Bund und Länder take part in equal numbers. As Minister of the Interior representing the social democratic parties I took part in these conferences for many years. This annual meeting is an attempt to discuss the questions mentioned above, to find solutions collectively by Moslems and non-Moslems and to communicate those solutions to the general public. An essential result of the German Islam Conference was to show the Moslems in Germany that Germany is a country of freedom of religion in which followers of the Islam are entitled to practice their beliefs as well as Christians or followers of other religions. At the same time the Moslems placed emphasis on the fundamental values and basic principles of living together which include the gender equality, the freedom of art and opinion and the regulation for a democratic education by the Federal Government.

In Berlin, one of the 16 federal states of Germany, a forum for the Islam was founded in 2005 which meets several times a year. Here also, representatives of Moslem organizations, the church and representatives of the Berlin administration meet and discuss the issues at hand. Similar forums exist in the other Federal States of Germany. We offered advanced training courses for the imams, achieved the possibility of proper Islamic funerals and made it possible for Moslems and non-Moslems to meet and exchange ideas. Once a year, Berlin celebrates the “Night of Religions” in which many mosques take part in. The feast of breaking the fast – the Id al-Fitr – has been celebrated by Moslems and non-Moslems for many years and has become a shared tradition.
Similarly, we founded a group for teenagers of Christians, Moslems, Jews and Baha’i beliefs in Berlin. Their members act as ambassadors for more tolerance in schools.

The Catholic and Protestant church in Germany takes part in a dialogue with mosques. At a local government level there are partnerships between churches and mosques, as well as there are contact officers in the police force who visit mosques to discuss problems of juvenile delinquents and offer help or solutions.

The museum of Islamic art plays an important role in Berlin as it does not only show exhibitions of countries shaped by the Islam but also highlights similarities between the religions with exhibitions like “One God”. It also developed teaching materials for schools.

These examples, especially from the level of the local government of Berlin, could only be the beginning. In many municipalities and cities in Germany, advisory boards for integration matters exist. Questions concerning integration matters of the Moslem community are discussed and solved here in public. The interreligious dialogue could be imagined like a colorful, tightly woven carpet. It spreads from the highest level of government to the local level of the federal states and to the cities and townships.

This dialogue may not be the universal remedy for the fight of the Islamist terrorism but it can make an important contribution to the fight against the radicalization by extremist Islamists. It contributes on all levels of government. For the fight against Islamist terrorism, we still need the help of Islamic organizations and mosques, the contribution by educational means in schools and a prevention-based work for security in the police force. In addition to that, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has to offer intelligence to the public about possible dangers.

In Germany, we are shocked to hear that there are three to four thousand followers of the political Salafism and the more than 750 people have left to support the extremist Islamists. But we should consider this from a different perspective:
More than four million Moslems live in Germany. Due to the refugees currently coming to Germany to seek asylum, five to six million Moslems will soon be part of our community. The Islamic extremism is a safety issues that we have to take seriously, especially as it threatens the peaceful cooperation of different religions and the community of people consisting of different religions. Therefore, when our intercultural and interreligious dialogue continues successfully this Islamic extremism will hopefully only be an issue concerning a very small minority in Germany.

Dr. Ehrhart Körting
Senator of Interior of Berlin 2001-2011


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