Die Welt

Islam Doesn’t Only Belong in Germany. It Also Belongs to Turkey.

Angela Merkel has done it again. From abandoning nuclear energy to embracing a new minimum wage, the Chancellor excels at appropriating opponents’ signature proposals, offering voters a magic carpet ride to her growing political camp in the process. The rug she pulled out from her competitors’ feet this time, of course, is the milestone of dual citizenship for future Germans of Turkish ancestry.

On the centenary of the Imperial-era citizenship law, Merkel the Conciliator has put an end to the CDU/CSU’s “opt-out at age 23” nationality experiment and enshrined the reform process begun by her Red-Green predecessors. Helmut Kohl’s own son recently denounced his father’s Ausländerpolitik – back in the 1980s the former chancellor said privately there were too many Turks by half. Now, Merkel – the fallen-away political heiress – appears to have joined the revolt against the father.

But don’t be fooled: this generation of conservatives has not rejected the last one’s Orwellian refrain that “Germany is not a country of immigration.” Because the new law denies dual citizenship to those currently living in Germany, Kohl’s protégée has in fact chosen to preserve his bitter legacy: a foreign Turkish population of millions – including many who will have resided exclusively (and excluded) in the Federal Republic – for decades to come.

Straightforward electoral math is one underlying motivation for not going all the way. Populist blowback could subtract voters away from the CDU/CSU at the same time that hundreds of thousands of new Turkish-German voters would gravitate to her rivals in the Social Democratic Party. Indeed, today’s protestants – the Alternative für Deutschland party – tacking theses to the Chancellor’s door have a nationalist-populist flavor, including explicit loyalty requirements of new citizens. That party already cost her one regional governor’s seat and, perhaps, an absolute majority of seats in this Bundestag. And no CDU politician can forget that the largest single postwar popular mobilization was a 1998 petition signed by five million Germans against dual citizenship for Turks.

Fifteen years later, the nativist tail continues to wag the (outwardly tolerant) dog. The decision to exclude current Turkish-German generations from dual citizenship betrays a fundamental incoherence in German policy. While officials publicly demand that Turkey “let go” of its diaspora, they have also accepted Turkish religious and educational authorities’ counsel, services and resources for decades. This creates a tautological situation wherein Germany behaves as if the current generations’ connections to Turkey render them hopelessly foreign. But with the wave of a legislative wand future generations will become incontrovertibly German?

Steps taken towards an independent “German Islam” have similarly gone from one unrealistic extreme to the other. Authorities have only considered unattractive choices: continue the wholesale importation of Turkish Islam; hand German Muslims over to Turkish authorities for religious training; or force the birth of a purely German Islam. President Joachim Gauck recently made clear the last is the method of choice.

Germany will only rely on the Turkish government for mosques, imams and teachers until it can remove Turkey from the equation. Some Germans solemnly evoke the historic 1882 independence of Bosnian Islam from the Ottoman Caliphate as precedent: It is only a matter of time before religious legitimacy and authority will have passed from Ankara and Istanbul to nascent hubs of German Islamic theology – from religious education training in Münster and Osnabrück to Tübingen and Göttingen – free from the influence of foreign capitals.

Like the new citizenship regime, this is enlightened conservatism. But with every gesture of midwifery, German authorities appear more worried about cutting the umbilical cord than how German-Turkish Islam might need its mother outside the womb. It is disingenuous to assert that German Islam ends at Germany’s national borders, for it denies the reality of German citizens’ transnational ties. Moreover, it sets the stage for volatility and larger showdowns to come.

An apt analogy is France’s 1905 law that evicted the Church from long-held roles and broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In the century since that divorce, significant corrections were made to account for the reality of French Catholics’ ties with Rome. Germany’s overnight cultivation of local Islamic theology faculties and teacher training facilities is impressive. But time after time, modern nation-states have had to accept they cannot reduce the complex field of religious influence to black and white.

Rather than aiming for an 1882 or a 1905 moment, Germany should instead be encouraging Turkish Islam to experience something far more conservative: Vaticanization. This implies the creation of Diocese-like structures: foreign outposts of religious authority and education for youth abroad beyond the Papal States’ borders. Under duress from the Reformation and faced with the prospect of Catholic minorities, the 16th century Council of Trent marked the beginning of Rome’s momentous transformation from temporal to spiritual capital for a global diaspora. Europeans should encourage something similar to take place for Ankara and Istanbul, too – along with the many other centers of religious authority within contemporary Islam whose descendants now live in Germany and Western Europe.

A surprising place for Berlin to find inspiration for its Islam policies today is in fact across the Rhine. Earlier this year a Turkish-sponsored Imam-Preacher religious school was opened along with a future theology faculty in Strasbourg. Under today’s conditions, such foreign-sponsored religious institutions are neither the long arm of foreign states nor a reminder of past indifference towards extremist schools before 9/11. The new schools and Turkish sponsored theology departments in Europe, instead, represent a momentous opportunity for acculturation. Having locally trained clergy free of the taint of “Euro-Islam” or “Islam Light” would end the counterproductive clerical rotation between European cities and Ankara.

The 21st-century French solution vis-à-vis Turkish Islam demonstrates a subtle understanding of the linkage between statehood, a diverse population and transnational religious structures. During the past two decades alone, Turkish Islam would look very different today without the European minority experience: the status of women, the Alevite minority, even the Kurdish issue have all been influenced in liberalizing directions thanks to the Turkish state’s courting of local political authorities and the diaspora in democratic Europe.

France harbored the Young Turks in the early 1900s and shaped the course of the 20th century Turkish Republic. Now Germany is home to millions of actual young Turks, and has a chance to support the 21st century evolution of Turkish Islam with authoritative Turkish-German voice and participation. But first it has to get realistic about 21st Century Germany.

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt.