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Kerem Öktem
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.


With an estimated population of more than four million, Germany's Muslims constitute the second largest Muslim immigrant community in the European Union, after that of France, and constitute approximately 5 percent of the country's population. The community's immigrant status, as well as its internal differentiation along national, ethnic, linguistic, doctrinal, and political lines, shapes its internal dynamics and its interactions with the institutions and politics of the majority society, which is mostly antagonistic to expressions of Muslim identity. Over 60 percent of Muslims in Germany hail from Turkey, while one-fifth emigrated from the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Muslims from Turkey are further differentiated as Turks, Kurds, and Alevis, a heterodox religious community distinguished by a distant Shīʿī ancestry. The latter two groups are estimated at somewhere between half and one million. Other notable communities are Arabs, particularly from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Maghrib, as well as smaller Twelver Shīʿī congregations from Iran. Not all Muslims in Germany identify primarily by creed, are organized in religious associations, or attend mosque regularly. Evidence based on Friday prayer attendance and membership in “burial funds,” however, suggests that at least half of Turkish Muslims are associated with organized community life in one way or the other.

Legacies: Orientpolitik, Holocaust, and Immigration.

Even though Islam in Germany is a phenomenon inextricably linked to the labor immigration that began in the late 1950s, the political field of Islam and Muslims has been shaped by a set of historical legacies preceding the migratory movements by more than a century. Early contacts with the Muslim world began in the eighteenth century, with the arrival of the first Ottoman envoy to the Prussian Court in 1763 and the establishment of a Muslim cemetery in Berlin in 1798. The first prolonged German encounter with Muslims took place during the period of economic, military, and political cooperation with the Ottoman Empire, starting from the second part of the nineteenth century. This cooperation culminated in the German-Ottoman coalition of World War I, with results that would impact German attitudes towards Muslims, Arabs, and Turks for decades afterwards, and probably more deeply than the romantic Orientalist tradition, which also has its roots in the same period. The participation of German officers in the Armenian genocide and the declaration of jihād on British and French colonial armies by Sultan Abdülhamid II are particularly noteworthy during this period. The latter was a project advanced by the maverick German diplomat Max von Oppenheim, who convinced the German Foreign Office that a partial jihād declared by the Sultan would weaken the war efforts of its enemies by opening new fronts in the east. While this policy had little impact at the time, Oppenheim made a comeback in World War II when the National-Socialist government reintroduced the holy war rhetoric to exploit Arab nationalist struggles against European colonial powers. Part of this strategy was the largely inconclusive attempt to enlist the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Ḥājj Amīn al- Ḥusaynī, in the Nazi war effort, even though he did accept a part in the recruitment of Bosnian Muslims for the mostly Muslim 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS called Handschar. Some German commentators refer to these incidents today as signs of Arab collusion with Hitler.

Another long-term effect of the ties with the Ottoman Empire was that of immigration. When the booming postwar economy of Germany required additional labor force for the reconstruction effort of the 1950s, Turkey as well as the former Ottoman and Habsburg territories of Yugoslavia emerged as the most important sending countries. A recruitment treaty was concluded with Turkey in 1961, and with Yugoslavia in 1969. Although recruitment ceased in 1973, close to three million Muslim immigrants lived in Germany by the 1980s. The 1983 law encouraging the return of migrants was an important symbolic watershed. Around 200,000 Turkish citizens left the country, while those who stayed made the decision to settle permanently.

Another defining moment was the German unification of 1989, which, among other things, created conditions for a resurgent extreme nationalist movement. A number of racially motivated arson attacks against Turks and Muslims in the 1990s were followed by a series of murders against the owners of mostly Turkish kebab restaurants in the 2000s. The killings were carried out by the neo-fascist National-Socialist Underground (Nationalsozialstischer Untergrund), which was infiltrated by members of the intelligence services, who are believed to have refrained from intervening in the murders. While these prominent cases, and the notorious stabbing in court of Marwa El-Sherbini in 2009 by a defendant in a racism trial, evidence a mainstream public sentiment in Germany shaped by suspicion towards Islam and Muslims, the fact that some of the masterminds of the 9/11 terrorist attacks had operated from Hamburg in northern Germany stoked the overwhelmingly negative majority perception of Islam and Muslims.

Contemporary Spaces of Islam and Politics.

The political Muslim sphere of Germany can be separated into three distinct domains: the politics of integration and exclusion; the domain of Muslim associational life with its politics of recognition, community building, and transnational networks; and the space of Muslim actors in German politics.

The Politics of Integration and Exclusion.

Much of the political debate on Islam and Muslims in Germany focuses on immigration and the perceived threat of “non-integrated” immigrants. While prominent German politicians have emphasised repeatedly that “Islam is a part of Germany,” Islamophobic rhetoric has generally overshadowed public debates. Many of these debates are initiated by protagonists of a so-called Critique of Islam (Islamkritik) and imply the irreconcilability of Islamic traditions and scripture with the German constitutional order and what is often referred to as “Judeo-Christian” Europe. Recurring themes are limitations on ḥijāb in the public sphere, the status of women in Islam, the effects of male circumcision, and the impact of radical Islamist movements. In such debates, whether in the media or in public forums, Muslims are often invited to speak on behalf of all Muslims, but are usually expected to accept the accusations and affirm their personal allegiance to the constitutional order by distancing themselves from “extremists” or “conservatives.” Comparable anti-Muslim attitudes prevail in debates addressing requests and claims made by Islamic associations and Muslim representatives, particularly in discussions about the building of mosques, provisions for fasting and ḥalāl food, Islamic religious education, and gender-segregated sports classes. Such imperious attitudes in the public domain have also been reflected in the agenda-setting of discussions between state representatives and Muslim associations in the German Islam Conference (Deutsche Islamkonferenz), a corporatist body set up by then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in 2006. Although many Muslims initially welcomed it as a first step towards state recognition, the Conference eventually became a platform from which German officials presented their expectations to Muslim associations, including a “partnership for security,” which effectively mandated some members of the Conference to spy on others.

Muslim Associational Life, Community, and Transnational Politics.

Despite the narrow field that such an anti-Muslim sentiment in state and society leaves, Muslim immigrants have engaged in an impressively diverse, if fragmented, associational life since the 1970s. The most influential movement to emerge from these early days was the German section of Milli Görüş (National View, since 1995 Islamische Gemeinschaft Milli Görüş, Islamic Community Milli Görüş, IGMG), Turkey's mainstream Islamist political movement then led by its charismatic chairman Necmettin Erbakan. Milli Görüş created the initial infrastructure of contemporary Muslim life in Germany, mobilizing hundreds of emerging “backyard mosques” into a hierarchically structured movement providing social and religious services to the wider community. In time, these mosques would also become ports of call for Bosniaks and Albanian Muslims, who shared with Turks a Sunnī Ḥanafī tradition, the religious heritage of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the sense of limitations of the secular nation-states that succeeded it in the twentieth century. For many Bosniaks and Albanians it was easier to pray in the “Turkish mosques” beyond the control of Yugoslav authorities.

At the same time, Milli Görüş also campaigned for the establishment of an Islamic state in Turkey. Muslim activists on this political quest became increasingly radicalized after the Islamic Iranian Revolution of 1979. As the emergence of the Islamic Republic coincided with a Turkish military coup, which also targeted Erbakan's movement, Germany became a destination for leading Turkish Islamists. An offshoot of the IGMG under the preacher Cemalettin Kaplan led to the emergence of the elitist and sectarian “Union of Islamic Associations and Communities” (Verband der Islamischen Vereine und Gemeinden, Islami Cemaat ve Cemiyetler Birliği) in 1984. From its headquarters in Cologne, the Union worked towards the violent overthrow of Turkey's secular order, and it took on the epithet of the “Caliphate State” in the mid-1990s. While the Caliphate State collapsed with the incarceration and deportation of Kaplan's son and successor Metin, in 2004, Germany's IGMG gradually distanced itself from the Islamic politics of Turkey and transformed into a Muslim community committed to life in Germany, as well as to larger issues concerning the ummah. In a groundbreaking ethnographic study of Milli Görüş, anthropologist Werner Schiffauer described its “Post-Islamist” turn from Islamist movement to Islamic community, in terms of cadres, organizational principles, and ideological debates.

Notwithstanding this transition, the IGMG remains under the surveillance of Germany's intelligence services (Offices for the Protection of the Constitution) of the federal states (Landesverfassungschutz) and the central state (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), with significant disadvantages for members and sympathizers. They may face prosecution and can be denied German citizenship. Public bodies are discouraged from dealings with this significant Muslim association in Germany, which is the second largest after the DITIB (Diyanet İşleri Türk Islam Birliği, Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion, Turkish Islamic Union of the Presidency of Religious Affairs). DITIB is the German branch of Turkey's Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and serves as the national umbrella for almost nine hundred locally constituted mosque communities. While decidedly nonpolitical, DITIB is closely tied to the religious policy of Turkish governments, with all of its religious personnel and administrative infrastructure maintained by the Diyanet. While DITIB used to stand for a “Kemalist state Islam” and hence was deeply suspicious of Milli Görüş and its political activism, this antagonistic constellation has been partly eroded during the government of the Justice and Development Party since 2002.

In addition to a range of other Turkish Muslim associations with different sectarian, political, or linguistic affiliations, Bosniaks and Albanian speakers from Kosovo and Macedonia are organized in mosque associations, which are related to their national Islamic Unions (Islamska Zajednica, Bashkësia Fetare Islame). In addition, there are many Arab Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Community of Germany (Islamische Gemeinde in Deutschland). These are rather loose associations of small numbers of mosque communities that recoil from public visibility and presence. In the case of the latter, this is also due to allegations of organizational proximity to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and hence observation by the intelligence services.

Since 9/11 and the growing public scrutiny of Muslims, alongside the need for representation in the German Islam Conference, umbrella organizations have proliferated. One example is the Liberal Islamic Union (Liberal Islamischer Bund), which, despite a membership of fewer than 120, has garnered heightened media attention for its support of liberal policies such as same-sex marriage. The more prominent associations with a claim to representativeness, such as the Central Council of Muslims (Zentralrat der Muslime) and the Islam Council (Islamrat), have formed a coordination body with the leading Turkish-Muslim associations, called the Coordination Council of Muslims (Koordinationsrat der Muslime). As is evident from this unduly large number of umbrella organizations, as well as from the insistence on unity and centrality in their naming, the associational landscape of Muslim organizations is still far from representing a unified Muslim position. Surveillance of some member organizations by the intelligence services, and an antagonistic public debate keep many Muslim associations from engaging with larger societal questions, and exacerbate intra-Muslim fragmentation.

Meanwhile, the Alevi movement has taken a different route to integration and recognition, effecting a relatively successful transformation from socialist activism with roots in Turkey's revolutionary parties of the 1970s to Diasporic community building. Despite a continuing focus on “homeland politics,” and specifically the campaign for Alevi rights in Turkey, the Alevi Community (Alevitische Gemeinde Deutschland, AGD) has followed an accommodationist policy towards state agencies since the 1990s. In most federal states, the AGD has been registered as a religious community with the right to teach Alevi belief in public schools: this prerogative is withheld from mainstream Muslim organizations. Intelligence services tend to treat Alevi organizations with more sympathy, and sometimes Alevis are presented as a panacea to “fundamentalist Islam.” This creates political opportunities for Alevi organizations, while it pits them against Islamist or post-Islamist organizations such as Milli Görüş.

Muslims in Politics.

A third domain of Muslim politics pertains to the engagement of Muslim immigrants in German political parties and in federal and state parliaments, where the number of representatives particularly of Turkish and Kurdish descent is high in European comparison. The growing presence of Muslim Members of Parliament as well as of ministers at the state level within the parties of the left has had some impact on the politics of recognition of Muslims and immigrants, even though the country's citizenship regime remained relatively restrictive despite attempts at reform. Since 1999 citizenship has been based on the principle of territorial descent (ius solis) rather than the lineage of blood (ius sanguinis), yet the law has also explicitly outlawed dual citizenship, thereby significantly limiting its appeal particularly for Turkish immigrants. Some members of the principal party on the right, the Christian Democrats, continue to hold on to a “Judeo-Christian” notion of European civilization and revert to anti-Muslim rhetoric, yet even there, a growing number of Muslims have begun to take political posts in local and federal state parliaments. In most cases, however, Muslim politicians’ portfolios tend to be limited to “immigration and integration” issues, curtailing their impact on larger policy issues. With the exception of Turkey, most foreign policy areas have remained outside the reach of Muslim politicians. This is particularly true for “Muslim concerns” such as Israel, Palestinian rights, and opposition to Western intervention in the Muslim world.

Muslim Futures in Germany.

Germany's transformation from its postwar ethno-nationalist orientation towards an open society based on immigration and diversity has been erratic and is far from completion. The resulting approach towards Islam and Muslims by both state and society appears to owe more to ontological insecurities rooted in German history, Orientalism, and the Holocaust than to the actions or politics of Muslims as such. It does, however, account for much of the precariousness of Muslims’ presence in Germany, their politics of recognition, community-building, and transnational mobilization. Considering demographic trends, German society is progressively reshaped by immigration and cultural and religious diversity. While this could further fuel insecurity in some parts of German society, it also bears the potential to open up space for Muslims in their quest for recognition and participation in the larger body politic.

The fragmented nature of the political Muslim sphere, as well as the relevance of Turkish-speaking Muslims, will almost certainly continue, while a “common Muslim space” that would be internally diverse but able to concur on core issues, is unlikely to emerge in the near future. New, non-ethnically based Muslim organizations are likely to gain more ground. Current movements such as Wheels (Zahnräder) and the Muslim Youth of Germany (Muslimische Jugend Deutschland), where Muslims of the second and third generation with different countries of origin join in the pursuit of shaping society and exploring their identity, are a case in point. While some Muslims will become more active within a German context, transnational connections will maintain their importance, whether in terms of relations with the country of origin or with other Muslim communities. Another potentially relevant development may be the very recent emergence of Salafī groups, which have succeeded in attracting a considerable number of disaffected young Muslims in urban areas. Their future, as well as that of the Muslims of Germany more broadly, will largely depend on German state policies towards Islam in general, and towards Muslim associations that operate within the confines of the constitution in particular.


  • Al Hamarneh, Ala, and Jörn Thielmann, eds. Islam and Muslims in Germany. Muslim Minorities, vol. 7. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008.
  • Bade, Klaus J., Pieter C. Emmer, Leo Lucassen, and Jochen Oltmer, eds. The Encyclopedia of Migration and Minorities in Europe: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Mandel, Ruth Ellen. Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Schiffauer, Werner. Nach dem Islamismus. Eine Ethnographie der Islamischen Gemeinschaft Milli Görüş. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010.
  • Schneider, Thorsten Gerald, ed. Islamfeindlichkeit. Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwinden, 2d ed. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010.
  • Sökefeld, Martin. Struggling for Recognition: The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008.
  • Yurdakul, Gökçe. From Guest Workers into Muslims: The Transformation of Turkish Immigrant Associations in Germany. Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.
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