Germany

Islam in Germany: Muslims prefer to be talked to rather than talked about

Mosques have been opening their doors to the German public for 20 years. But is the dialogue working given the rise of far-right parties like the AfD? DW's Kathleen Schuster reports from Cologne on how mosques see it.

Central mosque in Cologne (picture alliance/dpa/R. Jensen)

On a day celebrating German unity, many Muslims have reason to wonder if "German unity" applies to them in light of recent federal election results. The third strongest party in the Bundestag will be the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party which has rejected the Islamic faith as part of German cultural identity.

October 3 is the country's national holiday and, for many Germans, just a day to sleep in or earn some extra cash at work. For mosques around the country, however, it's the day of their national open house: neighbors can take a tour, satisfy their curiosity about Islam and local Muslims and – of course – eat.

To be Muslim and nonpartisan

Indeed the smell of oil and charcoal wafting into the prayer room is the only indication that something different is going on at this Cologne mosque. The plush Bourdeaux carpeting of the sacred space seems to absorb all outside sounds – and our feet – as Tarik Yilmaz and Mustafa Karatas talk community outreach.

"Our religion is at the forefront of our work. Not politics," Karatas tells DW.

Visitors at a mosque observe daily prayer

Germany's mosques began annual open houses in 1997 and have carried forth the tradition ever since. Technically, though, most mosques in Germany are open year round to the public upon appointment

Muslims have become the center of many heated debates over public safety, women's rights and even loyalty to the German state in recent years. Hence, dispelling misconceptions is one of their priorities. However, they emphasize that this work is nonpartisan, just like their cooperation with local religious groups and charities.

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"It's a mosque community so it's a good idea not to be politically active," the board's representative explains.

Yilmaz, a 27-year-old theologian who recently started working at the primarily Turkish house of worship, agrees: "People come here to pray or because they have friends here and to eat some food. We don't really talk politics."

Still, in a community where they have strong partnerships, what do they make of the AfD winning over 9 percent in their constituency? An answer is out of the question.

Feeling the pain of neo-Nazi terrorism

Just a few blocks away from that mosque and theology school in northeastern Cologne is the site of a nailbomb attack perpetrated by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground (NSU). It was a hit on the Turkish community and an attack on social cohesion and multiculturalism in Cologne.

The wounds of the attack lie much deeper than the shrapnel that left over 20 injured in June 2004. The terrorist attack on Keupstrasse was one of a dozen the NSU carried out between 2000 and 2007. Yet, despite the attackers' identities being known to police in the late 1990s, it wasn't until a botched robbery brought the right-wing terror cell to light in 2011 that officials cleared members of the Turkish community of suspicion.

Film Der Kuaför aus der Keupstrasse

The bomb planted by the NSU sent over 700 nails flying through Keupstrasse. For several years, officials interrogated locals suspecting the crime to be linked to Turkish mafia

The case has raised questions about right-wing sympathizers among police and a how large the blind spot to right-wing extremism in Germany is.

And, with the rise of the a party like the AfD – one whose leaders have made racist and Islamophobic comments, as well as relativized the Holocaust and have been known to use Nazi rhetoric – critics worry that a far-right party in parliament could embolden the country's radical right-wing scene.

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Rising violence toward Muslims

For Ahmed Erdogan, like many on Keupstrasse, the swift rise of the far-right AfD has been a shock. "Where will this lead?" he wonders.

Tucked away from the frilly bridal dress shops and bounteous bakery display cases that line Keupstrasse, the local mosque is easy to overlook. It's one of the oldest in the Cologne neighborhood of Mühlheim, where over 40 percent of the population has foreign roots. According to Erdogan, who's on its board, it has been and remains very active in community outreach and cooperation – making the AfD's popularity all the more puzzling.

Infografik AfD Bundestagswahl 2017 Bundesländer ENG

This year, there have nearly 20 attacks on Muslims and nearly 400 incidents of "Islamophobic crimes," ranging from hate speech, threats and damage to property, according to a governmental inquiry from the Left party. As it's the first year officials have assessed the crime rate against Muslims, no previous data for comparison has been analyzed.

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Meanwhile, the AfD's rhetoric surrounding Islam has also raised concerns. In addition to dismissing the religion – one practiced by over 4 million people in Germany – as being a part of German society, the AfD also wants to prohibit minarets and the call to prayer.

"The AfD sees a great danger to our state, our society and our set of values through the spread of Islam and the presence of over 5 million Muslims, whose numbers are increasing," the AfD said in its party platform, which states that Muslims who obey the law and are "integrated" are "valued members of society." The far-right party denies all accusations of Islamophobic or racist rhetoric.

Given the need for dialogue these days, mosques can choose to stay out of politics, but as a Muslim it's hard to "keep out it," Erdogan tells DW.

The Keupstrasse mosque doesn't participate in the national open house because it's open to anyone everyday, just like most mosques. And if there's one point Erdogan and his colleagues at the neighboring mosque agree on, it's this: dialogue – and not fear – is the only way forward.

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