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Germany's New Interior Minister Angers Country’s Muslim Leaders

Hans-Peter Friedrich has upset Muslims before with his historical views. Now, critics say, he hit more bad notes during the annual Islamic Conference, where he invited Muslim participants to form a "security partnership."

Freia Peters

Already lambasted for saying Islam has no historical connection to Germany, newly anointed Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friederich (CSU) dug himself a bigger hole at his debut this week at an annual conference meant to help integrate Muslims into German society.

Calling for a "security partnership," Friedrich invited Islamic conference participants to "act together to prevent radicalization and extremism." The interior minister called specifically for more vigilance in Muslim organizations and cultural centers. The conference took place Monday in the iconic German Historical Museum in Berlin.

While recognizing that Islamic extremism is indeed a problem, critics said Friedrich's focus on security was counterproductive. Rather than encourage cooperation, many of the Muslim group members in attendance said, his comments ended up arousing suspicion.

Aiman ​​Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, went as far as to say the conference failed. He described the meeting as a "security conference in disguise." "We're conducting phantom debates. I don't know how the conference is going to move forward," said Mazyek. "We've been in the same place for years."

In 2006, then Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) organized the first Islamic Conference in order to promote dialogue between the German government and Muslim residents. Stressing that Islam has an important place in Germany, he gathered together representatives of federal, state, local governments as well as members of Muslim associations. But when Friedrich took office earlier this month, he sent a very different signal to Muslims in Germany.

Of course, people of Islamic faith belong to Germany, he conceded, "but to say that Islam belongs to Germany is false, and has not been shown to be so throughout history." Friedrich repeated this statement at the Islamic Conference, asserting that the country has a Christian history. Friedrich argued that, in light of the recent attack at the Frankfurt airport and the "self-radicalization" of young people in Germany, there needs to be a new agenda of prevention and education.

The Interior Minister described the conference as a "very lively discussion." Many observers viewed it as an outright scandal. In a joint statement, nine of the conference's 10 independent Muslim representatives sharply criticized Friedrich, calling on him not to jeopardize the annual meeting's "long-standing efforts towards dialogue, and other recent achievements."

Many observers expected the new minister would employ either charm or symbolic gestures to try to reassure Muslim officials and resolve current tensions. Instead, Friedrich's call for greater cooperation between Muslims and security forces only added more fuel to the fire.

Ihsan Ünlü, the Secretary General of the conservative Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib), said Freidrichs's debut was unfortunate, and that his statements had "not been very conducive for the progress of the conference."

Even moderate, independent Muslim participants criticized the minister's handling of the Conference. Sociologist Turgut Yüksel warned Friedrich against putting all recent progress towards integration at risk, while Abdelmalik Hibaoui, an Islamic scholar, called on Frederick to clear up doubts about his intentions. "Most Muslims do not agree with his statement," said Hibaoui.

Many Muslim conference participants say the fight against extremism is not the only issue that needs urgent attention, with broader questions still unresolved about how Islam will fit into the fabric of German society.

During the conference, Education Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) provided details on how Islamic theology courses are gradually being introduced in German universities. The conference did not, however, focus on the effort by many associations to gain recognition as religious organizations. Such regonition is a prerequisite for introducing denominational Islamic religious instruction in public schools, a goal that has actually reached a cross-party consensus.

"This conference has been indecent," said Renate Kuenast, parliamentary leader of the German Green Party. "With the new Interior Minister Friedrich, the Islamic Conference has failed as a path towards integration."

"Friedrich is trying to enlist Muslim associations as deputy sheriffs," added Mement Kilic, integration policy spokesman for the Green party. "The Interior Minister still owes German Muslims a well-focused debate concerning integration policies in the coming years."

Political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad summed up the mood of the conference as follows: "All substantive issues were overshadowed by Friedrich's comments on Germany and Islam. Many Muslims were very upset. I'm trying to take this lightly, even though his statement is out of place. It is not the job of a politician to naturalize a religion in a society. The discussion of whether or not Islam belongs to Germany does nothing to help the integration progress."

Read the original article in German.

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