Muslim culture in germany: and islam is changing after all

German society is changing Muslim culture. In a fashion studio and an eco-mosque, you can see how.

Isikali Karayel at the Twelve Apostles Cemetery in Berlin: "finally a place for Muslims in the middle of the city" Photo: raa

If you were looking for a picture where you could immediately see that Islam somehow stands at an angle in the German landscape, that it does not belong to German history, that it is a "foreign body" that can find "no home" in Germany, as it says, for example, from the AfD: You could find it at the Twelve Apostles Cemetery in Berlin.

One could measure it with a triangle. Because the rows of Muslim graves are not at a 90-degree angle to the sidewalk, like most other resting places and as one would expect in well-regulated Germany, but at a 45-degree angle.

It is part of the Islamic burial rite to face the deceased toward Mecca, southeast as seen from Germany. But the cemetery was not designed for this purpose. Its paths run along a north-south axis.

The Muslim area is located at the edge of the cemetery. It has been here since 2015. A green place of peace, separated only by a wall from the Schoneberg interchange. Mecca lies behind the cross.

A question of mind-set

Isikali Karayel, 42, runs an Islamic funeral home. He chats briefly with the cemetery workers who stand next to the chapel with rakes and wheelbarrows. Karayel likes this place. "Finally, a place for deceased Muslims in the middle of the city," he says.

Critics of Islam, who exist in all political camps, consider Islam incompatible with the Basic Law. According to a 2015 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, 61 percent of Germans – and the trend is rising – believe that Islam does not fit into the Western world. Many people in the political debate assume that there is a clear distinction between "Germany" and "Islam," as if it were unambiguous what is meant by the two.

But if you look at it with a different eye, you don’t see any incompatibility. One sees how dynamically German administrations and Muslim stakeholders approach each other. You see that Islam is not being put over Germany like a burka and Islamizing society, as some seriously claim. One sees that Muslim everyday life has German characteristics. "A crazy amount has changed in the last thirty years," says Karayel, the funeral director.

German cemetery regulations

In a famous study, the ethnologist Clifford Geertz compared the Muslim societies of Indonesia and Morocco. "Islam Observed" is the name of it, from 1968. Geertz drew the picture of a religion that is overformed by local cultural processes. Islam, as Geertz can be understood, can only be read in the social framework in which it is practiced. It is thus not only what unites all Muslims, but also what divides all Muslims.

So how is the Muslim culture of German Muslims shaped by the fact that they are Germans who read German fashion magazines, follow German debates, use German infrastructure, and observe German cemetery ordinances? How German is the Muslim culture in Germany?

Meriem Lebdiri has to think about how she explains what German Muslim fashion is. "German, I first think of Dirndl and Lederhosen," she says. But then she shows her pieces.

Lebdiri, 28, is a fashion designer, born in Algeria, raised in Rhineland-Palatinate, educated in Bruchsal. She says she fuses the attributes of being Muslim and being German in her designs. That doesn’t sound spectacular in light of the fact that four million Muslims live in Germany. But when you think about what that means, it does open up a whole closet of questions.

The zipper allows for a decision

Besieged Vienna: The first Muslims arrive in Germany as prisoners of war after the Ottomans besieged Vienna for the second time in 1683.

Diplomacy: In 1763, the first permanent Ottoman legation establishes itself in Berlin.

World War I: In 1915, the first mosque in Germany is built in Wunsdorf, Brandenburg – in an internment camp for Muslim prisoners of war.

World War II: In 1922, the "Islamic Community of Berlin" is founded. During the Nazi regime, all Muslim associations are dissolved.

Recruitment agreements: Most Muslims come to Germany as labor migrants in the 1960s and 1970s.

What does something look like in which "German" and "Muslim" are explicitly interwoven, two concepts that often stand side by side in social debate like two concrete blocks, rigid and incompatible? What does something look like that shows not the differences, like the 45-degree graves in the Twelve Apostles Churchyard, but the agreements?

Meriem Lebdiri wears black pumps, black trousers, over them a black dress and a black blazer. She speaks polished High German, and says she would have loved to be a TV presenter – but with a headscarf: "Difficult thing in Germany. Lebdiri now runs a small fashion studio in Germersheim, Palatinate, a winding town with a 19th-century fortress. She once held a fashion shoot in the ruins: models wearing hijabs on the rubble of the old walls.

Her studio is a white room with white chairs, white shelves and white daisies on a white table. Six pieces hang on a clothes rack: three plain dresses in linen and cotton fabrics, all with the chimney effect – air in at the bottom, air out at the top. A subtly flowered tunic. A herringbone coat. And a brown coat in Italian wool.

What is supposed to be German about a coat made of Italian wool that is sewn with black lace from Algeria where other coats have a collar? Lebdiri says, "German is simple." Good material, understated elegance and muted colors – that’s what’s described as German in fashion shows, he says, when in doubt.

What’s German about a coat made of Italian fabric and Algerian lace? Pieces by Meriem Lebdiri Photo: raa

"I don’t call my fashion Muslim, I call it Modest Fashion," Lebdiri says. In international fashion parlance, Modest Fashion stands for discreet clothing that covers the body, as worn by Muslim women. In theory, however, any woman can wear it without being considered Muslim because of it. Lebdiri’s label "Mizaan," Arabic for "balance" or "measure," is one of the few German labels that design such fashion. Not explicitly Muslim, then. Does she also design headscarves? "Yes, I also design scarves."

Muslim-German fashion, Meriem Lebdiri says, is fashion designed by a Muslim woman who grew up in Germany and thinks German. A woman who wants to cover her body for religious reasons and is influenced by the aesthetic characteristics of her surroundings. The blazer Lebdiri wears has zippers on the sides. You could open them and let skin peek through. Lebdiri has them closed.

Culture is never pure

German, according to this understanding, is what happens in Germany. In an open country, where the thoughts of those who live here flow together; where, as in Lebdiri’s brown coat, Italian wool and Algerian lace can be recombined to make something third. Something that exists only here.

Culture is never pure. Culture is more than the "heritage of fathers and forefathers". And Germany does not only include those who know and preserve this heritage. Even if AfD politician Alexander Gauland recently defined it that way. Culture is when things flow together because people think them together. Because they ascribe meaning to the confluence.

There is a tendency to think of radicals and fundamentalists as "Islam." Salafists, some of whom recruit for the "Islamic State," and German converts who let themselves be ensnared by them until they themselves are Salafists. They, the patriarchs, the honor killers, the reactionary hyper-religionists. It is not unusual for the most extreme figures to stand out.

But the panoramic picture is much more complex. The cultural scientist John R. Bowen wrote in 2012 in "A New Anthropology of Islam" that the Prophet Muhammad "left no instructions, no complete list of how to practice the religion – how to pray, how to perform ritual ablutions, what to do on days of fasting."

What all Muslims share is the label Muslim. Moreover, what all German Muslims share is the German environment. It is a pluralistic one in which there is freedom of religion. Everyone is allowed to believe what he or she wants and to talk about it openly.

It is also an environment in which there is a Christian-based state-church law. There are Christian welfare organizations, but not yet a Muslim one, partly because there are many Muslim organizations, but not a single one that speaks for all German Muslims. Muslim sick people are therefore often cared for by Christian chaplains, and Muslim people in need of care are cared for in homes run by Christian associations.

Moreover, all German Muslims share the German debate about Islam. There are arguments about headscarves in schools and offices, about burkinis in swimming pools, pig parts are put down in front of mosques.

There is no such thing as "Islam

Above all, however, there are differences among German Muslims. There are Sunnis, Alevis and Shiites; in Germany there are many Muslims of Turkish origin and not quite as many of southeastern European and Arab origin, as well as Southeast and Central Asian, Persian and sub-Saharan Muslims. There are those who pray every day, but there are also those who argue with their tradition-bound fathers because they go out more often than to the mosque.

Up to 80 percent of Muslims in Germany are considered so-called cultural Muslims, who are as devout as the majority of German Christians: They celebrate their festivals and cultivate a Muslim culture without being particularly religious.

What does not exist is a central institution like the pope, who speaks for all Catholics.

Rabeya Muller, 59, a native of Germany, converted to Islam in the late 1970s. Twenty years later, she founded the Center for Islamic Women’s Studies in Cologne, which advocates a gender-just reading of the Koran. In the Muslim Community of the Rhineland, of which she is a member, men and women pray together, and they take turns leading the prayers. Muller even performs Islamic marriage ceremonies, like an imam.

Muller, who wears rimless glasses and ties her headscarf behind so that her neck remains free, described herself as a Muslim feminist even when it wasn’t so popular. The openness to such currents has always been inherent in Islam, she says. "Many would like to be the Pope of Muslims. But there is no such supreme teaching authority in Islam. We have to preserve that plurality."

Does she see herself as an ambassador of a German Islam, or at least a Rhenish one? She does not like the term – and yes, perhaps it is indeed just the next cliche. Moreover, the association suggests that "German" is a normative term, along the lines of: Islam is bad – until it is German, then it is good.

But one thing can be said: A gender-just reading of the Koran may not be exclusively German – but the fact that the topic is anchored in Germany fertilizes the debate.

Three goals, all missed

Ender Cetin, left, next to Justice Minister Heiko Maas (with glasses), at Berlin’s Sehitlik Mosque, after the Islamist terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 2015 Photo: ap

A Friday evening in Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. At the sehitlik Mosque in Neukolln, Germany’s second-largest Muslim place of worship, around a hundred worshippers have gathered to break their fast together. The women sit at long tables in the courtyard. Some men are preparing to distribute meals, others are rocking strollers in the street, and the rest are sitting inside watching soccer, Spain versus Turkey. Spain wins 3-0, most of the men miss all three goals. Food is served, then the muezzin calls for the breaking of the fast, the third goal is scored during the evening prayer in the mosque that follows.

The sehitlik Mosque, a magnificent building with a minaret nestled against the park grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, was not only built in the style of 17th century Ottoman mosques. It is also officially located on Turkish soil. This ground also includes a Muslim cemetery whose origins date back to a diplomatic cemetery. It was transferred to Turkey in the 1920s.

The mosque belongs to the Turkish-Islamic umbrella organization Ditib, which reports to the Ministry of Religion in Ankara. Ankara sends the imam, who preaches in the mosque, marries couples and says the ritual prayer for the dead at funerals. For Green Party leader Cem ozdemir, Ditib is therefore the "extended arm of the Turkish state."

Recently – after the Bundestag named the Ottoman Empire’s crimes against the Armenians as genocide and this was strongly criticized by the Turkish government – Ditib disinvited German politicians again, whom it had initially invited to break their fast at the sehitlik mosque.

The mosque is an example of why the Islam debate in Germany is being conducted with a big stick. At first glance, it corresponds exactly to what German politicians and publicists think of when they complain about an imposed imported Islam – a foreign body that is not interwoven.

But what one sees is always what one is prepared to see. Those who find a parallel society here – another concept that emphasizes incompatibility – find it only because they have sought it out and ignored the complex local conditions.

A mosque with an eco-certificate

Ender cetin, 40, the chairman of the sehitlik community, is a man who works to break down fronts. He has to deal with Islam-haters who carry out arson and paint attacks on the mosque, and he juggles a wide variety of demands: those from Ankara and those from old and young community members. Some see the mosque as a place of retreat, others as a place of representation where one shows off one’s faith.

Is the sehitlik a Turkish mosque? At the question, cetin has to sort himself out for a moment, then he says, "Yes." Because yes, it is structurally linked to the Turkish religious authority Diyanet. And yet, some of the things that happen here would probably not happen in any mosque in Turkey.

Last year, the congregation guided some 30,000 visitors through the mosque, which can also be seen as a bid for recognition in a heated atmosphere. cetin invited gays and lesbians to discuss Muslim homophobia. This caused an outcry in some Turkish media and irritation among older members of his community.

The sehitlik community was once founded by former first-generation guest workers, people who also saw themselves as guests and always intended to return to Turkey. "For the elders, the mosque was a piece of home and a meeting place," says Ender cetin. Her children and grandchildren, however, like cetin herself, grew up in Germany and see themselves as part of German society.

One of the few German places where Modest Fashion is created: the Lebdiri studios Photo: raa

cetin says he notices the extent to which his German socialization has impacted his interpretation of Islam, for example, in the way he incorporates environmental aspects. "Environmental awareness is not so great in the first generation and in the Turkish community in general. For me, protecting the environment is one of the core messages of Islam. We want to be a green mosque." cetin has sought advice on how to improve the mosque’s environmental footprint. Soon he will get a green energy certificate, and he plans to hang it in a prominent place in the mosque. That’s why he sometimes hears someone mock that his congregation is so integrated, says cetin – "because we address issues that at least the older generation is not used to."

German topics in the Turkish mosque

What is recognizable is movement: Traditions from the country of origin do not simply flow into parallel structures. cetin does not import Turkish debates to Germany. Rather, he integrates topics from German society into the Turkish mosque.

This is also possible because the mosque association that cetin heads was founded according to German association law. The prayer house is therefore supported by the local community. And the decisions the association makes are strongly interwoven with developments in Neukolln.

Imams sent from Ankara are sometimes disillusioned when they arrive here. When graduates of a highly respected Islamic institution from Turkey meet young people from Neukolln, friction is inevitable. Some young people are inattentive during Koran lessons and talk in between. But the Turkish imams are used to respect. They have little knowledge of the young people’s lives, which is why they sometimes find it difficult to accept them as authorities. The world of life shapes being a Muslim just as much as tradition does.

The story that fashion designer Meriem Lebdiri tells about herself begins when she was eleven. At that time, she says, she began to think about what it meant to be a Muslim in Germany. During summer vacation, before she entered high school, she began wearing a headscarf. "I was raised religiously, just like Christian children are raised religiously. But there was nothing for me to wear. I had the choice between short, almost belly-free blouses and hipsters, which were common in Germany in the nineties. And the imported traditional clothes that looked like a sack on me." She didn’t feel like she belonged. "I wanted to cover myself, yes, but in my own way."

During this period of self-discovery, Lebdiri began drawing. She designed bell-bottom pants that went a little higher and blouses that went a little further down.

It was fashion for herself, an Algerian-born girl in the Palatinate who had just decided to translate the religiosity modeled for her at home into her own life.

She says she sees that her fashion is different from the standard in that there are few tailors who understand what she does. "They would tend to sew some of my clothes tighter. They say, ‘That’s not how it’s done.’ And I say, ‘I know that’s not how it’s done.’ “

Things are moving, on both sides

Isikali Karayel, the funeral director, has his office in Berlin-Neukolln, just a few kilometers from the sehitlik Mosque. Behind his desk hangs a square painting, red roses against a gray background – a motif of mourning and coping with it. In front of Karayel’s office is a Kawasaki motorcycle that belongs to his trainee. She is to become Berlin’s first Muslim funeral director. "That’s revolutionary!" says Karayel.

A lot is happening, he adds. Opening the Lutheran Twelve Apostles Cemetery to Islamic burials is a big step forward for Berlin’s Muslims, he says. Previously, most were buried in the city’s Gatow cemetery, which is located on the outskirts of the city, across the Havel River, 25 kilometers from here.

"Berlin registry offices sometimes turn a blind eye when issuing a burial permit if a deceased person’s ID is only available as a copy," Karayel says.

And sometimes individual decisions may be made, as in the case of coffinless burial. Muslims are usually buried in a sheet. That is now permitted in some German states, including Berlin. Nevertheless, many today opt for the German rule. In the Twelve Apostles Churchyard, the ratio is about fifty-fifty. To the right of the pedestrian walkway are the graves where Muslim deceased are buried with a coffin, to the left those without.

Sometimes, however, no compromise can be found: Muslim tradition is to bury deceased within 24 hours. "This had to do with the fact that Muslim-majority countries tend to be hot countries," Karayel says. "And then that also became entrenched in religion." Most states, on the other hand, have a 48-hour time limit, which used to be justified, for instance, by wanting to rule out apparent death. You can only follow one rule or the other. So this Muslim tradition is mostly broken in Germany.

Isikali Karayel says there is a generation gap. The first Turkish guest workers are still more likely to be transferred to their home countries after their death to find their final resting place. But there is a clear tendency among the second and third generations to want to be buried in Germany. At home.

"For them, it’s natural to be buried where they lived," Karayel says. "Earth is earth."

And everything is in flux.

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