Intercultural Training for Imams “What’s important to you?”

Two participants converse during an event by the Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life project in Hamburg.
Two participants converse during an event by the Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life project in Hamburg. | Photo: Judith Buss

The project Intercultural Training for Imams offers language and regional studies courses to clergy in Muslim communities in Germany. The target audience consists of 70 imams active in Moroccan and Shiite communities. The courses and workshops will take place until September 2017 in Berlin, Hamburg and a number of locations in Hesse. They are being organized and implemented by the Goethe-Institut in close cooperation with the Moroccan communities in Germany, the Conseil de la communauté marocaine à l'étranger (CCME) as well as the Islamische Gemeinschaft der schiitischen Gemeinden in Deutschland (IGS). We interviewed Sebastian Johna, the Migration and Integration project manager at the Goethe-Instituts in Germany.

Mr Johna, from your point of view, what are the “hottest” issues at present in Muslim communities in Germany?

There are a number of important issues, for example social commitment to the concerns of Muslims who will not be returning to their homelands, but will grow old here in Germany, such as pastoral care, work with children and teenagers and much more. Members of Islamic communities already do a great deal in these areas, but they are often not organized. Far more than 90 percent of what Muslims do for their communities is done voluntarily and goes unnoticed. There is a lack of paid staff and also of visibility of their involvement. Both are important for the communities, but also from the point of view of the state and society in general. Radicalism and terrorism in the current crisis regions and here in Europe is another important issue. Islamic communities have been dealing with the issue for many years, not only since the Paris attacks.

How does the Intercultural Training for Imams project address these issues?

The project is to promote dialogue between cultures. The project is to promote dialogue between cultures. | Photo: Sebastian Johna It’s important to us that we base our offer on the needs of the participants. The Goethe-Institut does not stipulate what issues will be considered; we create a framework for mutual discussion and ask the participants, “What’s important to you?” Using this participatory approach, we design the workshops according to need, offer information or support and invite experts to contribute. The focus can, for example, be on regional studies or simply quite practical questions from everyday life in the community. It always has a reference to work with young people. That is the focus of the project.

What does “intercultural training” mean? Can you give us some concrete examples?

The project addresses people who were all not socialized and educated in Germany, but, for example, in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon or the Maghreb region. These people are experts in communicating with their compatriots and, through their closeness to Islam, to governmental structures in their countries of origin. But here in Germany they are faced with completely different structures. For instance, in their communities they encounter the daughters and sons of Moroccan immigrants who they have difficulties addressing but towards whom they are authority figures. Our approach here is to convey knowledge of regional society and linguistic skills and thereby also improve their understanding of young Muslims in Germany who were born and raised here.

What criteria were used to choose the participants?

We have long had contacts with the Moroccan and the Shiite communities in Germany. Both of the organizations are of interest for different reasons: the Moroccan community may be less visible than the Turkish, but it still plays an important role, in particular in North-Rhine Westphalia and Hesse. The Shiite association, by contrast, is more heterogeneous; its members come from many different countries. Therefore, the association’s language for communications is German. By bringing the two groups together, the project indirectly also encourages inner-Islamic dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites.

The project Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life was an important predecessor project. What experiences or observations did that project offer you and what conclusions did you draw from it for this latest project?

Impressions from the Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life conference in Munich. Impressions from the Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life conference in Munich. | Photo: Judith Buss We learned a great deal. For example, we worked together with very dedicated Muslims. Many of them were already so active that they had little time for another commitment. We learned that even the most well meaning offer has to be “communicated”; each individual has to recognize the added value for themselves in order to get involved. We now pay greater attention to that. We also learned a lot about the diversity of Islam in Germany as well as the differences in the lives of urban communities. It begins with the language and also is true of sensitivities for the way something is said. What goes down well in Hamburg may not in Munich. The local culture of dialogue has a strong impact on immigrants.

The Muslim Communities as Participants in Municipal Life project trained about one hundred men and women to be points of contact for community issues. The new project Intercultural Training for Imams addresses men almost exclusively. Why is that?

There are also women imams, but they are a tiny minority. It’s not that we want to work only with men, that’s the just a trait of the target group. We are happy that we now have at least one lady among the participants. We would like to add more but aren’t counting on it. However, we do make sure that we invite women as experts to the project events. Listening to them can already be an intercultural contribution and it is certainly for some of our participants.

With this project, can the Goethe-Institut also contribute to the current refugee debate?

We can learn from people who have a personal relationship with flight and displacement – who have a very personal as well as emotional point of view. They often have family members who are directly affected by it and who they are taking care of or they came to Germany themselves as refugees. In talking with them, we can learn what programmes are needed and what is lacking. Yet we should never reduce our contacts to the refugee issue. That’s not the central topic of the project. From our side, the most important questions are always, “What questions do you have? What would you like to focus on?”

The project will continue for about another year and a half, until September 2017. If you could have your way, what objective would you have reached with the project by then?

For a long time, people thought that it was important to avoid the influence of foreign structures on the Islamic communities in Germany as much as possible. We would like to show that it can be quite advisable to work together with foreign partners openly and with clear rules. I also hope to provide a very tangible benefit to each and every participant: to enable them to convey a more comprehensive image of Germany, be able to express themselves better in German and also to improve communication between imams and young Muslims.

The interview was conducted by Carola Gruber.