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In Search of Islam – Where do Muslims Live in Brandenburg?

Prof. Dr. Johann Ev. Hafner. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Prof. Dr. Johann Ev. Hafner. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Thousands of migrants and refugees come to Germany every year. As a result, the diversity of faith in Germany is greater than ever before. Despite this, we know little about the religious affiliation of these people. There is especially little data about the number and distribution of Muslims in Germany. To change this, the Ministry of Science, Research, and Culture (MWFK) of the state of Brandenburg commissioned a survey on the number of “Muslims in Brandenburg”. A team of researchers and students at the University of Potsdam headed by Prof. Johann Ev. Hafner hit the street.

The project kicked off with a lecture by Prof. Hafner together with the political scientist Seyit Arslan and Kadir Sancı from the Department of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies in the winter semester 2017/18. One of the six students who enrolled for the mapping project was Marco Gehendges. “Although I have been in contact with Muslims since my youth, mostly at school, I have never participated in their religious life,” he says. “In this project I now have the chance to witness it firsthand.”

That’s easier said than done. First of all, they had to find the Muslims. The researchers took up the search in a total of twelve cities across the country: Cottbus, Potsdam, Frankfurt / Oder, Brandenburg on the Havel, Rathenow, Neuruppin, Luckenwalde, Wittenberge, Senftenberg, Forst, Guben, and Spremberg. It quickly became clear that Muslims were quite reluctant and their willingness to articulate themselves in public was rather low. “This does not mean that they are hiding,” Hafner explains. “They are just usually busy with other things like submitting applications or looking for housing and work. In addition, they simply lack the appropriate mouthpiece.”

Muslim communities do not have a strong public presence

But who actually is a Muslim? Is the cultural background a decisive factor, or is it rather the participation in annual and weekly cyclic rituals such as Ramadan and Friday prayers or being involved in community activities? Estimates of the number of believers vary a lot. Hafner suspects that the information available to the public is widely overestimated. Moreover, it is not properly taken into account that many refugees dissociate themselves from their own religion, he argues. Also in Christianity, people call themselves Christians, but rarely or never go to church or even leave the Church. Therefore, it is necessary not only to interview individuals, but to examine how Muslim communities are developing and how many people are active in these communities.

When preparing the project, the data collection process was discussed with a social geographer, as was the best way to get in contact with the communities. Ultimately, the researchers established contacts with the communities through integration commissioners, NGOs, newspapers, and social media. Once this first hurdle had been overcome, communication went smoothly. The respondents were open for discussions and the language barriers were limited. The average number of 400 to 500 weekly participants in the Friday prayers showed that Potsdam is home to the largest community in the state of Brandenburg, followed by Cottbus with 300 to 500 participants. To collect more detailed data, however, the researchers spoke on-site with the Muslims of different communities and participated in Friday prayers.

The researchers experienced open-mindedness and sporadically also wariness

Not all communities have their own premises, some share local multifunctional rooms with other initiatives and groups. “One community used a gym,” Gehendges remembers. “This is not easy because depending on the season it is too hot or too cold.” But those interviewed were usually happy about every available space; in some cases even a carpet is sufficient. “During my visits, the interviewees were always friendly and open,” says Gehendges. “Some were even interested in our study and curious about the results.” Only in one community did he experience distrust of outsiders; the first two talks here took place in a rather tense atmosphere.
To obtain comparable information, the team used three different questionnaires that were used to close the initial distance. The questions referred to the communities’ offers, the number of visitors and cooperation with other local stakeholders. “The questionnaires are meant to help us understand how many people visit the community, how the social structures within the community are developing, and how they are externally networked,” he says.

“Premises are crucial”

Prof. Hafner sees two big problems for the integration of the Muslims living in Brandenburg. Above all, the Muslim communities in Brandenburg lack suitable premises. They need them not only for prayer but also for common social activities. Only a few, like the Muslims in Potsdam, whose mosque is located in an apartment block, have their own permanent prayer and meeting space. It is already evident that in those cities where space is small, fewer participants come to the prayers. In order to change that, many communities are dependent on donations. This is usually difficult because a large number of the members are refugees and receive benefits under the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act or unemployment benefits (ALG II).

Yet they also lack suitable people who would permanently assume the leadership of a community, says the scholar of Religious Studies. Accordingly, the future of Muslim communities will significantly depend on whether there are enough imams who preside over the mosque community and maintain contacts with the majority society. So far, these functions have been performed in many places by individuals who can only rely on little commitment from the community.

With their study, Hafner and his team not only want to find out more about the Muslims in Brandenburg, but also want to help them, as Gehendges emphasizes. “I hope that our project can improve networking between the stakeholders by informing them about where communities are located so that they become contactable. It is also important to us to show the needs of people in these communities. “The results of the survey will be published in a brochure in 2019. The explicit aim of the project is to convey the findings to society in order to maintain interest in promoting Muslim communities.

People of Islamic faith have not only lived in Germany since the migration movements of the 21st century. Already 250 years ago there were Muslims in the region of today's state of Brandenburg. At first, they had only simple prayer rooms. In 1915 the first mosque was built on German soil in Wünsdorf near Zossen. Since autumn 2015, the number of people of Muslim faith in the Federal Republic of Germany has steadily increased. The current admission procedure stipulates that only the home country has to be stated when registering. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) rarely gets information about religious affiliation. If they do receive it, it is by voluntary self-disclosure.

The Project

Muslims in Brandenburg
Funding: Ministry for Science, Research, and Culture of the federal state of Brandenburg (MWFK)
Duration: 2017/18
Participants: Prof. Johann Ev. Hafner (lead), Seyit Arslan, Burak Güleryüz, Kadir Sancı as well as six students, among them Marco Gehendges

The Researcher

Prof. Johann Ev. Hafner is Professor of Religious Studies with a Focus on Christianity at the Department of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies of the University of Potsdam.
E-Mail: hafneruni-potsdamde

Marco Gehendges is a student in the dual-subject Bachelor’s degree program (B.A.) Religious and Jewish Studies of the University of Potsdam.
E-Mail: gehendgesuni-potsdamde

Text: Karoline Schleger
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Marieke Bäumer
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.de