Since the 19th century, Germany’s Catholics and Protestants have paid church taxes in order to fund the churches and schools of their faith. Now, politicians in Europe’s largest country are considering extending the scheme to the Muslim population, as a way of reducing the influence of foreign countries and encouraging the growth of a “German Islam.”
A “mosque tax” would be modeled on the Kirchensteuer or “church tax” that is currently paid by more than half of all Germans, collected through the tax system, and distributed to Christian and Jewish organizations. It currently amounts to around 8-9 per cent of a person’s salary.
The aim of the proposal, which seeks to have support from the political left and right, is to pull the faithful closer to the German state, and further from foreign capitals and foreign funding. Yet doing so entails a trade-off: when German Muslims stop listening to foreign capitals, they will start talking more to Berlin. A law intended to stop foreign influence on Muslims will end up giving Muslims greater influence in Germany.
As with much to do with Muslims in Europe, the genesis of the idea lies in politics, not religion. Germany’s Muslim population hovers around 5 million, 6 percent of the population, the overwhelming majority of Turkish descent. Germany’s politicians have become increasingly concerned at foreign influence over the Muslim community, partly as a result of funding for mosques from Saudi Arabia, but mainly over the ability of Ankara to influence the German-Turkish community, particular as Turkey’s long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken a more confrontational approach with European powers.
Central to this concern is the Cologne-based Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), which funds around 900 mosques across Germany. DITIB receives money from the German government, but imams that serve in its mosques are often sent by the Turkish government’s department of religious affairs. The salaries of these imams also are paid by the Turkish government. Such close links give Ankara enormous soft power across Germany’s Muslim communities.
To reduce such influence, and because of concerns some mosques were promoting fundamentalist ideologies, German politicians have begun considering a mosque tax. The idea behind the tax is that it would encourage the development of a more “German Islam,” reducing the influence from abroad, and focusing the concerns of Muslims on their daily life in Germany, rather than issues “back home.”
Turkish-trained imams, speaking in Turkish, necessarily focus on issues related to Turkey, some of which – the domestic politics of Erdogan, the war in Syria, the Kurdish issue – are deeply controversial among Germans, Muslim or not. There has been some reporting that suggests newer Arab arrivals from Syria and Iraq have been turned off by such talk, preferring to find ways of maintaining their faith while rapidly integrating.
A mosque tax certainly has the potential to reshape how German Muslims interact with their faith. But it would also have other, unintended consequences. A mosque tax has the potential to make German Muslims more devout, more involved and more vocal. As it involves more Muslims in the life of the mosque, it also has the potential to make mosques more involved in the life of the state. That may not be precisely what its proposers intend.
The extent to which the church tax is integrated in the daily life of German Christians is little appreciated outside Germany. Christians must declare their faith to tax authorities, who then take around a tenth of their income. Leaving the church is a serious issue and requires a formal declaration to the state; it also carries significant consequences, such as being denied a church marriage and burial rites.
All of which means that the balance of power between individual Christians and the established churches is heavily weighted in the churches’ favor. Christians who may only intermittently practice their faith, or who may simply wish their children to be baptized or attend religious schools, are in effect pressured to hand over part of their income. In other countries, churches have to be more receptive to their congregations, because without donations they would not survive. That is one reason why progressive Christian groups in Germany often oppose the church tax.
By clearly demarcating the line between practicing and non-practicing Muslims, the German state may well push more into the former category, as Christian groups claim the church tax has already done.
It is entirely possible that a mosque tax would both increase the number of Germans taking part in Islamic activities and increase their level of attendance. Those paying a tenth of their income to attend a mosque may well attend more often and demand that mosques do more, for example providing religious or language education.
It would also pull Islamic organizations and mosques closer to the state. At the moment, Muslim organizations operate like voluntary associations. But if a mosque tax were introduced, they could apply to become public corporations, in the way that Christian churches are. That would open the doors for them to own land, to enter into contracts with companies and government entities, further entwining the mosque and the state.
Any mosque tax, therefore, would entail a tradeoff, reducing foreign influence on German Muslims but increasing the domestic influence of German Muslims. When Muslims of Turkish-descent stop hearing sermons about the politics of Istanbul and start paying to hear sermons about Berlin, they may demand Berlin, in turn, listens to them. Germany wants its Muslims to stop listening to foreign capitals. The result of a mosque tax will mean the German capital will have to start listening more to Muslims.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
AFP PHOTO/PATRIK STOLLARZ