Senior German officials gathered in Berlin with Muslim leaders from around the country on April 19 for the seventh annual German Islam Conference. The official focus of this year's forum -- aimed at furthering Muslim integration in Germany -- was finding ways to deal with the spiraling rates of forced marriages and domestic violence among the estimated 4.3 million Muslims who now reside there.
The main topic for discussion at the conference, however, was not on the official agenda: it was the unprecedented nationwide campaign by Islamic radicals to distribute 25 million free copies of the Koran, with the stated goal of placing one Koran into every home in Germany.
Muslim representatives attending the forum this year were in no mood for compromise, and refused to accept responsibility for any of the myriad irritants in German-Muslim relations, insisting instead that the German government amend its "misguided" approach to Muslim integration.
German officials were left trying to put the best spin on this year's event, which ended without a joint press conference, reportedly because of lingering Muslim pique at "offensive" comments which were uttered at the press conference that ended last year's event.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich opened the one-day conference by declaring that Islamic extremism has no place in Germany. "We all agree that Salafist extremism is not acceptable and does not work in a free society, as we have in Germany," he insisted. "Religion must not be abused in an ideological bid for power."
He was referring to the mass proselytization campaign -- called Project "READ!" -- being organized by dozens of Islamic Salafist groups located in cities and towns throughout Germany, as well as in Austria and Switzerland. The bid to convert non-Muslims has provoked uproar in Germany.
Salafism is a branch of radical Islam that seeks to establish an Islamic empire [Caliphate] across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe -- and eventually the entire world. The Caliphate would be governed exclusively by Islamic Sharia law, which would apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims.
But Friedrich did not say what, if anything, the German government was doing about the Salafists, who analysts say have launched a Europe-wide "frontal assault" against people of other faiths and "unbelievers."
Although Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), regards the Salafist groups as a threat to German security, Salafists have free rein in the country, and Salafist preachers are known regularly to preach hatred against the West in the mosques and prayer centers that are proliferating across Germany.
According to the BfV, there are an estimated 29 Islamist groups in Germany with 34,720 members or supporters who pose a major threat to homeland security. Many of them want to establish a "Koran-state" in Germany; they believe Islamic Sharia law is a divine ordinance that will replace democracy, a man-made form of government.
German authorities view the Koran project as a "most worrisome" recruiting campaign for radical Islam. Security analysts say the campaign is also a public-relations gimmick intended to persuade Germans that the Salafists are transparent and "citizen friendly."
Although Friedrich urged Muslim representatives attending the conference to join him in condemning the Salafists, Muslims declined to meet him even half way. Instead, they dismissed fears over the Koran being distributed in every home as "hysterical" and "misguided."
Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, intervened personally to prevent the Salafist issue from becoming part of the official conference agenda. In an interview with the Rheinischen Post newspaper, Kolat justified his action by saying: "A hysterical debate is not helpful."
Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the German Islamic Council, told German public radio that non-Muslims were engaged in "a panicked discussion" about the Salafist campaign. He insisted: "It is definitely not the spirit of the Koran to foment unrest in society."
Muslims were equally unwilling to discuss the main item on the official agenda of the conference, "Gender Equality as a Common Value" (Geschlechtergerechtigkeit als gemeinsamen Wert leben).
Conference attendees refused even to acknowledge any connection between Islam and forced marriage.
Instead, they issued a statement which says: "Domestic violence and the practice of forced marriage do not originate from a particular religion, but come from certain traditional, patriarchal structures… Muslims taking part in the German Islam Conference state explicitly that Islam is an open and tolerant religion that opposes physical and psychological violence and forced marriage and encourages individual self-determination, self-development and freedom of opinion and expression."
Regrettably, thousands of young women and girls living in Germany are, in fact, victims of forced marriages every year. Most of the victims come from Muslim families; many have been threatened with violence and even death.
According to a 160-page report, "Forced Marriages in Germany: Numbers and Analysis of Counseling Cases," commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of the Family, the problem of forced marriage is far more widespread than previously believed.
The study -- the first and most detailed of its kind in Germany -- reveals that in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 3,443 people sought help at counseling and social services centers across the country because they were being, or already had been, forced into marriage.
The vast majority of these victims are women or girls, although 6% are young men. Almost one-third of those forced into marriage in Germany were 17 years old or younger. Another 40% were between the ages of 18 and 21.
Many of the victims experienced extreme violence. More than half (70%) were beaten or otherwise physically abused to convince them to marry, and 27% were threatened with weapons or with death if they did not go through with the forced marriage.
The vast majority -- 83.4% -- of the victims of forced marriages were from Muslim households.
Friedrich did not press the issue of forced marriage apparently to avoid offending the Muslims in attendance. Instead, he later told reporters that he was pleased about the "forged consensus" on forced marriage and domestic violence, and that these problems "do not come from religion, but from the patriarchal structures and traditions in the countries of origin."
Friedrich then congratulated himself for this achievement: "It is the first time that so many Muslim organizations and individuals were able to agree on such a declaration."
Commenting on Friedrich's kid-gloves approach to Muslims and Islam at this year's conference, Kenan Kolat, the leader of Germany's Turkish community, told Deutschlandradio: "I think he is learning."
To be sure, conference attendees were able to agree on one thing: The official focus of next year's conference will be…Islamophobia.