Acceding to demands from Islamic organizations sponsored by the Turkish government, the city of Cologne, once a stronghold of Christendom in Germany, has authorized mosques in the city to begin sounding Muslim calls to prayer over outdoor loudspeakers. The move, ostensibly aimed at promoting multicultural diversity and inclusion, represents a significant step toward the cultural normalization of Islam in Germany. It is taking German multiculturalism into uncharted territory.
Observers believe that Cologne — famous for its cathedral, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe — is establishing a national precedent, and that many of the more than 3,000 mosques in Germany will soon also begin publicly calling Muslims to prayer. They say that German towns and cities will evoke the sounds and images of the Islamic Middle East.
Effective immediately, all mosques and Islamic centers in Cologne may apply for a permit to call the Muslim faithful to prayer for five minutes every Friday between noon and 3pm. The sonorous prayer calls (known as adhan in Arabic) can be heard from great distances when amplified through outdoor loudspeakers atop minarets, the tower-like structures on mosques.
The prayer calls are part of a so-called model project (Modellprojekt) that will last for two years, after which a decision will be made on whether to make the Muslim calls to prayer a permanent feature of life in Cologne.
A press release issued by the City of Cologne on October 7 stated:
"While in Christian churches the bells are rung to call the believers to worship together, in Muslim mosques it is the call of the muezzin [the person who calls Muslims to prayer] that serve this purpose. Friday prayer is of central importance in Islam. For many years, Islam, like many other religions, has been an integral part of German society, so the question of allowing calls to prayer at mosques has been and is repeatedly discussed nationwide.
"After initial talks between the city and local mosque communities and a legal review, a model project is now starting in Cologne, initially limited to two years: Upon request and subject to conditions, the mosque communities who wish to do so can call their believers to midday Friday prayers.
"In practice, every mosque community that wants to participate in the project must submit an application to the city administration. The formal approval to practice the call for the midday Friday prayer at the respective mosque is then determined by a contract under public law. The contract concluded in this way contains individual requirements that must be met by the applicant mosque community. The call to prayer on Fridays can only be made between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. (the noon Friday prayer varies depending on the calendar) and for a maximum of five minutes. The volume of the call is also set with a different maximum decibel limit depending on the location of the mosque.
"It should also be noted that the surrounding neighborhood must be informed by the mosque community in advance by means of a flyer about the call to prayer. In addition, a contact person for the neighborhood must be named for each municipality who can answer questions or receive complaints.
"The project will be closely monitored by the city administration. At the end of the two-year project period, the city and the mosque communities involved will jointly evaluate their experiences in order to decide on this basis whether the new regulation can be extended."
"I am pleased that with this model project we are taking into account the legitimate religious interests of the many Muslims in our cosmopolitan city, thus setting a sign of mutual acceptance of religion and making a commitment to the constitutionally protected freedom of religion, but also to accept the interests of Muslims who live here.
"Muslims, many of them born here, are an integral part of Cologne's urban society. Anyone who doubts this is questioning Cologne's identity and our peaceful coexistence. When we hear the call of the muezzin in addition to the church bells in our city, it shows that diversity is valued and lived in Cologne."
In a tweet, Reker added:
"Much discussion because of the model project muezzin prayer call. Cologne is the city of (religious) freedom and diversity. Those who arrive at the central train station are greeted by the cathedral and accompanied by church bells. Many Cologne residents are Muslims. To allow the muezzin call is for me a sign of respect."
Critics say that comparing Islamic prayer calls to church bells is a false equivalence because the muezzin proclaims absolutist religious slogans such as "there is no god but Allah" and "Allahu Akbar" ("Allah is the Greatest"). The standard adhan can be translated as:
"Allah is most great. I testify that there is no god but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to salvation. Allah is most great. There is no god but Allah."
The Turkish-born German Islam expert Necla Kelek, in an essay for the Berlin-based magazine Cicero, wrote that the adhan reflects the ideology of Islamism:
"At the request of Islamic associations such as the mosque operator Ditib, which is managed by the Turkish government, the Islamist Milli Görüs or the Central Council of Muslims representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Cologne city administration has agreed that from now on the 35 mosques in Cologne may broadcast every Friday by loudspeaker the following call to prayer: 'Allahu Akbar. I testify that there is no god but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer! Come to salvation! Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar."
"The Muslim call to prayer is not like the ringing of church bells, which are a reminder of a scheduled worship service. Instead, it is a creed and a statement of political Islam, which has unfortunately been abused in many ways in recent years. The call 'Allahu Akbar' is not only a call to prayer, but it has also become the battle cry of jihad by Islamist terrorists. The Taliban have just conquered Afghanistan with shouts of 'Allahu Akbar.'
"When someone shouts 'Allahu Akbar' on the street, in a train station or in front of a football stadium, people flinch, feel threatened and fear a bomb or knife terror attack. The call to prayer seems to have been discredited by extremist Muslims themselves and also to have become a symbolic call for terror."
Kelek also wrote that by allowing the prayer calls, Cologne's mayor, a woman, was encouraging the discrimination of Muslim women in Germany:
"Above all, who do the muezzin call to prayer? The men. The Muslim community is a society divided into men and women. Women are not called to prayer. If they really want to, they can pray in separate adjoining rooms on the balcony so that the men cannot see them and are not disturbed by them....
"Mayor Reker talks about diversity, prescribes gender asterisks and watches as an archaic worldview is lived in the mosques, the 'men's houses.' It conjures up a diversity that in reality is neither lived nor desired, especially in mosques. Unfortunately, this means that she does not perceive the fears and wishes of her urban population for freedom....
"It is with regret that I note that German politicians are practicing symbolic politics in matters of Islam. Again and again they submit to the political demands of the Islamic associations in the hope of pacifying them in order to win them over as democratic partners. It has never been more important to focus on content-related discussions so that reforms that are urgently needed for our peaceful coexistence also succeed. It is time to strengthen the secular forces in the Islamic community."
Bundestag Member Michael Kuffer, an expert on homeland security, told the Bild newspaper that comparing church bells to the Islamic call to prayer is erroneous:
"On the one hand the adhan is a call to prayer, but on the other hand it is also a battle cry. Unfortunately, it has been misused and turned it into a slogan of violent Islamism.
"You must make a distinction between the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other hand, the cultural dimension, for example, church bells. I think that we are fooling ourselves.
"It is a complete leveling of things that are simply not comparable! This is a completely wrong understanding of liberality, of integration and also of respect for others."
Alexander Yohannes, Deputy Chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Cologne, tweeted:
"It is highly problematic to portray the muezzin call as a sign of respect and diversity. It is not about ringing church bells in a neutral way, but rather about an exclusive religious denomination that is loudly represented to the outside world. Misunderstood tolerance!"
Turkish-born Alawite Birgül Akpinar, a member of the CDU in Baden-Württemberg, wrote:
"The call of the muezzin not only calls to the Islamic compulsory prayer, but also proclaims the claim to power of the Islamic belief five times a day. More religion in the public space does not mean diversity, but more potential for conflict!"
Turkish-born German lawyer and Muslim feminist Seyran Ateş tweeted:
"Church bells can be rung by women. In the mosques in question, however, the voice of a woman will never be heard. Only religious patriarchy gets a vote. And that is deafening loud in too many communities. Just as the headscarf cannot simply be equated with the cross necklace, one cannot call for the muezzin just because churches are allowed to ring their bells. Those who do this are helping conservative Muslims to implement their misogynist agenda.
Bundestag Member Malte Kaufmann tweeted:
"From now on every Friday in Cologne: 'There is no other god but Allah!' But Islamization supposedly does not occur at all in Germany... We have been warning against it for years! The muezzin call is a claim to power. Step by step, the Christian West is being given away."
Ahmad Mansour, an Israeli-Arab and German Islam expert, accused the mayor of Cologne of ignoring the real problem. "It's not about 'religious freedom' or 'diversity,' as Mayor Reker claims," he told Bild. "The mosque operators want visibility. They celebrate the muezzin as a show of power over their neighborhoods."
Shammi Haque, a Bangladeshi-born journalist in exile in Germany wrote:
"The Muslim call to prayer, the muezzin call, is now permitted in Cologne. Cologne's Lord Mayor Henriette Reker calls this a 'symbol of diversity.' For me it is the opposite — a sign of discrimination. The muezzin call reminds me of torture, agitation and blood. He scares me.
"In 2015, I had to flee from Bangladeshi Islamists because I publicly criticized Islamism. When I hear 'Allahu Akbar' from loudspeakers in Germany, I think of a lot, just not diversity.
"The muezzin call reminds me of the killing of my six blogger friends by Islamists and the brutal repression of minorities. The muezzin call says: 'Allah is great, there is no other god but Allah.' For me, this reputation stands for the fact that diversity is NOT tolerated, that people of different faiths are NOT respected. This call from the speakers of conservative mosques is above all a show of power.
"The fact that the city of Cologne now allows the muezzin call with reference to tolerance is a sign of false tolerance for me."
The Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany (Zentralrat der Ex-Muslime Deutschland), in an open letter to Mayor Reker, concurred:
"We — men and women from Islamic countries — escaped to Germany and found shelter from religious persecution here. More than a few of us have experienced, in our countries of origin, public executions while the Islamic call for prayer sounded. On behalf of our relatives and friends who have been imprisoned, tortured and executed, we ask you to listen to the other side of Islamic reality. Every prayer call brings all these terrible memories to me and also to many others from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Even though we live safely here, the call of prayer creates within us a strong mental pressure and retraumatization. We therefore strongly protest against your decision!"
Cologne's muezzin project involves (to date) the largest number of mosques in a single German municipality, but individual mosques, including some in Dortmund, Düren, Hamm, Siegen and Oldenburg, among others, have been sounding Muslim prayer calls for years.
In Wipperfürth, an industrial town situated 40 kilometers (25 miles) north-east of Cologne, the Fatih Camii Mosque — run by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs (DITIB), a branch of the Turkish government that controls over 900 mosques in Germany — has been publicly sounding calls to prayer since 2013. Mayor Michael von Rekowski said he wanted to show the world that Wipperfürth "takes pride in being an intercultural and interreligious community."
The Turkish-run Central Mosque in the northern German town of Rendsburg, situated 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Hamburg, has been calling Muslims to prayer since 2010, when Social Democratic Mayor Andreas Breitner authorized the muezzin to broadcast prayer calls through three loudspeakers mounted on the top of two 26-meter (85-foot) minarets attached to each side of the mosque.
The German newspaper Die Zeit reported that Rendsburg was engaged in a "holy war" after a local citizen's group gathered nearly a thousand signatures from residents opposed to the prayer calls. The group, which goes by the name "No Public Prayer Calls" [Kein öffentlicher Gebetsruf], argued that the existence of the mosque was more than sufficient to guarantee Muslims their constitutional right to the freedom of religion, and that the subsequent demands for a muezzin publicly to call the faithful to prayer was excessive. The group also argued that the Koran makes no mention of the need for muezzin, making the Muslim position superfluous. The mosque eventually relented and limited the calls to prayer to Fridays only.
Similar conflicts have been raging in other German localities, including in the Westphalian town of Hereford, where, according to Die Welt, the call of the muezzin has become a "psychological burden." In the western German town of Oer-Erkenschwick, where a mosque was banned by a local court from broadcasting prayer calls, that ban was recently overturned by a higher court. The mosque's muezzin may resume his prayer calls.
In the city of Neumünster, the Turkish-run Fatih Mosque has been publicly calling Muslims to prayer three times a day for more than 15 years. According to the local imam, Celebi Kilicikesen, a Turk who speaks little German, "sometimes child pranksters turn the loudspeaker volume all the way up and then the neighbors complain. Otherwise there have been no problems."
In Bavaria, Florian Hahn, Vice Secretary General of the Christian Social Union (CSU), concluded:
"In Bavaria we do not want such model tests. They are not part of our Western tradition. Also, calls to prayer are not needed to practice the Islamic religion."
Hahn's appeal may be too little too late. During the Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, Bavarian authorities authorized more than a dozen mosques in Munich and other parts of Bavaria to broadcast public calls to prayer. It seems unlikely that the mosques will give up the rights already conferred.
The debate about Islam in Germany is only beginning. The Muslim population of Germany has surpassed six million to become approximately 7.2% of the overall population of 83 million, according to calculations by Gatestone Institute.
A recent Pew Research Center study on the growth of the Muslim population in Europe estimated that by 2050, Germany's Muslim population could reach 17.5 million, or 20% of the overall population if mass migration from Africa, Asia and the Middle East continues apace.