They intervene in cultural conflicts, marital disputes and dealings with the German authorities: Muslim spiritual leaders deal with the everyday and the soul. Osnabrück University has become the first in Germany to offer seminars for imams. Many hope it will prove a boon for integration.
"Islam also belongs to Germany," said German President Christian Wulff during Sunday's speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification. The comments provoked massive outrage.
Conservative politicians are now warning against treating Islam the same as Christianity and Judaism. But parallel to the heated debate, democratic Islam is embedding itself in Germany: For the first time ever, imams are going to be trained at a German university. It is a development long fought for by many German politicians.
The signal sent out by Osnabrück could hardly be more important. The German state is creating partners in its dialogue with Islam: imams trained in state institutions.
It is a project that is urgently needed. Many of the almost 2,000 imams preaching in the country speak hardly any German. They do not spend long in Germany before returning to their homelands, such as Turkey. They are not integrated in German society and as a religious and social authority they also prevent members of their community from becoming more integrated.
The pilot project in Osnabrück is aimed at preventing this problem, and demand for the course is running high.
Almost 100 imams and other religious counselors (for example voluntary helpers in the Muslim communities) have expressed an interest in the program. The university only has 30 places on its one-year course. Among those taking part are men and women from Bosnia, Arabic countries, and Turkey.