In American politics, raising taxes is seen as a sure way to provoke a voter revolt. But in Germany, some politicians see taxing Muslims as a strategy to keep them from becoming radicalized.
The standard-bearer for this unexpected idea is a politician from the Christian Social Union, the folksy right-wing party known for desperately wanting to keep Muslim immigrants from the Middle East from pouring in to its traditionally Catholic southern state of Bavaria.
Strange as it might seem, there are Muslim leaders in Germany who think a religious tax might be a good idea, too. If they can get over the grumbling, mosque-goers may agree.
The problem is how to limit the influence of Muslim countries that finance mosques and provide foreign-born imams for their congregations. Many of those imams do not speak German, French or other European languages, and their preaching can range from traditionally conservative to radically anti-Western.
The man who thinks he’s found the way to make this work is Alexander Radwan, 51, a first-term Catholic member of the German parliament.
His full name hints at why he might try. Like President Obama’s father, the deputy’s father was foreign-born — in his case, an Egyptian. He moved to Germany and married a Bavarian.
Although his father was a Christian, Radwan’s personal contact with the Arab world was enough to make him one of the CSU’s few politicians familiar with Islam.
Within the German political spectrum, the CSU is the last group on the right wing before the far-right Alternative for Germany. That upstart party ended its first national convention on Sunday (May 1) approving a party platform that says “Islam does not belong to Germany” and calling for a ban on minarets and full-face veils.
The CSU’s No. 2 man, Andreas Scheuer, proposed that Berlin ban all foreign financing for mosques in Germany, as neighboring Austria did last year.
Radwan objected that the state could not leave the mosques without a reliable source of funds. Believers contribute to their mosques, but many Muslims in Europe are not rich and many congregations are scraping by.
“Foreign-financed imams in Germany should not be preaching against our basic values,” he said. “This is what happens in some mosques and Germany has often been too naive about this.”
But a simple funding ban won’t be enough, he told Munich’s daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “If we stop all financing from abroad, we naturally have to make it possible for Islamic life to get sufficient finances here.”
Catholics and Protestants have their own “church tax” to help finance their congregations, he argues, so why not a “mosque tax” for Muslims?
Germany has a long tradition of taxing church members when they file their annual tax returns. Registered members of Catholic and Protestant churches are charged a premium of 8 percent to 9 percent of the tax they owe the state.
Tax authorities then redistribute the sums — usually somewhere around 2,000 euros ($2,300) for a white-collar taxpayer — to the taxpayer’s church.
Creating a mosque tax for Germany’s 4 million Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of the population, would tap a broad base of contributions that could replace foreign funds.
It would require mosque associations to be registered as religious institutions, like the faiths that already use this church tax system. Until now, only two small Muslim groups in Hesse state and Hamburg have won such official recognition.
This proposal would be a setback to Turkey’s mosque network in Germany, called DITIB, which runs about 900 mosques and employs 970 Turkish-trained imams who do not all speak German.
Their ultimate boss is the Religious Affairs Ministry in Ankara, which comes under the control of Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He counts Turkish voters abroad as an important voter bloc for his AKP party and occasionally campaigns in Germany.
Cem Oezdemir, a German-born ethnic Turk who is leader of the ecologist Greens party, calls the Turkish mosques in his country “the long arm of Erdogan” that increasingly works to maintain support for him in the Turkish diaspora.
DITIB Secretary-General Bekir Alboga flatly rejected the mosque tax proposal.
Gulf financing for Arabic-speaking mosques and the tiny but growing hard-line Salafi movement would also be curtailed.
The idea has won some support outside the CSU. Raed Saleh, the Palestinian-born Berlin state assembly whip for the governing Social Democrats, said a mosque tax was needed to minimize foreign influence.
The independent Turkish Congregation in Germany also welcomed Radwan’s idea. “It’s an exciting new way to finance religious work,” said its chairman, Goekay Sofuoglu.
“But first we have to figure out who pays,” he added, pointing to a major problem facing the project.
Christians pay church tax if they are registered as baptized, but they can get out of paying the tax by officially leaving their church. They take that step through a simple declaration to their local tax authority.
But there is no official way to leave Islam if one is born into a Muslim family or converts to the faith. There are many who stop practicing or are only occasional mosque-goers, but very few declare themselves atheists or agnostics.
Muslims who publicly renounce the religion are considered in some Islamic countries to be apostates who deserve the death sentence. Germany could hardly impose a mosque tax that Muslims could avoid only under mortal threat.
It would also be difficult for Germany to ban all foreign funds coming into the country while its own churches send money to endangered Christian communities in the Middle East.
Still, Sofuoglu is ready to discuss the idea. Finding a way to have Islam recognized, even at the price of having to pay a tax to help finance mosques, he said, “would be pioneering work.”
(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)