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Good advice – with or without Allah?

Muslims die like anyone else. A banal statement which nevertheless brings up pressing social issues. What is the procedure when Muslims die in an accident, from cancer or suicide? To date, there has not been a special care programme for the dying or their relatives from the Muslim community. Nor are there programmes to help those afflicted by alcohol addiction, debts, depression and all sorts of human suffering. Care is available for people of a broadly Christian background but not for Muslims, at least not in Germany.

Other countries are further ahead in this respect. In Great Britain there are already several, sometimes very specialised, telephone help lines – including services for disabled Muslims, Muslims with Aids and for Muslim youths in emergency situations. However, Germany is also now setting up several initiatives. These can be differentiated by how strongly faith predominates.

Islamic hospital chaplaincy

A professional "counselling for Muslims" service offers a further education programme in Mannheim. The provider is the Protestant Academy of the Pfalz in co-operation with the "Mannheim Institute for integration and intercultural dialogue" and the "Union of Muslim theologians and Islamic Studies experts." The programme includes a course on "Islamic hospital chaplaincy".  This deals, for example, with patients suffering from incurable illnesses who have to come to terms withtheir own mortality. Here, the counsellors learn primarily to listen sympathetically. In case a patient brings up theological questions, such as "Why does God allow this?", the course attendees also need to be theologically equipped to answer. The courses also teach relevant information about Islam, in addition to the principles of conducting a sensitive conversation.

"Why me?"

A second course in Mannheim follows the same basic principle. It focuses on "emergencies" and looks at areas such as a child being run over by a car or a relative's suicide. In such desperate situations, counsellors need to be able to answer such searching questions as "Why me?" and "Is there such as thing as divine providence?" The main skill is the art of listening. The counsellors must also be able to provide the Islamic point of view if the patient expressly asks for it.

Presentations are given by Muslim theologians, Christian speakers and psychologists, with the aim of clarifying the cultural differences between Islamic and Christian counselling in order to develop insights for both parties.

Breaking down inhibitions

The DITIB's newly installed telephone hotline takes a markedly different approach. It, too, advises people in emergency situations and exceptional circumstances. The main areas it focuses on are family problems, domestic violence, addiction and sexual abuse. As such, it does not deal with spiritual counselling at all. “We want to provide guidance and breakdown inhibitions,” says Nuran Aytekin, a social worker, who is the only full-time employee to date.

She would like to reach people with an immigrant background who feel alienated from conventional counselling facilities, sometimes because of linguistic barriers, and so conducts the telephone calls in German or Turkish as required. However, more crucial are the “intercultural skills” that are often lacking in conventional advisory services.  This can sometimes be the understanding that, for people with a Turkish background, the opinion held by the family is often particularly important. This understanding is important to be able really to reach the person seeking help.

Religion only on request

Islam only comes into it obliquely. It is important to understand “religious sensitivities”. A father despairing of a conflict with his daughter, may be able to find some comfort and support in his faith.  “Perhaps religion can be a source of comfort?” - Nuran Aytekin remains neutral in counselling discussions. She does not refer to individual verses of the Koran. If callers have more profound theological questions, she puts them in contact with Muslim clerics. But this does not happen automatically: religion is only offered on request.

“Violence does not have a religion. If a woman is affected by violence, we have to take steps to prevent a crisis,” says Nuran Aytekin. If necessary, she gives specific instructions for handling the situation over the telephone, including legal information and contact numbers for a women’s refuge. She would refer a caller with financial difficulties to a debt counselling service. She does not see referring cases as a lack of services, but as supporting integration. What she wants to do is allay fears.

The more practical approach taken by the hotline is considerably different from the theological attitude taken in Mannheim, where the counsellors are prepared to speak about Islam if the client requests it. Further initiatives are being developed, some indicating one way, others another. For example, there is another nationwide help line that emphasises religion more emphatically than the DITIB hotline. In contrast, the “emergency counselling for Muslims in Berlin”, set up on the initiative of the former commissioner, Horst Brandt, pursues a “practical path”. The helpers, who speak to Muslim accident victims and their relatives, do not offer religious counselling but psychological care combined with intercultural skills. Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and medical staff, who are themselves from an immigrant background, work there on a voluntary basis.

Thilo Guschas, 05.10.2009

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