"Religious Instruction for All"
Something remarkable has happened in Hamburg: Mayor Ole von Beust has called for the introduction of Islamic religious instruction in the city's schools. But instead of receiving praise, he has been sharply criticized. Even representatives of Muslim associations were against his proposals.
A paradox? Not really, especially when you consider that for years now Hamburg schools have been practicing "religious instruction for all," where children of all faiths learn together about Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Ursula Neumann, an expert on education and former commissioner for foreigners in Hamburg, sums up the reaction of the Muslim community: "If Muslims have joined other groups in opposing the idea of separate religious instruction, it means that they support integration."
The challenging issue of multireligious societies
"Religious instruction for all" is the pride of Hamburg educators who deal with the challenging issue of multireligious societies. The next step is to complement this religious education with the "Interdisciplinary Center for World Religions," recently founded at the University of Hamburg.
Long-term plans call for the center to be transformed into an "Academy of World Religions" that would train Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist clerics and religious instruction teachers. It could take years, however, before that happens.
In these times of government belt-tightening, financing for the project has to come from other sources such as benefactors, research budgets and the European Union. The interdisciplinary center will initially host a series of lectures by various speakers, starting this fall with the internationally renowned sociologist Peter Berger from Boston University.
Historical and analytical perspective
Project director Wolfram Weisse is a professor of religious studies. Since 1999, Weisse has attracted a distinguished circle of scientists, clerics, politicians and representatives of the Muslim and Jewish communities who support his activities. His supporters include Hamburg Bishop Maria Jepsen, Peter Berger, Udo Steinbach from the German Institute for Middle East Studies, and the head of the Green Party's parliamentary group in the Hamburg Senate, Christa Goetsch.
What is the purpose of the planned Academy of World Religion? Without actually saying it, the planners are focusing on Islam. This comes in response to widespread calls for Muslims to develop a European Islam that is consistent with the values of the European Enlightenment, and also endeavors to allow scholars to study the Koran from an historical and analytical perspective, just as Christian theologians have done with the Bible since the 19th century.
Surprisingly few experts on Islamic studies are involved in the project. Udo Steinbach from the German Institute for Middle East Studies represents this area of academic pursuit, and Wolfram Weisse's assistant, Ursula Günther, has a degree in Islamic studies from the University of Hamburg.
Skeptical attitude toward religion
Even so, it only seems logical that a project like this would include the Institute for the Culture and History of the Near East, as the Islamic studies department in Hamburg is called. Its staff members have kept their distance, however, right from the start. That could have to do with the rather skeptical attitude toward religion voiced by the late Albrecht Noth in 1999.
Professor Gernot Rotter, an avowed atheist who retired in 2005, also viewed his area of studies from a purely academic standpoint. According to Rotter, theology is not a science and thus has no business being taught at universities. He obviously would not have supported the idea of educating imams at the University of Hamburg – and would have preferred to see Christian theologians ousted from the university.
Religion in school curriculum
Notwithstanding the reservations of many academics, the project should start to produce concrete results over the coming months. In addition to the Interdisciplinary Center for World Religions in Dialogue, an EU-sponsored research project has been launched under the bombastic title "Religion in Education. A Contribution to Dialogue or a Factor of Conflict in Transforming Societies of European Countries".
The project is being coordinated in Hamburg. Researchers from eight European countries will explore the role that religion can play in school curriculum. Does it tend to widen the gap between students? Or does it promote integration? According to Wolfram Weisse, Hamburg's "religious instruction for all" could prove to be a viable model for Europe.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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