Lale Akgün

Against the Relativism of the Headscarf Debate!

Lale Akgün, member of the Bundestag for the Social Democrats, criticises the political exploitation of the headscarf in Germany by Islamist associations that would like to see religious and cultural differences taking precedence over basic democratic rights

Lale Akgün, member of the Bundestag for the Social Democrats (SPD), criticises the political exploitation of the headscarf in Germany by Islamist associations that would like to see religious/cultural differences taking precedence over basic democratic rights

Appeals, whether of a political or socially critical nature, can contribute to clarification and a comprehensive debate. However, they can also achieve the exact opposite.

This is particularly true both of debates on emotive issues and of a politician’s duty to take due care. After all, politicians bear a particular responsibility when it comes to questions of religion and migration.

The risk of polarisation is twice as great in the headscarf debate. There is a boundary between the judgement passed by the Federal Constitutional Court on 24 September 2003 – regarding the question as to whether a teacher in a public school may wear a headscarf – and the scaremongering that other Muslim women might yet be subjected to a similar ban. And this boundary is being crossed all too easily.

Those who are critical of allowing teachers to wear headscarves are often accused of two things: firstly, of wanting to enforce emancipation instead of permitting religious variety, and secondly, of preventing Muslim women from "living a self-confident way of life that they have freely chosen for themselves".

This argument usually culminates in the reproach that the whole issue is essentially about concealed anti-Islamism and discriminating against Muslims. Representatives of some conservative Islamic associations even go so far as to draw parallels between anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich.

Unifying instead of dividing!

In fact, the aim is a completely different one: to unify and not to divide, and to unify across society as a whole. It also involves the acceptance of others, i.e. the careful formation of an opinion; and the promotion of both our fundamental rights and duties and each citizen’s personally responsible way of life.

This aim does not entail discriminating against any one religion, but instead the equal recognition of Islam as one of several significant world religions in Germany.

However, this equal recognition also means that religions are treated equally in terms of their acceptance of, and their involvement in, the principles and goals of our society as laid down in the Basic Law.

It is legitimate that individual groups have claims and wishes. However, these claims and wishes must be questioned when they are expressed in an easily digestible media form as "you’re-either-for-us-or-against-us"-type questions that are directed at "the heart of society."

Unresolved conflicts

The ruling pronounced by the Federal Constitutional Court after the lengthy legal wrangle between the Muslim teacher Fereshta Ludin and the Land of Baden-Württemberg regarding the ban on wearing headscarves in the classroom poured salt into one of our society’s wounds.

This is not just about a headscarf. It is about uncovering an unresolved conflict in our country, which sees itself confronted with growing religious and cultural pluralism.

This conflict has only ever been entered into in part depending on its urgency at a particular point in time. Such a conflict involves making controversial decisions as to what questions of power and religion really are and how much religion can be borne by a secular state.

The need for religious clarification

Many Islamic scholars are of the opinion that for a Muslim woman, wearing a headscarf is not an obligatory part of practicing Islam. Nevertheless, many women wear headscarves. This is legitimate as long as they do so voluntarily – whether it be for cultural or personal religious reasons.

It only becomes a problem when they are forced to wear headscarves to uphold patriarchal traditions and with reference to one-sided interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith.

The religious obligation to wear the headscarf, which is propagated by organised protagonists, demonstrates that these protagonists belong to a group with a religious/political philosophy of life that would like to set it self apart from the society of consensus.

The origin of the headscarf is not religious

Like all women in all societies, Muslim women throughout history have covered their heads with a variety of headdresses such as the lachak, the chador, the rusari, the rubandeh, the chaqchur, the maqne'a, and the picheh.

All of these headdresses were of clan, ethnic, or other folkloristic origin. They were never of religious origin.

It is a fact that the politicisation of the headscarf debate facilitates the segregation of the sexes. The Islamic hijab is about as much a symbol of Islam as Mao’s uniform is of Chinese civilisation.

Amir Taheri, editor in chief of the Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan in the 1970s, succinctly summarises the debate’s inherent problem as follows:

"When the political public in Germany forms an opinion on matters of dress, culturalist interpretations are still uppermost in their minds. The construction of autochthonous cultures is not only a historically questionable exoticisation, it is also an act of implementing repressive normality. The current headscarf debate is being viewed through the glasses of German culturalism as a theological question regarding a religion that has been romanticised since the days of Karl May. The view of the standardising effect of this uniformity on the sexes is alarmingly neglected."

When viewed from the outside at least – and much more importantly – when viewed by a large number of Muslim women, it is perceived as a symbol of Islam’s very particular method of oppressing women. It also symbolises the reduction of woman to her sexuality.

The necessity of weighing up basic rights

It is also important to point out that the right to wear headscarves in public is guaranteed by Article 4 (Freedom of Faith, Conscience, and Creed) of the Basic Law. No-one wants to question this right either in private or in public.

However, religious freedom reaches its limitations in cases where it affects the basic rights of third parties (e.g. the basic rights of schoolchildren and parents in public schools), goods of constitutional rank, and the state’s duty to provide a neutral education and upbringing.

A teacher’s religious motivation for wearing a headscarf in the classroom affects different levels of the debate: the political, the religious, and the legal.

This debate is also coloured by fears and prejudices. The question is whether the state, as the principal of a public primary or secondary school, has the right to oblige teachers to do without symbols of their religious beliefs in the school and classroom.

The state, which is neutral in terms of its view of the world and is bound to uphold certain values, is obliged to protect and promote both human and civil rights. These rights include both the freedom of faith, conscience and creed, and the ban on sexual discrimination. In this regard, interests must be weighed up in the spirit of the Basic Law and the European Charter of Human Rights.

The Ludin case

In this case, a Muslim woman considers wearing a headscarf a religious duty. As a teacher, she would like to wear her headscarf at school and invokes Article 4 of the Basic Law (on Freedom of Faith, Conscience, and Creed) to support her argument.

She claims that her individual (positive) freedom of religion takes precedence over the basic right of schoolchildren and parents to (negative) freedom of religion, the parents’ right to bring up their children as they choose, and the constitutional obligation on the state to be neutral. It is exactly here that the state’s duty to "weigh up the arguments" comes into effect.

The teacher’s function as a role model for schoolgirls should also be taken into account. The effect of wearing a headscarf can, even if it is no more than the expression of a personal religious conviction, restrict the negative religious freedom of parents and schoolchildren by arousing very specific views and images of Islam.

The state must, however, remain neutral in its view of the world. Religious symbols in schools and administrations restrict the negative religious freedom of schoolchildren and parents. Moreover, the suitability of an office-holder must be called into question if she refuses to uphold this neutrality.

The accusation that she is being banned from practicing her profession is, therefore, as incorrect as it is unjust. No Muslim woman will be prevented from practicing her profession as long as she declares herself willing to observe the basic rules governing her employment.

The hegemonic strategy of Islamist associations

The problem is the policy of those Islamic associations that want to use a court case to force the state to accept their interpretation of religious/cultural differences and give it precedence over other basic rights.

It would be incredibly dangerous to support these Islamist associations’ hegemonic strategy in the name of tolerance.

Because if we allow small, vociferous Islamist associations to be perceived and publicly accepted as "Islam" in Germany, we are creating a climate that rejects and marginalizes Muslim women.

This development cannot be permitted in our society because it would only support Islamist associations in their efforts to make themselves indispensable as the representatives of a "marginalized cultural minority."

In this context, it is important to criticise the bills proposed by some Länder that are governed by the Christian Democrats (CDU). They ban teachers from wearing headscarves and at the same time consent to the wearing of Christian religious symbols on historic, cultural grounds.

Such an express differentiation is a glaring contradiction of the equal treatment of religions expressly attested and unequivocally called for in the ruling pronounced by the Federal Constitutional Court. These bills would not only unnecessarily drive a wedge into society but would also fail to stand up to further constitutional examination.

And this would give the suing Islamist associations exactly the legal and social triumph the Democrats do not want.

Taking integration seriously

On the other hand, those who really want emancipation in the spirit of enlightenment and humanism take a critical view of a headscarf debate that does not focus on individual Muslim women, but instead on the religious, cultural power of interpretation within Islam.

They also stand up for the precedence of universal human and civil rights in the conflict with special "cultural identities".

Those who really want to integrate Muslims into Germany will not achieve their goal by pursuing a policy of currying favour with cultural/religious pressure groups.

We need an integration policy that seeks to grant everyone equal participation in our society – a society based on the values of the Basic Law and shaped by human rights. This is exactly what our teachers, both male and female, should be teaching.

Those who take integration seriously, make sure that they take on board the opinions of the Muslims living in our country. What many of them – and in particular the women affected by this debate – think is formulated in an open letter to Marie Luise Beck written by Muslim women of Turkish origin:

"What member of the Muslim population would feel marginalized by a ban on wearing headscarves in schools? Everyone who considers religion to be a private matter and everyone who is indifferent to religious regulations knows and has absolutely no qualms about accepting the constitutional principle of the neutrality of schools. Only those that are under the influence of Islamists and for whom the wearing of headscarves is indispensable both in private and in public service would consider this ban to be an act of marginalization."

Lale Akgün

© Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Lale Akgün (SPD) represents the constituency of Cologne in the Bundestag. Since February 1997 she has been head of the LzZ (State Centre for Immigration Affairs), which reports directly to the Ministry of Social Affairs in North Rhine-Westphalia.

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