A few weeks ago, a new school subject was introduced in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia: Islamic religious education. The new subject is a provisional arrangement and is not uncontroversial. By Ellen Hoffers
Aya frowns. In the back row, Ayman starts a kind of sing-song "Shalom, salaam, shalom." Bernd Ridwan Bauknecht sighs. He has just explained to his fourth graders that the Arabic greeting "Salaam aleykum" is similar to the Hebrew greeting "Shalom alechem." Both of them mean peace.
"And do you know what?" he continues. "In church, Christians shake hands with each other before they take communion and they say to each other, 'Peace be with you.'" Aya's not sure about all this: "And what do the Catholics say?" Bauknecht smiles: "You'll have to ask them yourself," he says. She won't have far to go: "the Catholics" have their class next door.
Since the beginning of this school year, 2,500 of the 320,000 Muslim school pupils in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia have been receiving faith-based "Islamic religious education" for the first time in the history of education in Germany. The Am Domhof Catholic primary school in Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn, at which Bauknecht teaches, is one of the first 33 schools to offer the new subject.
The law introducing the subject was passed in December 2011 by the Social Democrat–Green coalition in the state, with the support of the opposition Christian Democrats. The move has widespread support, although there's annoyance over the organisational model that the government has introduced. This model features an advisory council, and that has been criticised above all by those who have been campaigning for Islamic religious education for years.
"The mentality of a religious bouncer"
Lamya Kaddor is one of them. She has been teaching Islamic Studies in schools for ten years. She helped set up the first university chair in Islamic religious education, temporarily filled a vacant professorship and is the author of three textbooks.
In 2011, she was awarded the Integration Medal by Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin; in Madrid in 2010, she was voted one of the most influential Muslim women in Europe. On that occasion, Cherie Blair shook her hand. Now she's afraid that she might end up unemployed.
That's because Kaddor is also chairperson of the Liberal Islamic Association. She says that equal rights for men and women are rooted in Islam. She also calls the idea that only those who believe the right things will end up in paradise "the mentality of a religious bouncer" and rejects any ban on showing the video that defamed Muhammad and caused such a storm in the Arab world. She insists: Muslims in Germany don't need special treatment.
But these views are not welcome both in conservative and traditional Muslim circles and in the four big Muslim associations in Germany. It's these four associations – which only represent 15 per cent of the Muslims in Germany – that will soon decide whether she has the "religious aptitude" to continue to teach. She says the situation is absurd.
"What do I say when they ask me why I'm not wearing a headscarf?" she asks. "And what happens when they discover that I've written a paper on that issue? Will they reject me?"
The ministry's trick
In the twelve years before the new subject was introduced, a course called "Islamic Studies in German" was taught in North Rhine-Westphalia in a pilot project. That was all that was possible back then because in Germany, in order to teach a religion on the basis of the beliefs of that religion, there has to be a religious organisation. But since Islam doesn't have the same kind of structures as the Christian Churches, the Islamic Studies subject was introduced, officially, as a school curriculum on Islamic Studies from an academic point of view.
But from the start, things all looked different in practice. The reason for this is that the Ministry for Education only appointed practicing Muslims. "It was clear to everyone involved that the aim of the project was faith-based religious education," says Dorothea Paschen, head of St. Andrew's school in Bad Godesberg. "What was missing was legal equality with the other denominational religious education classes."
To achieve that, the ministry used a trick: in consultation with the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM), an advisory council was set up to take on the role of the required religious organisation. In practice, this council tests teachers on their "religious aptitude" and approves the textbooks.
Opponents of this model speak of a "failed attempt to churchify" Islam. The state education minister, Sylvia Löhrmann of the Greens, recognises the problem but pleads for pragmatism: "We have to institutionalise Islam like the other religions, otherwise we won't make any progress. Obviously, we will never have full unanimity."
"The liberal camp was ignored"
The purpose of the current model is to ensure that the state retains its neutrality by having the Muslim community decide – in the same way as the Christian Churches do – what counts as the teachings of Islam and what doesn't.
The problem is: who represents the Muslim community? The advisory council has eight members; four have been chosen by the ministry in consultation with the Muslim associations, and the four associations – DITIB, the Council of Muslims, the Association of Muslim Cultural Centres and the Central Council of Muslims – send one member each.
All these organisations are conservative and traditional. "The liberal camp was ignored when the members of the advisory council were chosen," says Lamya Kaddor. Before it was set up, the Liberal Islamic Association and the Association of Democratic European Muslims warned the minister that the council would be one-sided. But she chose to negotiate the membership of the council with the KRM, whose four member associations are now all represented on the council.
The KRM's spokesman is the veteran functionary Ali Kizilkaya. He came to Germany from Turkey in 1973 and spent a long time as an official in the German headquarters of the highly conservative, Turkish association Milli Görüs. He then became chairperson of the Council of Muslims and spokesperson for the KRM. In 2006, he caused a storm when he said that the wearing of a headscarf was a "religious commandment" which "cannot be contextualised according to different countries or places."
Religious aptitude test needed
Kizilkaya is a product of the decades-long fight by the Muslim associations for official recognition. Nevertheless, he sees the current arrangement on religious education as only a compromise: in his opinion, the associations should really have "sole competence" to decide on the religious aptitude of teachers.
He says that they had no choice but to "tolerate" the Islamic Studies classes and that they held back with their criticism. But that's over now. It is, of course, the "duty and the task" of the associations "to examine the faith and the behaviour of teachers". After all, that's what the Churches do. "People will have to get used to that," he says.
Bernd Ridwan Bauknecht has done the "religious aptitude test" and was quite shocked by it. In the 20-minute interview, the main issue was his loyalty to the associations. He was accused of "not being religious enough." Two weeks after the interview, he received a letter from one of the members of the advisory council asking him to join one of the four associations.
"Can you imagine it?" he says. "I am a German convert, an expert in Islamic Studies and a committed Muslim! Why should I join an association like DITIB, which is controlled from Turkey? Or one of the Arab associations? Or the Council of Muslims, which is dominated by Milli Görüs? It's laughable."
If he didn't want to join, he was told in the letter, he should at least have an imam confirm that he regularly played an active part in community life, preferably in a mosque belonging to one of the associations.
Kizilkaya doesn't see the problem: "You have to be a member of the Church too," he points out. Imams will be trained to provide certificates to prove that teachers lead a religiously correct way of life and are active in the communities. In a recent public discussion in which Löhrmann also took part, Kizilkaya said training was not the decisive point; it was "active involvement in a community and the correct belief" that mattered, and in the system set up by the state, it was the job of the associations to check on those issues. Löhrmann replied that the advisory council was still in the process of finding its role.
Bauknecht has been teaching Islamic Studies in Bad Godesberg for the last 9 years. Just a few hundred metres from his school is the Saudi King Fahd Academy, which hit the headlines in 2004 over texts in its textbooks glorifying violence; three streets further along, there's a mosque that is especially popular with Moroccans and where Salafists have a big say; then there's the DITIB mosque with its strong roots in Turkey.
Bauknecht has always considered his teaching as a bulwark against radical forms of Islam. He wants to give children space to think about themselves and their religion – a space in which they can also express their doubts. His children come from many different Muslim movements, and he feels that they have to learn how much variety there is in their religion.
Many potential conflicts
"The classes must be measured against the needs of our children," says one father of four, "and not some political skirmish." This father originally sent his children to Catholic religion classes. "They also dealt there with social and ethical questions," he remembers. "Those are important for all children."
Then Islamic Studies were introduced, and now he's proud that the subject has the same status as that of other religions. He says Mr Bauknecht has been teaching the subject well for the last ten years, and that's the most important thing – "whether the teacher is involved in a community or not is his own business."
For the pupils, nothing has changed. In their classroom there's a cross made of mosaic pieces and a calligraphy. On top of the board are the "99 beautiful names of Allah" in gold letters – next to them is a list of all the people who are mentioned in the Christian bible as well as in the Koran. Maryam/Mary; Ayoub/Job, Yusuf/Joseph.
"Quiet now," calls Bauknecht. Today's topic is conflict and reconciliation. He draws an iceberg on the board. Only the tip is out of the water. He explains that beneath the surface of any conflict, there are always deeper wounds. You have to recognise that before you can solve the conflict.
Lamya Kaddor thinks that there's plenty of room for future teachers to find themselves in conflict with the advisory council. "What happens when a teacher marries someone from another religion?" she asks. "Or when a teacher is homosexual? Nobody thought about such issues when the subject was introduced."
For her part, the minister has recently been saying that one should remember that the advisory council is legally only a temporary arrangement until 2019. After that, the issues will have to be discussed anew.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2012
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan