An Islamic Elementary School in Berlin

"Like Any Other Confessional School"

More and more Muslim parents would like their children to receive religious instruction. An Islamic elementary school in Berlin now offers this. Lennart Lehmann visited the school.

photo: UNICEF Berlin
At the Islamic school, religion is a focus in the curriculum, but it is not compulsory

​​The Islamic Elementary School of Berlin is a private school recognized by the state. It has become well-known since Ferestha Ludin, the Muslim teacher at the center of the recent headscarf debate in Germany, began teaching here.

State recognition means that the school has demonstrated it offers a curriculum comparable to the public schools. This means music, sports, and health education are also taught – despite the fact that these subjects are controversial in the Muslim community. And – the teachers must have adequate training. So what’s so different about this Islamic school?

Some, though not a majority, of the school’s 14 teachers are observant Muslims, and of course the children are all Muslim. Most of the girls wear headscarves, as does the director, Christa Petersen. "The parents would like their children to develop a Muslim identity. But in principle, the school is no different than other confessional schools."

Instruction is in German. In addition to the compulsory courses, the Berlin school offers Islamic religious instruction, as well as Turkish and Arabic for native speakers.

A religion with many facets

Religion is a focus in the curriculum, but it is not compulsory. In the first four years, religion is taught four hours a week, and then in grades five and six there are only two hours – the same as in many other schools.

The school’s religious instructor, like Petersen a German convert to Islam, has a degree in religion and Islamic studies. Because Islam is a religion with many different facets, "we implement only that which is consensus in the different schools of Islamic thought," says Petersen. In other words, all Muslims would find agreement with the school’s program.

"But we also show our students, for example, that there are other ways to pray as well, the children should know that Muslims have different ways of practicing."

Filling a gap

Most of the 145 children are Sunni Muslims. Sixty percent are from Turkish families. The others are from Arabic or mixed marriage families. The school takes in about 25 new students each year. At last count there were 160 applications for these few spaces.

"The need is there," says Petersen. She estimates that most of their clientele are from the lower middles classes. The children’s competence in the German language plays a role in the selection of new students to fill the vacancies. Children from families that contributed to founding the school receive preferential treatment.

Parents trust the school

The Islamic School of Berlin makes an effort to respect the religious preferences of the parents. Some instruction is separate for boys and girls, for example swimming and health education. All children take part in class excursions. "The parents generally trust us," says Petersen. They know that the Muslim teachers are aware of their concerns.

If the parents do not agree with the content of particular lessons, if necessary Petersen makes recourse to the state’s requirements. Once a father demanded that musical instruments be forbidden in music classes because in his view they are not permitted for Muslims. But often Petersen is able to ameliorate the concerns of parents without reference to the state. "The parents develop along with us."

Not so different from other schools

After the sixth grade children must change over to a high school. Petersen suggests to the parents that they should visit the schools when making their decision. Former students are invited to talk about their experiences in other schools.

Petersen has seen few special problems in students’ transfer to a new school. One difference, however, is that other schools are simply bigger, and less individual attention is paid to each pupil.

And of course the walls at other schools are not decorated with mosques. There are no Koran reading contests. Islamic holidays are not observed. And pupils greet each other differently. Nonetheless, Petersen notes, "We are not really so different from other schools."

Lennart Lehmann

© 2005

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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