Headscarf Debate

Will Beards Be Banned Soon Too?

In an interview, German President Rau reminded his fellow citizens that religious symbols should be treated equally and, consequently, that the headscarf and the monk's habit should enjoy the same status. A commentary by Peter Philipp

In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, German President Rau reminded his fellow citizens that religious symbols should be treated equally and, consequently, that the headscarf and the monk's habit should enjoy the same status. A commentary by Peter Philipp

photo: AP
German President Johannes Rau demands equal rights for religious symbols.

​​President Rau is certainly not one to distance himself from the Church. The son of a preacher and himself a man who has repeatedly taken to the pulpit as a lay preacher, Rau has demonstrated time and again during his 40-year political career how much importance he attaches to balance, tolerance and dialogue between the various religions and cultures. Now, shortly before the end of his five-year presidency, this stance has made him the focus of criticism: Rau recently reflected in an interview on the headscarf controversy that has been stirring up emotions in Germany for some time.

Equal treatment for all

Rau is of the opinion that banning headscarves from schools for being a mark of religious identification makes it very difficult to defend the wearing of monk's habits. The constitution demands that all religions be treated equally in public life; and that means in schools too. This, he says, does not call into question the country’s Christian heritage. Nor does Germany's future as a Christian country depend on how many people in schools wear a certain type of clothing. 'That alone depends on how many dedicated and credible Christians there are in our country.'

However, politicians in seven of the country's sixteen federal states are determined to legislate to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim teachers because they feel that the headscarf is an expression of an aggressive, political or missionary attitude and is incompatible with the required neutrality of state institutions. Their campaign began following the Constitutional Court's ruling in September that a ban on teachers wearing headscarves was impermissible as long as there was no legislation to this effect.

The issue became a full-blown 'affair' when a determined young teacher of Afghan descent living in the state of Baden-Württemberg was not allowed to teach in a state school because she wore a headscarf. She responded by taking legal action. Despite the fact that over a dozen headscarf-wearers are teaching in other states without problems or complaint, the case became a political issue.

Evaluate the lesson, not the type of clothes worn in it

What's more, it became a political issue in what is possibly the least suitable area of all: neither civil servants nor politicians should decide the significance of one religious symbol or another. Furthermore, it is more decisive what is inside heads rather than on top of them. And it is completely unacceptable for symbols of one religion to be banned while those of other religions continue to be protected, supported or even played down.

Those in favour of a ban on the wearing of headscarves back up their arguments with the Koran, saying that this piece of material is not a religious symbol at all but instead represents the subjugation of women, while the monk’s habit or the crucifix are an expression of 'almost two thousand years of Christian culture in the West.'

It is the task of democracy to protect the rights of the individual

The discussion only barely stops short of the tiresome phrase 'Christian Leitkultur' (dominant culture), which recently caused such a furore in Germany and completely backfired on the politician that coined it because it was conceived as being discriminating and culture-chauvinistic. But it is exactly this spiritual attitude that shines through in some critics, whether intentionally or unintentionally. What’s more, the freedom of the individual, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise - the thing that we should actually be safeguarding - is falling victim to this attitude.

Approximately three million Muslims already live in Germany. One teacher wearing a headscarf will not turn the country into a Taliban state and it sounds absurd to say that German civil servants or politicians want to fight for the 'liberation' of Muslim women with the help of a law that bans headscarves.

Only clean-shaven Muslims at the blackboard?

At least Germany has not gone as far as France did recently when it decided not to limit the state regulation to representatives of the state - i.e. teachers - but to extend it and apply it to the entire population. Nevertheless, the German headscarf debate remains outdated and inappropriate. We must tackle threats where they arise, and headscarves alone do not pose such a threat. If we follow this logic through, male Muslim teachers would have to shave off their beards before entering the classroom while Protestant teachers with big bushy beards would still be tolerated.

This simply cannot be. The state should keep out of this discussion and only get involved - as it does in other areas - when freedom is being abused. Moreover, the state's excessive enthusiasm should not prevent it from remembering the principle of equality. That is what the President meant. The only thing is, very few people would appear to have understood him.

Peter Philipp © 2003 DEUTSCHE WELLE / DW-WORLD.DE
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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