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Top German Parties Back Islamic Education
By Veysel Oezcan
Humboldt University Berlin
In a move that could eventually put Muslims on more equal footing with
Catholics and Protestants, Germany's two biggest political parties have come
out in favor of Islamic education in public schools for the country's estimated 350,000 Muslim
"Islamic education in the German language and with state-approved curriculum
should be introduced throughout Germany," the deputy chairman of the
conservative Christian Democrats' parliamentary delegation, Wolfgang Bosbach,
told the press in July.
Although the German Constitution stipulates that religious education must be a
standard subject at public schools, the rule has been followed only with regard
to the Catholic and Protestant religious majorities. The recently announced
support for Islamic education by both the Christian Democrats and the liberal
Social Democrats marks a decisive change.
Some sectors of society, however, are expressing strong reservations about the
proposal. Among them is the Trade Union for Education and Science, which has
declared itself opposed to "more religious education." The union has taken the
position that public schools in Germany's increasingly multi-religious society
should aim to teach common values that can be shared by people of all faiths.
The move to give official status to Islamic education reflects long-running
government concerns about integration, some of which have already been
expressed on the level of several federal states.
About 3.2 million of Germany's population of 83.5 million are Muslims. Most are
non-citizen immigrants and their families from predominantly Muslim countries
such as Turkey. However, the number also includes some 450,000 Muslims with
A state-appointed commission formed in 2000 to examine issues surrounding the
growing immigrant population concluded that integration efforts had to be
bolstered. In a 2001 report, the commissioners stated that the introduction of
"regular" Islamic education - meaning under state supervision and in accordance
with the principles of the surrounding religious community - "represents an
important step towards the equal treatment of Muslims compared to the already
established religious communities in the area of schools offering general
education; thus it should be included in the curricula at German schools."
Lawmaker Ute Vogt of the Social Democrats, speaking to the press in July,
offered yet another reason for the introduction of Islamic education under
state supervision, that of improving government control over curriculum.
While the new proposals are national in scope, some states already offer
religious education for Muslim pupils. However, it is rarely coordinated with
the local Muslim community, and teaching methods vary from state to state. In
Bavaria, students are taught in Turkish, while in North Rhine-Westphalia,
instruction is in German and takes place within a pilot program. Just prior to
the latest announcements by the leading parties, Lower Saxony announced it
would introduce such classes in August 2003.
Obstacles to Teaching
The introduction of Islamic education under state supervision has already
confronted a particularly difficult obstacle: identifying an educational
authority that can fairly represent the many expressions of Islam. To offer the
subject in the same way as it is done for Catholics and Protestants, government
authorities need an Islamic religious community to serve as a representative
organization. However, unlike the Christian churches, which have fairly
well-defined membership structures, no one entity can claim to represent the
majority of the country's Muslims.
Berlin, which differs from the states in that the government is not obliged to
offer religion classes at public schools, has showcased some of the
difficulties of overcoming this obstacle. There, instruction is carried out
directly by the religious communities, based on curriculum that has been
checked by government authorities. Efforts to establish a stable arrangement,
however, have been complicated by the lack of a single, identifiable religious
authority in the Muslim community.
The present arrangement dates back to 2001, when, following legal proceedings
lasting several years, the Islamic Federation Berlin (IFB) was given the right
to conduct religious teaching in Berlin public schools. The legal dispute
centered on whether the organization was simply a religion-oriented
association, or a true religious community whose legal definition includes
durable confraternity, internal religious consensus, and broad compliance with
this consensus. Islamic education currently takes place in about 20 public
schools in Berlin, taught by both the IFB, which represents the more
conservative Sunnis, and the liberal Muslim Alevi community.
The IFB is viewed as controversial by politicians, secular Muslims, and the
media for maintaining contacts with an extremist Islamic organization that is
under government surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the
Constitution. In reaction to IFB instruction, the mainly secular Turkish
Association Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB) has demanded "modern Islamic education in
accordance with the principles of the Constitution." The central question
raised by the TTB and other secularist groups is whether the IFB's curriculum
is compatible with the German Constitution in terms of social issues such as
equal rights for men and women.
In spite of such concerns on the part of secularists and others, as well as the
divisions apparent in the Muslim community, the movement to spread Islamic
education in the German school system seems to be gathering speed. The latest
announcements of support by the two major parties, mainly based on integration
concerns, can only add more momentum. On the horizon are more complications,
among them the education of teachers. So far, only one university has announced
plans to introduce training programs for teachers in Islamic education.
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