Authorities want the multicultural society to be better educated about all religions.
Tension has simmered just below the surface for decades in Germany’s Muslim community, but officials have begun an experiment to teach youth about Islam in schools.
The move is twofold: it is meant to foster an understanding between native Germans and those who migrated there from Muslim countries over the decades, and to hopefully stave off a situation where state officials have discovered radicalized citizens traveling to war zones like Syria to fight jihad.
The courses are also to be taught in the German language, which has been a problem in the country for years in terms of getting immigrants fluent in the country’s native tongue.
The program started in 2008, but responsibility for training teachers to have the proper credentials to teach fell on officials at the state level, and newly-introduced university courses meant it would take a few years before the first instructors would be ready to implement into the education system, according to a report earlier this year by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s largest international news broadcaster.
So now the first teachers of Islam are entering the primary education system. Some Muslim students are third, even fourth generation Germans, so they may have never been exposed to how Islam is practiced in whatever country their parents or grandparents emigrated from.
And many Muslim youth in Germany attend Koranic classes in the afternoon, where it is possible lessons from their public school classes could be questioned or de-emphasized. So the thinking goes, if Muslim youth are offered a basic introduction to Islam as early as possible — one that highlights tolerance and acceptance while also indicating the government’s acceptance of their faith — it will counter the more extremist viewpoints youth and adolescents may possibly encounter in their daily lives outside of the classroom, where many Muslims have arguably felt oppressed by their German hosts. Germans have been known to reject outside influences into their country through the years.
Similar religious studies classes are offered in Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. Students are not required to attend these classes and may take another course in ethics or life lessons in lieu of a religion curriculum.
Islamic religious instruction is now a part of the curriculum at German schools, but in order to organize the lessons, the ministries of education in the states need to find suitable contact partners in the Muslim community. However, Muslim authorities and associations in Germany are at loggerheads. Some are Sunni, Shi’ite, or even Salafist.
North Rhine Westphalia, where one-third of Germany’s Muslims live, has done more than any other German state to integrate the courses, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor. There, 150 public schools offer Islamic studies to 13,000 children in grades one through 10. About 200 schools nationally teach the courses, established by state governments and local Muslim groups, the report said.
The idea of giving Islamic religious instruction in Germany is based on the notion that this will knock the wind out of the sails of fundamentalist extremists and hate-mongering imams recruiting German youth to fight in far-flung jihadist wars. Advocates of this say religious instruction provided by the state would be the best way of preventing Islamist doctrine.
Yet authorities have reason for concern beyond the recruitment of its youth for jihad. Turks, who began coming to Germany as labor in the 1960s, began to be marginalized through the years. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were holding massive demonstrations in German cities, calling for better treatment, pay and rights. Some of those marginalized — not just Turks but Arabs, too — began to radicalize, carrying out suicide attacks and bombings in Germany, leaving state authorities with a nasty mess to clean up.
Mosques and other areas frequented by German Muslims have been targeted for surveillance, with domestic intelligence service keeps close watch on a growing number, with 4,500 Salafists under observation in 2011 and 5,500 in 2012, according to an annual government report, the New York Times reported on Monday.
In addition, a group of Arab men from Hamburg, Germany’s largest port city in the north, were involved with the Sept. 11 attacks. That’s when officials knew they had a problem. In addition, the so-called Sauerland cell, which targeted Germans in 2007 and a foiled bombing of the Bonn railway station in December 2012, both involved German citizens, the Times report continued.
Bringing Muslims out of isolation is key to the program. Former Education Minister Annette Schavan, who resigned last year, defended the controversial policy of introducing lessons about Islam into schools. Schavan first introduced Islam lessons in Baden-Württemberg when she was culture minister. She also supported the idea of university courses in Islamic studies.
Other issues of educational integration have been raised with Germany’s Muslim community. One hotly contested court case this year dealt with whether Muslim girls could be exempted from co-ed swimming lessons, a problem that sparked many disputes.
For a number of years, Muslim families have been locked in a debate with state authorities about sports and faith. It has to do with the relationship between the state and religion, and that’s where the alienation can come into play at times when Middle Eastern culture and Western culture clash.
In the end, a German court ruled in September that Muslim girls must join the co-ed school swim lessons.
“The decision by Germany’s top court for public and administrative disputes signals that the state’s constitutional obligation to educate children can take precedence over customs and practices linked to an individual’s religious beliefs,” Reuters reported in September.
Other European countries have tried to deal with these problems over the years, too. But France, where Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps have been banned, is by far the most secular and strict.