Closure of the controversial King-Fahd-Academy in Bonn: Shifting Saudi religious politics in Germany

Past controversies

Saudi diplomats in Germany have confirmed that the King-Fahd-Academy, a Saudi-financed educational institution in Bonn, will be closed by the end of the school year 2016/2017. The construction of a second academy in Berlin will reportedly also be abandoned.(( http://www.dw.com/en/controversial-saudi-school-in-bonn-to-close/a-19511109 ))

The King-Fahd Academy, opened in 1994, had long been criticised as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. In the early 2000s, the school came under suspicion for alleged ties to Al-Qaeda. In a Friday sermon at the school mosque, a former teacher encouraged pupils to wage holy war and die in the name of God. At the same time, the Wahhabi-inspired curriculum sought to impart to students a strongly anti-Jewish and anti-Western outlook.(( http://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/media/islamistenschule100.html ))

After attempts to have the school closed did not come to fruition, local authorities used their administrative prerogatives and no longer granted children with German citizenship the permission to attend the school. As a consequence, the King-Fahd-Academy, an vast building complex, today only provides schooling to about 150 pupils.(( http://www.general-anzeiger-bonn.de/bonn/bad-godesberg/Godesberger-Schule-schlie%C3%9Ft-zum-Schuljahresende-article3344239.html ))

A shift in the Saudi approach?

Over the past decade, the King-Fahd Academy had striven to dissociate itself from the extremist image of the early 2000s. German language classes became obligatory, curricula were altered, and the school sought to open itself to the outside academically (by adopting the standards of the International Baccalaureate programme) as well as socially (by hosting open houses and a range of cultural activities).(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/umstrittene-saudische-fahd-akademie-in-bonn-schliesst-14411622-p3.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_3 ))

Yet the school never quite managed to leave its past behind. Henner Fürtig of the German Institute for Global Area Studies (GIGA) thus sees the closure of the school as indicative of a Saudi attempt to ameliorate the Kingdom’s image in Europe: closing the King-Fahd-Academy could enable the Saudi rulers to leave behind one of the most painful controversies of the past few years.(( http://www.dw.com/de/saudi-arabien-strebt-imagewechsel-an/a-19511727 ))

Saudi sources describe the abandonment of the old educational agenda as a consequence of a shifting political approach in Riyadh. Allegedly, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman himself decreed the closure of the King-Fahd-Academy.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/islam-in-deutschland-saudi-arabien-gibt-koenig-fahd-akademien-auf/14464982.html )) The ambitious crown prince recently promulgated his ‘Vision 2030’, seeking to modernise Saudi society, infrastructure, industry, and education. According to Saudi diplomats, instead of remaining in a Saudi bubble, Saudi students ought to be taught in German schools in order to benefit from “one of the world’s best educational systems”.(( https://beta.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article157887884/Der-saudische-Rueckzug-sollte-Schule-machen.html?wtrid=crossdevice.welt.desktop.vwo.google-referrer.home-spliturl&betaredirect=true ))

Reactions of relief

German politicians have generally reacted with relief to these announcements. While complimenting the school’s opening since the early 2000s, Bonn’s mayor Ashok Sridharan nevertheless welcomed the Academy’s closure. (( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/umstrittene-saudische-fahd-akademie-in-bonn-schliesst-14411622-p3.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_3 ))

The Saudi decision to shut down this one-time signature educational institution, does indeed come at a particular political moment. Over the past few months there had been renewed criticism of Saudi practices of religious financing abroad, with for instance Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) accusing Saudi Arabia openly of financing Islamic extremism in the West.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/01/14/german-vice-chancellor-accuses-saudi-arabia-of-funding-islamic-extremism-in-the-west/ ))

More generally, as Euro-Islam reported, winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of Germany’s growing Muslim minority has been a persistent theme in recent political debates.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/26/amidst-political-controversy-german-ditib-association-vows-greater-emancipation-turkish-state/ )) The role of Turkey and of Saudi Arabia has come under particular scrutiny in this regard. Politicians of all parties have voiced fears of foreign financing and control that could turn German Muslims into a Trojan horse destabilising the country from within. The closure of the King-Fahd-Academy will be welcome news to them.

Muslim leaders applaud Council of State ruling

Following the Council of State’s suspension of the anti-burkini orders in Villeneuve-Loubet, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) welcomed the ruling, calling it a “sensible decision,” and a “victory of rights, [and] wisdom.”

According to the CFCM’s Secretary General Abdallah Zekri, “This sensible decision will help defuse the situation, which was marked by high tensions among our Muslim compatriots, notably women.” He added that it was “a victory of rights, of wisdom, of promoting our country’s vivre ensemble”

The Grand Mosque of Lyon called on Muslims to be “proud of France.”

“This court decision serves as a symbolic model,” said the mosque’s rector Kamel Kabtane. “To those who argue, not without violence, that Islam has no place in France, in Europe, in the West…The Council of State has opposed them. Islam has its place in the Republic and the legal realm regarding a Muslim’s freedom of conscience, whether it be in the mosque or swimming in the ocean.”

 

France’s Council of State suspends burkini ban

Mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis, France’s highest administrative court ruled Friday. The Council of State’s ruling suspends a ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, and could affect cities around the country that have prohibited the full-length swimsuit.

More than 30 French towns have banned burkinis, which cover the whole body except for the face, hands and feet. Officials say banning the burkini -worn mostly by Muslim women- is a response to growing terror concerns and heightened tensions after a series of terror attacks.

Human rights activists argue that burkini bans are illegal, and that pushes to outlaw the garment are Islamophobic. They hailed Friday’s ruling as a significant step.

“By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fueled by and is fueling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand,” Amnesty International Europe Director John Dalhuisen said in a statement.

But it’s unclear how other towns with burkini bans will respond to Friday’s decision. If mayors continue to enforce and enact such decrees, they could face similar legal challenges.

No matter what, battles over the burkini in the court- and in the court of public opinion-are far from over.

Friday’s decision was an initial ruling by the Council of State while it continues to prepare its more detailed judgment on the legal issues in the case.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said he supports banning burkinis. And former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to run again for president, has said he would immediately enact a national ban of the swimsuits.

Critics of the bans say they discriminate against the women they claim to protect.

“These bans do nothing to increase public safety, but do a lot to promote public humiliation,” Dalhuisen said. “Not only are they in themselves discriminatory, but as we have seen, the enforcement of these bans leads to abuses and the degrading treatment of Muslim women and girls.”

‘Burkini Ban’ trojan horse for banning the veil?

Since the mayor of Cannes banned burkinis on July 28 more than thirty towns and communes in France followed suit. In certain municipalities such as Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Haute-Corse, Bouches-du-Rhône, Pas-de-Calais, and Aude, “correct dress, respectful of morality and secularism” and of “the rules of hygiene and the safety of swimming” is now mandatory.

On August 25, the Council of State will examine one of the “anti-burkini” orders, that of the Villeneuve-Loubet. The ruling will concern much more than beach attire, and affects further possible rulings against the veil in the public sphere at the initiatives of certain mayors.

Burkini or not, the orders have caused rupture and division. “What’s currently happening is a form of extending the need for neutrality or invisibility in areas and to people who were up until now not affected by the 1905 law,” said Marwan Mohammed, sociologist with the CNRS. “There has since been a lobby to extend this to universities as well as to businesses. With the recent orders, we are attacking the public sphere.”

These measures have been denounced by associations such as the CCIF and the League of Human Rights (LDH). “The danger, is that tomorrow we work to ban the veil in public or on public transportation,” said Patrice Spinosi, who defends the LDH.

Movements such as Osez le féminisme and Les Effrontées that usually denounce the veil as a tool of religious oppression, referred to the orders as “acts of humiliation,” of Muslim women. Even Femen and the writer Caroline Fourest, a secular feminist, denounced the orders, with the latter referring to them as “unacceptable.”

The government’s position seems unlikely to soften.  Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, echoed Manuel Valls by stating: “As the Prime Minister indicated, we can understand these orders.”

In a recent interview with Le Figaro Magazine Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a law that would “prohibit any religious symbols in schools and also universities, in the administration, and also in businesses.” The National Front urged a law that went as far as to prohibit “all general, visible, religious symbols in the public arena.”