Muslim girl sent home from school in France over long skirt

May 6, 2016

A teenage Catholic girl who converted to Islam has been banned from attending a school in the eastern Paris suburbs because her skirt is too long. The principal of the school in Montereau-Fault-Yonne told the 16-year-old that the length of her skirt meant that it was an “ostentatious religious symbol” – something forbidden in state schools in France since 2004.

A meeting will be held at the school with the pupil’s parents to try to resolve the dispute, following a rash of similar incidents in other French schools last year.

Long skirts if worn as a fashion statement are allowed in French schools. Long skirts worn as sign of allegiance to Islam – or any other religion – may fall foul of the 2004 law which, enforces the principle that state schools are secular.

The council of state, the final arbiter of the meaning of French laws, has been asked to rule on the “long skirt” issue but has not yet done so.

The girl has been named only as K De Sousa, French of Portuguese origin. She converted to Islam, with the blessing of her family, a year ago. The French education system investigated whether she was part of a radical Islamic movement and decided she was not.

Her mother Marie-Christine de Sousa told L’Obs: “My daughter respects the law. I respect her religion. Until now, the school has made no comment on the way she dresses.

“Apart from chattering in class, she has no problems and doesn’t say much about her conversion. People shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”

K De Sousa wears a headscarf in public but takes it off when she reaches school, as the 2004 law demands. The law was enacted after a series of rows in French schools about the wearing of headscarves. It was broadened to ban all “ostentatious religious symbols” to avoid seeming to stigmatize Islam.

A handful of schools in France have begun to interpret long skirts won by Muslim girls as a religious symbol. Most do not. The education board covering K De Sousa’s school admitted that dialogue between the school and her family had “not gone entirely serenely”.

“Talks will resume on Monday,” a spokesman said. “It is in everyone’s interest that this young woman should pursue her schooling normally. A long dress or skirt is not, in itself, a motive for excluding a pupil.”

Opening doors: launch of the first Arab-speaking newspaper catering to refugees in Germany

22 March 2016

How to give recently arrived Syrians an insight into the workings of German society and the issues animating contemporary German politics? Ramy al-Asheq, himself a Syrian of Palestinian origin living in Germany since 2014 has set out to facilitate this process by founding the country’s first free-of-charge Arabic newspaper catering to the needs and questions of refugees. Titled Abwab (literally ‘doors’), the paper seeks to provide guidance to newcomers on matters as diverse as the machinations of the German bureaucracy, the differences between German and Syrian legal systems, as well as covering current developments in the German and international political scene and providing information about cultural events and the arts

Abwab conceives of itself as filling an important lacuna, due to the dearth of Arabic-language orientation materials and news resources available in the country. At the same time, the paper’s editors seek to meet the criticism that an Arabic newspaper could obviate the need to learn German and to engage with German-language news outlets: Abwab should be understood as a free newspaper catering to the immediate needs of recent arrivals who are not yet fluent in German, or so one of the main editors, Necati Dutar, asserts. Abwab in fact encourages its readers to learn the language and aims to offer some practical advice in this regard – e.g. by recommending to chat to retirees relaxing in local parks.

The paper also addresses more difficult issues, such as the positioning of the German government vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. Every issue also contains articles on women’s rights. One of the paper’s 40 volunteer writers, Walaa Kharmanda, a Syrian journalist who has fled the civil war herself, emphasises the need to discuss legal and cultural differences in order to reduce stereotypical perceptions that depict all European women as licentious, as well as those that conceive of all Syrian women as oppressed.

The paper’s current circulation is 45,000; yet due to high demand the editors aim to increase this number by attracting more advertising sponsors. They also plan to launch an online platform through which the magazine’s content can be accessed in Arabic, English, and German. So far, internet users can browse Abwab’s first three issues at Al-Asheq and his team conceive of Abwab as a means that allows refugees to access German society: “we should all try to become Germans, and we should try to help each other.” Yet he also notes that “integration is not a one-way street. […] For me, integration is a process in which two sides partake, teaching and learning from each other.”

Online access to the paper’s first issues:

Controversy surrounding ‘room of silence’ at German university

25 February 2015

In a case that has received widespread attention in the press, the Technical University of Dortmund has closed down a ‘room of silence’ for reading, relaxation, and mediation, following the growing usage of the space as a prayer room by Muslim students. For the purposes of praying, the room had been divided by movable partitions into a bigger segment for men and a smaller one for women. When this triggered complaints from female students, and when prayer rugs and copies of the Quran were found, the university proceeded to close down the room: Eva Prost, the university’s spokeswoman, asserted that “as a public institution we are bound by the Basic Law, which demands equal treatment of men and women; this is what we must defend and therefore we cannot tolerate such a gender segregation.”

Already in 2012, the students’ union had insisted that religious symbols and utensils be removed from the room. At the time, sets of flyers with instructions for women on how to dress (hijab and no perfume) had also been removed.

A petition was started by students protesting against the closure. A Muslim student complained that the loss of this space meant that there was no possibility to pray in the university buildings other than in the staircases, which need to remain unobstructed due to fire safety regulations. As a response to the petition against the room’s closure, one of its signatories has received electronic hate mail of sufficient gravity that state security services have sought to bring charges against the sender for incitement of the people (Volksverhetzung).

Six universities create courses on Islam and radicalization

February 20, 2016

Six universities or schools will acquire, in the upcoming academic year, new curricula and instructors, to strengthen research on Islam, as requested by the Ministry of Education.

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem announced the plans with Secretary for Higher Education Thierry Mandon.

“The Ministry announces the creation of posts for instructor-researchers which will allow us to strengthen training and research projects on these issues by the beginning of the next academic year,” the statement announced.

Following the January 2015 attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the Ministry of National Education launched a “Mobilization of Schools for the Values of the Republic.” Six out of twenty seven schools that responded were chosen: Panthéon-Sorbonne, Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille, the University of Lyon, as well as the Ecole pratique des hautes études. A sixth selection will be announced according to the Ministry. “In total, these new posts will cost $650,000 for the university school year,” the statement clarified.

Medicine against radicalism

18 February 2016

With a little bit of luck a Dutch-educated imam would also be a good remedy against radicalism, the minister believes. Some of the current Dutch imams are on another frequency than the youth in their mosques. They do not always speak Dutch well, while they mostly know a lot about theology. Bussemaker: “This is while the youth are also looking for someone to give moral guidance. Someone who can indicate limits.”

That mosques are in need of imams that speaks the Dutch language well and that can also be moral leaders, became apparent at a recent meeting at the VU in Amsterdam. There Bussemaker spoke to a multifarious company of 75 imams. During the debate the imams made clear they do not always succeed in being theologian, pedagogue, and moral leader. “That message was clearly received”, Bussemaker said afterwards. As minister of education she cannot solve all problems, but “I do can show that the imams are not alone in this.”

French students encouraged to smoke inside following terror attacks

February 18, 2016

The 9am bell hasn’t rung yet, but students at the Lycée Voltaire high school, in the French capital’s 11th arrondissement, are already crowding around the big blue door to get out of the cold. A few snowflakes fall on the latecomers. One student finishes his cigarette and puts it out a few feet away from the school entrance, before disappearing inside the doorway. And even though it’s technically illegal for them to do so, other students will wait until they are inside the school grounds to light up.

“We’ve been able to smoke inside for a few weeks now,” explains Anne, 18, who is in her final year of high school and smokes “two to three cigarettes a day.” She says it’s a good thing that students are now being encouraged to smoke in designated areas inside the school grounds. “Before, there were a lot of small groups crowded together [outside], and honestly, it was an easy target for an attack.”

This is one of the weirdest results of the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last November, when terrorists targeted large gatherings to kill as many people as they could. Like many other high schools in and around Paris, the Voltaire has recently relaxed its rules on smoking, and is now allowing students to smoke in a designated area inside the school grounds.

Lucas, also in his final year and also a smoker, nods in agreement with Anne. “It’s safer for us, after the attacks, and also it’s in an open area, so it’s not like it’s polluting the entire school yard,” he says.

This newly introduced measure bends another rule that was introduced by the government in 1991, which bans smoking in public spaces like schools. Days after the November 13 attacks, the French government sent a circular round to school principals, outlining new safety recommendations in the wake of the attacks. As part of the measures, the government authorized principals to set up “designated areas within the schools […] to avoid having students leave the high school between periods.”

Principals asked the authorities whether the new recommendation allowed them to effectively circumvent the 1991 legislation, also known as the Évin law. The country’s Directorate-General for Health said no, and today, the legal implications of lighting up in school remain foggy to say the least.

In a phone interview, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education alluded to “a certain level of fear among parents, students and professors” following the attacks. “As a way to avoid crowds gathering outside of high schools, some principals are temporarily allowing students to smoke within the school grounds, in designated, open-air areas.”

“It’s up to the principal to decide — depending on the specifics of their high school,” she said. The spokeswoman also noted that while the ministry was “tolerating” the new smoking rules, it remained “very committed to the fight against addiction and smoking.”

“All this is highly regulated and will be in place for a limited period only, determined by current events,” she added.

According to Dr. Alain Rigaud, president of the National Association for Alcohol and Addiction Prevention, the relaxed rules could have “devastating consequences” on the health of French high-schoolers.

Smoking is “conquering new ground” despite the 1991 ban, Rigaud said. “Smoking already affects close to a third of French high school students, and if the smokers are invited back into the playground, habits will be picked up,” the doctor said.

“According to the testimonies we have received, there are already 30 or so high schools in the Île de France [the region around Paris] that allow smoking — that’s way too many,” he added.

Rigaud explained that he had shared his concerns with the government on Monday, during a meeting with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. But authorities had failed to make any “concrete promises,” he said.

“Smoking is a major scourge, that kills one out of every two long-term smokers,” the doctor said. “Over the next thirty years, that’s around 125,000 students from France’s current high school population who will die because of smoking. That’s huge compared to terror attacks.”

Security and surveillance around French schools has been beefed up in the wake of the attacks. In a recent issue of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, the Islamic State exhorted sympathizers to kill teachers in France, calling them “corrupters.” Several middle schools and high schools in and around Paris have been evacuated these past weeks after a series of hoax bomb threats.

Philippe Tournier, the principal of the Lycée Victor-Duruy high school in Paris, thinks that allowing smoking within the school grounds is “necessary.”

“You have to remember that every day, throughout the entire Île-de-France, tens of thousands of high school students leave school around 10.30am [to smoke],” he told VICE News. “They are spectacularly easy targets.”

Tournier, who also serves as secretary-general for the country’s school principals union SNPDEN, explained that the union had shared its concerns over student safety with the government in the wake of the attacks.

“We were heard but there is still a coordination issue between the ministries of the interior, education and health,” he said. “There’s a misunderstanding at the state level.” When asked about potential initiatives to help students kick their habit — which organizations like Rigaud’s have requested — Tournier was less than hopeful.

“That would imply huge reforms, because I’m not sure how you can fight smoking when you have one nurse for every 300 students,” he said.

“Furthermore, in the case of some of the high school students, we have no right to stop them, and if they want to smoke outside they’ll do it anyway.”

Expansion of Islamic Theology Teaching at German Universities

February 10, 2016

Faculties of Islamic theology at German universities will continue to expand over the next few years, following a string of deals struck between universities and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The federal government financially supports research and teaching in Islamic theology at the universities of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Frankfurt/ Gießen, Münster, Osnabrück, as well as Tübingen. Aside from engaging with scholarly questions of theology and jurisprudence, university programmes have focused on the education of teachers for Islamic religious education at primary and secondary schools. They have also begun forays into the formation of imams. With student numbers growing relatively quickly, the Islamic theological faculties at Osnabrück and at Frankfurt will begin to offer new degree programmes in the area of social work. These programmes will be centred on questions of the provision of Islamic welfare and care for a Muslim public, comparable to existing Christian-tinged social work curricula.

The Central Committee of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) declared itself satisfied with the progress made so far. A parallel development has been occurring in the context of the German scholarship system: aside from being eligible to apply to the main existing national-level scholarship foundations, gifted Muslim students can also become part the state-funded Avicenna scholarship programme, which provides financial support as well as a range of academic opportunities with an Islamic focus. Again, the Avicenna programme parallels existing state-backed Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholarship institutions.

New book highlights stigmas against Muslim schoolchildren in France

January 7, 2016

On January 7, sociologist Beatrice Mabilon-Bonfils and historian François Durpaire published their book entitled “Fatima less rated than Marianne” where they highlighted stigmas against Muslim schoolchildren in France.

After analyzing the image of Islam in 15 history schoolbooks from the first grade, second grade, and in high school, the researchers concluded that Islam is often associated with terrorism or strangeness.

The two researchers pointed out in their book that the term Islam is often associated with the word “terrorist”, “Islamism”, “terrorism”, “September 11″, “bin Laden” and “Al Qaeda” in these schoolbooks .

They also noted that Islam is a religion being presented as “foreign to France.”

Durpaire wanted to emphasize the dangers of this standardized stigma.

“Such a representation of Islam can lead to fuel a phobia and to caricaturize this religion – Islam,” he said. He added that the Islamophobia and caricature of Islam are already present in the French society.

The book also talks about the daily prejudices targeting Muslim students within the French school system. After years of investigation, the authors of the book revealed that Muslim students tend to be punished more for the same behavior and graded lower for the same answers.

“Fatima is always less rated than Marianne for the same test, and Issam and Kader are punished more than Mathieu for the same misbehavior at school,” the book says.

The authors say the depiction of Islam creates resentment against Muslims in France.

“These resentments are fed and encouraged by students’ books, asking what image French youth will have regarding Islam today and tomorrow,” the book says.

Islamic Theology: Turning over a new page

Theology and paedagogy can offer young Muslims a better alternative to the hate preachers operating on the sidelines of the faith. By Harry Harun Behr

In 2010, the German Council of Science and Humanities recommended introducing the subject of Islamic theology to German universities. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research recently decided to continue the funding. How is this relatively young subject faring today?

Theology entails academic research into the fundamentals of religion. It serves a clarifying function, and this makes the subject interesting. German Islamic theology is not only appealing to Muslim intellectuals from the nations between Casablanca and Surabaya. Under the heading “Dialogue with the Islamic world” it is also integral to foreign cultural policy.

Take an example from Tunisia. Last year, social scientists gathered for a conference in Sousse. They discussed Islam and politics in the countries affected by the Arab Spring movements, which had in the meantime yielded so many disappointing outcomes. I was asked to speak about how religious, pedagogical and political-scientific theories arise. Verses of the Koran describe how emotional and social motives can be skewed in conflicts. The interesting point here is that the question of faith itself is secondary. Expertise, pragmatism and questions of religious epistemology take precedence.

No Islamisation of the secular constitution

With respect to the constitutional discourse taking place in Arab nations, participants reached a consensus: there should be no Islamisation of the secular constitution; sharia should be seen, in the literal theological sense, as standard Islamic guidelines and methodology; the code needs to be re-formulated in accordance with democratic, civil society and constitutional standards.

Firstly, the Koran’s discourse on humanity, the world and God has a cultural-historical predetermined breaking point: sacred texts divulge how religion and law were negotiated at the time of their emergence and elsewhere. But the Koran is also grounded in a third domain, which lies between the religious and the secular: in the non-negotiable human norms of the moral good. This is where the timeless dimension of the Koran is unfolds. From a historical point of view, it is both the outcome and the starting point of theology.

This ushers in an anthropological turning point in Islamic theology, which should not be seen as a renunciation of the religious traditions of Islam, but as a shift in the controls: less traditionalism, a greater understanding of the situations in which people live, less bondage to the collective, strengthening of the individual, away from Islam as a particular system and closer to Islam as a resource that enriches life.

More courage to focus on intellect and reason

The intention is to mobilise the ethical substance of Islam within the universal perspective. This also involves how the Koran is applied. Where the early Koranic commentator at-Tabari was still searching for clear meaning in the 9thcentury, the Persian Fachruddin ar-Razi was asking about the intention of the interpreter some 300 years later.

This marked an initial move away from the surface of the Koran into the depth of its meaning. Today the focus should be on citing the Koran in its own informative tradition. Having greater courage to focus on intellect and reason is the right way to respond to apotheosis of the document. Incidentally, there is nothing significant on this in the Koran, which describes Muhammad as “the entirety of the oration” (jawami’ al-quran).

Consequently, Islamic theology should give orientation. With its introduction to the canon of university disciplines comes a cultural-political expectation: its translation into existing cultural codes and its involvement in the public discourse on overall concepts. These may currently seen to be flaring up owing to the events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne.

The latter leads on us to the question of what has to happen in the biography of a man for him to only experience sexual arousal in the context of violence. Such behaviour is associated with totalitarian structures in which ethical and moral codes are perverted to enforce assimilation. The fragmentation of physical and emotional identities this produces is thus also a problem for political systems in which Islam is used to legitimise injustice.

With this in mind, Islamic theology is continually required to grapple with phenomena that are not a result of Islamic traditions, but arguably of Muslim living environments. The romantic fantasies of girls, who glorify the IS terror militia among other reasons because it appears to them to be the best way to liberate themselves from patriarchal submission is another issue.

From a material to a functional understanding of religion

Herein lies one of the missions of Islamic religious tuition. It does not help to make young Muslims believe that all these terrible things have nothing to do with Islam, that God is actually really nice and Muhammad is an Arab Father Christmas. Some things are so wrong that not even the converse is right. Positive discriminatory constructions are rejected by Muslim students just as much as negative ones.

Hiding behind shrill contradictions helps just as little as token Muslims at flashy conferences, because this only serves to fuel the loss of normality. Spiritual vulnerability drives many Muslim youngsters to make themselves experts on Islam even if they are not at all religious. They look for answers and want neither sermons nor soapboxes.

To cite a concrete example: the new core curricula in the state of Hessen for secondary level Islamic studies are courageous in this regard. They gently shift the controls from the material to the functional understanding of religion, because the focus is not on the special features of a religion, but on religious learning as intellectual agility in aesthetic, spiritual and analytical matters.

That this is happening with the blessing of two notoriously conservative Islamic communities is only baffling upon first glance: Hessen is thus far the only federal state to have granted them religious community status.

They now need to grow into the shoes in which they find themselves put. And as a result they are looking to academic theology for assistance. In this respect, the ministry’s strategy has paid off. It is time, with the help of Islamic theology and pedagogy, to offer the better alternative to that which claims from the sidelines to be the true Islam. Only then is faith in the universal sociological standard justified – that nonsense will not prevail.

Harry Harun Behr

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon