Islamic theology at German universities: successes and limitations of an unprecedented experiment

For many decades after the arrival of Muslim ‘guest workers’ from Turkey, Morocco, and other Muslim-majority countries, German authorities were happy to outsource the provision of religious services to Imams and preachers sent by the Muslim immigrants’ countries of origin. Since the Muslim workforce would ultimately return home, it was unnecessary and even counterproductive to grant Islamic religiosity a permanent presence – or so the reasoning went.

‘Domesticating’ Islam

It was only around the turn of the millennium that perceptions changed. After the events of September 11, 2001, authorities took a securitised perspective on Islam. Fears about the uncontrolled flourishing of a radical underground religious scene appeared to call for the creation of more transparent structures of Islamic learning.

Members of the Muslim community also began to voice a critique of the prevailing arrangement: they bemoaned the fact that Imams knew little about life in Germany or Western Europe and could not provide guidance on many issues that mattered to believers, and especially to younger audiences.((See Ceylan, Rauf (2009). Prediger des Islam. Imame – Wer sie sind und was sie wirklich wollen. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder. ))

Establing new chairs

In 2011, then, the German government – taking cues from the country’s ongoing Islamkonferenz, an (often controversial) forum bringing together state authorities and various Muslim figures and organisations – decided to fund the creation of several university departments of Islamic theology.

Subsequently, several university chairs were established – at Tübingen, Frankfurt/Gießen, Münster, Osnabrück, and Erlangen/Nuremberg. State funding, initially granted for five years, has since been renewed. Overall, the Ministry for Education and Research has spent € 36 million on these new faculties.(( https://www.bmbf.de/de/islamische-theologie-367.html ))

Training school teachers

Yet while the formation of Imams for Germany’s mosques has been on the agenda of these university departments, their main focus has been the training of teachers for Islamic religious education classes in public schools.

The understanding of secularism anchored in Germany’s constitution is not marked by a laic attempt to cleave apart public and religious life in a stringent manner. Instead, the German ethos is one of cooperation of state and religious bodies in the public sphere. Consequently, the country’s public schools offer confessional courses in religious education adapted to the pupils’ faith.

Expanding employment opportunities for graduates

Many of Germany’s 16 federal states – who are each individually responsible for their own educational sectors – rapidly expanded their offerings of Islamic religious education in the 2000s. Ever since, they have been in dire need of skilled teaching personnel to fill vacant positions.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Of the currently 2,000 students enrolled in degree courses in Islamic theology, most will seek employment as secondary school teachers. Others might staff the ranks of Germany’s expanding Islamic social welfare sector. Confessional institutions run by large Catholic and Protestant charity organisations play a pre-eminent role in various fields of pastoral care, including in care for the elderly. Now, with the ‘guest worker’ generations ageing, there is a growing demand for Islamic offers in this domain.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/wohlfahrtspflege-der-religionsgemeinschaften-muslimische.886.de.html?dram:article_id=346493 ))

No progress on the formation of Imams

What the centres for Islamic theology have not accomplished so far, however, is to foster a new generation of Imams that could preach in German mosques. In fact, students themselves express little desire to pursue this career – a stance for which a number of reasons can be adduced.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 ))

First of all, given their lack of firm legal status in Germany – they are not recognised as a ‘corporations of public law’ and thus do not hold a status comparable to Christian churches or Jewish congregations – many Muslim communities have extremely limited financial wiggle room. They are, consequently, at times not in a position to pay the salaries of a fully-trained Imam – and students of Islamic theology are reluctant to accept employment with extremely meagre pay.

Continued reliance on clergymen from abroad

The organisation that could most easily avoid this financial trap is DİTİB, the country’s largest Islamic association with roughly 1,000 Imams. Yet DİTİB is a subsidiary of the Turkish government’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and as such only employs Imams trained in and funded by Turkey.

To be sure, DİTİB spokesman Zekeriya Altuğ has affirmed that the mosques of his organisation will gradually move towards relying on German-trained Imams.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 )) Altuğ has also stressed DİTİB’s overall willingness to emancipate itself from its Turkish superiors.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/f-a-s-exklusiv-ditib-will-unabhaengiger-werden-14386218.html ))

Yet it remains doubtful whether the organisation will be either willing or capable to accomplish such a manoeuvre in the near future, particularly given the recent reassertion of central control from Ankara.

Distrust between theology chairs and associations

Scepticism about the suitability of potential Imams trained at German university extends beyond DİTİB, however. The 300 mosques of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) do fund their Imams through private donations, without relying on a financially strong state backer. Nevertheless, they have not embraced the idea of turning to graduates of Germany’s Islamic theology seminaries.

It seems likely that this reticence is linked to disputes over personnel choices and over the content of the curricula at Islamic theology faculties. On both of these matters, the more liberal-leaning faculties (with backing from universities and public authorities) and the more conservative Islamic associations have often clashed bitterly.

‘Liberals’ vs. ‘conservatives’

Generally, the liberals have had the upper hand, to the chagrin of their opponents. Consequently, Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the ZMD, criticised the tendency to “see university institutions as counter-models to the mosques”.

He claimed that the dichotomisation into “enlightened” university Islam and “backward” practices of mosque communities “does particular harm to the reputation of university institutions. For after all it is the congregations that are supposed to employ the graduated Imams one day.” In other words, the ZMD’s constituent communities continue to be suspicious of the ideological orientation of the university degree holders.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 ))

Managing students’ expectations

At the same time, members of the ‘liberal’ university teaching staff have themselves expressed some dissatisfaction with their students and their outlook on the Islamic theology curriculum.

According to Harry Harun Behr, Professor of Religious Education at the University of Frankfurt, many students “seek to deepen their faith, not to work scientifically. When I tell them that the Qur’an is the result of a theological discourse, they don’t want to hear.”(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Professor Mouhanad Khorchide of Münster University concurred: Many students “want to have their faith confirmed”, he asserted, “but university is a place to reflect on faith”. According to him, it would take at least two or three additional generations of students for this point to be accepted across the board.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Positive results

A little more than five years after the creation of the new faculties, policymakers as well as Islamic scholars and theologians nevertheless continue to see the experiment in positive light.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/europe-and-its-muslims-islamic-theology-in-germany-spanning-the-divide?nopaging=1 ))

Academic observers have stressed that, among other beneficial contributions, the establishment of departments of Islamic theology has helped to bring a more adequate and more intellectually sophisticated Muslim voice to current debates; debates which are all too often controlled by questionable “Islam experts” without any solid theological credentials.((Antes, Peter and Rauf Ceylan (2017). “Die Etablierung der Islamischen Theologie: Institutionalisierung einer neuen Disziplin und die Entstehung einer muslimischen scientific community”. In Antes and Ceylan (eds.), Muslime in Deutschland: Historische Bestandsaufnahme, akutelle Entwicklungen und zukünftige Forschungsfragen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. )) Indeed, Muslim theologians have not shied away from weighing in on controversial issues.

Islamic theology’s struggle for independence

Thus, there are encouraging signs. They might enable Islamic theology at German universities to transcend its twofold challenge: first, like any new academic discipline, it needs to establish itself and find its own turf – institutionally as well as intellectually. This, by itself, is not an easy feat to accomplish.

In the case of Islamic theology, a second and more particular hurdle presents itself, linked to the inherently contested nature of the study of Islam itself. The most powerful factions seeking to gain definitional authority and dominance over the field are conservative Islamic associations on the one hand and public authorities on the other hand.

While the latter are ostentatiously more liberal than the former, they are nevertheless bent on enforcing their security agenda and on creating a state-backed ‘moderate’ Islam. If Islamic theology wants to come of age in Germany, it must shake off the demands of both sides and strive to cut its own path.

The hijab in German public schools: New court case lets old questions resurface

The protracted German debate on Muslim teachers’ right to wear the hijab when working in the public sector has received its newest episode. The State Labour Court (Landesarbeitsgericht) of Berlin and Brandenburg decided in favour of a Muslim teacher who had sued the state of Berlin for barring her from exercising her profession because of her hijab.

Landmark decision by the Constitutional Court

In German public schools, pupils are free to wear the Muslim headcovering; yet the situation with respect to teachers is more complex. This is partly linked to the country’s federalised geography: educational matters are generally not governed from Berlin but handled by the capitals of the country’s 16 federal states, leading to often strongly differing educational practices.

As Euro-Islam reported, Germany’s top Constitutional Court had overturned North-Rhine Westphalia’s blanket ban on teachers wearing the Muslim headscarf in 2015; yet the practices of state governments have been slow to adapt. Moreover, the precise implications of the Court’s verdict itself have remained unclear.

While the judges rejected a generalised ban of the hijab, it did not unconditionally allow its wearing, either. In fact, based on the verdict, school authorities retain the right to prohibit individual teachers from wearing the hijab if they demonstrate that the teacher’s clothing constitutes “a sufficiently concrete threat or disruption of school peace”.(( http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/DE/2015/01/rs20150127_1bvr047110.html ))

Current court cases

Perhaps also because of this considerable degree of equivocation in the Court’s judgements, a number of states have not changed their discriminatory practices. Instead, state governments have preferred to wait until Muslim women take to the courts, attempting to enforce their right to wear a hijab.

Subsequently, lower-instance courts have issued a number of verdicts that appear favourable to Muslim women’s demands. Yet upon further inspection, the judges have often dodged the real issues at stake.

In 2016, a Munich Administrative Court, for instance, ostentatiously ruled in favour of a junior lawyer whom the State of Bavaria had banned from wearing a headscarf while working at court. Yet in its reasoning, the court based itself on purely formal grounds, thus refraining from commenting on the overall legality of prohibiting women from wearing the hijab while fulfilling public functions.

The situation in Berlin

In Berlin, the local government did not amend its legal provisions after the Constitutional Court’s landmark verdict on the hijab. It seems that the state authorities deemed themselves immune from legal challenges because Berlin’s “neutrality law” (Neutralitätsgesetz) does not explicitly discriminate against the hijab: in fact, it prohibits the wearing of any and all religious symbols in public service.(( http://gesetze.berlin.de/jportal/portal/t/iaf/page/bsbeprod.psml?pid=Dokumentanzeige&showdoccase=1&js_peid=Trefferliste&fromdoctodoc=yes&doc.id=jlr-VerfArt29GBE2005pP2&doc.part=X&doc.price=0.0&doc.hl=0 ))

In the present case, the court of first instance had dismissed the teacher’s lawsuit. In its verdict, it based itself on the non-discriminatory nature of Berlin’s neutrality law, arguing that the educational board had the right to refuse an applicant with a hijab.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-04/kopftuchverbot-berlin-urteil-arbeitsgericht-lehrerinnen ))

This judgement has now been overturned in the second instance by the State Labour Court. Now, the judge argued that the State of Berlin did in fact discriminate against the prospective teacher by refusing to employ her because of her headscarf. Consequently, the State was condemned to pay the woman close to 9,000 Euros in salaries.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-02/berlin-lehrerin-kopftuch-gericht-berufungsverfahren-entschaedigung ))

Caveats persist

However, like in the case of the Munich junior lawyer, the court’s verdict comes with a caveat: the State Labour Court did not object to the neutrality law itself. For the judge, the neutrality law itself is fully constitutional.

Instead, the court objected to the fact that state educational authorities had not sufficiently justified their decision to deny employment to the plaintiff: the state had failed to demonstrate that the “school peace” would be threatened or disrupted by the presence of a headscarf-wearing woman.(( http://www.spiegel.de/karriere/berlin-abgelehnt-wegen-kopftuch-lehrerin-bekommt-schadensersatz-a-1133806.html ))

Walking a tightrope

This showcases how the court sought to bridge the divide between Berlin’s neutrality law on the one hand and the verdict of the Constitutional Court on the other hand – an exercise that resembles walking on a tightrope.

The neutrality law itself incorporates in its Article 3 a provision that allows educational authorities to exempt individual teachers from the requirement of absolute religious neutrality, provided that this measure does not endanger the “ideological-religious neutrality” of the school in question and does not threaten “school peace”.(( http://gesetze.berlin.de/jportal/portal/t/iaf/page/bsbeprod.psml?pid=Dokumentanzeige&showdoccase=1&js_peid=Trefferliste&fromdoctodoc=yes&doc.id=jlr-VerfArt29GBE2005pP2&doc.part=X&doc.price=0.0&doc.hl=0 ))

This might appear to allow a reconciliation of the neutrality law with the Constitutional Court’s verdict. Yet it is noteworthy that the Berlin law flips on its head the default position that underlies constitutionally acceptable restrictions on the wearing of the hijab.

The Constitutional Court argues that it is per se legal for teachers to wear the hijab, unless it be proven that the headscarf upsets the orderly working of the school. Conversely, the State of Berlin starts from the position that it is per se illegal for teachers to wear the hijab, unless it be shown that the religious symbol in question does not undermine school peace.

A question of equality

As noted above, the Constitutional Court passed its landmark ruling in 2015 in response to a case from North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). In contrast to Berlin, the NRW state government had banned only the hijab from public schools, while continuing to allow kippah or Christian habits. Consequently, the main thrust of the Court’s verdict is directed against this unequal treatment of religious symbols.

In its verdict, the Court also briefly and somewhat hurriedly accepts as constitutional bans on religious symbols that do not discriminate between the faiths and instead prohibit all religious symbols from public institutions.((See esp. Section III, Art. 1 c) for the Court’s positioning on that matter: http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/DE/2015/01/rs20150127_1bvr047110.html ))

Different versions of secularism

While this would seem to legitimise Berlin’s neutrality law, this somewhat underdeveloped aspect of the Constitutional Court’s verdict remains problematic. Most notably, the Court’s recognition of a non-discriminatory policy of neutrality departs from the German tradition of Church-State relations, anchored in Article 140 of the German Basic Law.

In contrast to the French practice of laicité on the other side of the Rhine, the post-WWII German state has defined its position vis-à-vis institutionalised religion as one of fostering and support. There are extensive cooperation agreements between state and religious bodies, for instance in various domains of social or charitable work. This cooperative framework of Church-State relations also forms the basis of the extensive confessional education offered to children in public schools.

Against this tradition of cooperation, neutrality laws introduce a more categorical separation into the German framework. It remains to be seen whether the recognition of this practice by the Constitutional Court signals the onset of a full-fledged transformation of the German system.

Political reactions

In Berlin itself, where the struggle between these two different visions of secularism will take place over the coming months and years, the reactions to the decision in the teacher’s favour have been mixed.

In its official response, the ruling coalition of Social Democratic, Green, and Left parties asserted that it would uphold the state’s neutrality law. However, the junior partners in the coalition, the Green and Left parties, criticised the law.

The city’s Justice Senator Dirk Behrendt asserted that the neutrality provision had become untenable. In his interpretation, the court’s verdict did in fact reveal the law’s irreconcilability with the Constitutional Court’s position, i.e. its unconstitutionality.(( http://www.rbb-online.de/politik/beitrag/2017/02/berlin-kopftuchurteil-senat-neutralitaetgesetz-wird-nicht-ueberprueft.html )) The political debate over the place of the hijab in public institutions is thus far from over.

Deputy mayor in France sends police to school to protest Arabic language classes

A city council official sent police to a primary school in France to protest the school’s decision to offer its students the option of learning the Arabic language. The deputy mayor of Six-Fours-les-Plages in southeastern France was acting on an inaccurate claim on Facebook that said students were being forced to learn the language.

Jean-Sébastien Vialatte confirmed that police officers were sent to the Reynier primary school twice in November to tell school officials that the deputy mayor opposed the teaching of Arabic there, local media reported Wednesday. The incident came to light when a local lawyer disclosed court documents revealing a failed legal suit by the council to halt these classes. Vialatte added that officials had their doubts about the teacher as well because he wasn’t a state employee.

An image shared in September by a parent of one of the children who attends classes at the school inaccurately said the Arabic language classes were mandatory sparking an outcry among parents in which politicians quickly joined.

Frédéric Boccaletti, a local politician and member of the far-right National Front, shared the image on his Facebook page blaming “friends” of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Moroccan-born minister of education, as the people behind these mandatory classes. He also condemned Vialatte for allowing the classes to continue.

French Muslim activist Yasser Louati said the incident was representative of the “normalization of state-sponsored racism.”
“Sending the police to make sure an Arabic class isn’t held shows how much hate government institutions can express for Arabs. In 2015, we had cases of primary school children being humiliated, assaulted, and even taken to the police by their teachers,” Louati reportedly said. “Then we had school girls being barred from school for wearing a long skirt or the prohibition of substitute meals for Muslims and Jews.”

“The only solution for French Muslims and any citizen who loves justice and equality is to band together and engage in a power struggle with decision makers. The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are an opportunity … nobody benefits from a society built on hate,” he added.

‘Cut beard or leave’: French high school student told his beard is ‘sign of radicalization’

A student of a French high school was threatened with expulsion after he refused to comply with the headmaster’s demand to shave his beard, which the headmaster considered a “sign of radicalization.”

“You cut it or you leave,” the headmaster reportedly told the student. The head teacher also reportedly claimed that the student’s beard is an apparent “sign of radicalization.”

When the headmaster first asked the student to shave or shorten his facial hair, the young man, 21, explained that he had been cultivating his beard for two years for religious reasons.

“The Prophet [Muhammed] was wearing one. It is something important to me,” the student, who wanted to remain unidentified out of fear of “being stigmatized even more.”

He also added that the head teacher’s “threats put pressure” on him and he “ended up” writing a letter to inform him that he was leaving the school. According to Le Parisien, the student has not attended school since October 13.

“He [the headmaster] gave me a few days for reflection to see if I change my mind and shave [the beard]… but I will not!” the student said. The student, who is a son of an atheist and a non-practicing Muslim, also admitted that he used to miss classes to go to Friday prayers, and said that he avoided shaking hands with his schoolmates for reasons of “decency.”

He also said that he used to wear harem pants – a sort of clothing common among Muslims – but stopped wearing them at headmaster’s request, as he agreed that it could be a religious sign. However, he still defends his right to sport a beard.

“I am not the only one with a beard, both among students and teachers,” he said. In the meantime, the young man received support from his classmates. “It looks like it was the parents who complained to the headmaster. Everything is mixed up!” one girl said.

The incident took place in the Parisian northern suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where some of the terrorists, who were involved in the Paris attacks in November 2015, were living.

 

 

Switzerland to Muslim Students: Shake Your Teacher’s Hand or Pay $5,000

25 May 2016

When two teenage Muslim students from Syria told their school in Switzerland that to shake their female teacher’s hand would violate their religious beliefs, administrators were sympathetic. So they made an exception: Unlike the school’s other students, who shake each teacher’s hand at the beginning and end of each class period, the two boys would be exempt from shaking anyone’s hand at all.

Turns out the Swiss national government takes their handshakes seriously. So seriously, in fact, that a regional authority announced Wednesday that the two boys would shake their female teachers’ hands from now on — or pay a $5,000 fine.  The local education department in Therwil, which is near the city of Basel, said in a statement Wednesday that the final decision was made because “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.”

This came after the citizenship process for the teens’ family was halted due to the incident. Authorities are now looking into their father’s 2001 asylum claim. He is an imam.

Last month, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga went on television to say that “the handshake is part of our culture.”

“We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom,” she said.

There are roughly 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland, and it’s unclear whether other exceptions were quietly made before this one. It’s also unclear what the two boys will do next. In an interview with Swiss media, one said they “could not just delete [their] culture as if it were a hard drive.”