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 pupils.
"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 German citizenship.
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.