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Germany divided over hijab

Controversy surrounds a recent court decision in favor of a school teacher wearing a headscarf.

By Andreas TzortzisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 2003


Having spent the last 15 years of her life wearing the Muslim hijab, or head scarf, teacher Emine Öztürk can't imagine taking it off in public, even for just one minute.

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But that's exactly what Ms. Öztürk might have to do if she ever wants to get a teaching job in a Berlin public school.

"It's part of my identity," says this young German of Turkish descent. "How can I lay my identity at the door of the classroom?"

It is a question on the minds of many here following a decision by Germany's highest court, allowing teacher Fereshta Ludin to wear her head scarf in class as long as there are no state laws against it. Since the decision came down two weeks ago, a majority of German states, including Berlin, have announced plans to pass such laws.

In the debate that has ensued, politicians and Muslim leaders have begun to ask some serious questions about the place their religion and identity holds in a Europe rooted in Christianity and Judaism, but with a growing Muslim population.

"You have a new generation of Muslims ... reasonably educated, fluent in cultures of languages they live in ... demanding a sort of legitimization; they want it without having to become assimilated," says Shireen Hunter, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies Islam Program, and editor of "Islam, Europe's Second Religion."

In France, the ban on head scarves in everything from schools to ID cards has provoked an outcry in recent years by that country's increasingly strong Muslim population. In the United Kingdom and Sweden, a more open attitude prevails. Teachers and even female Muslim police officers are allowed to wear their head scarves.

Germany's relationship to its 3.2 million Muslims is decidedly more fragile.

Touchy issues of integration such as Muslim dress and the ritual slaughter of sheep in accordance with Islamic law have been brought before courts to decide in recent years. Earlier this summer, the constitutional court ruled that a department store could not fire a Muslim woman because she wanted to wear her head scarf during work.

The legal conflicts are symptoms of the German government and Turkish community neglecting to address the issue of integration, say historians. By the time integration became a topic, the sons and grandsons of the Turkish guest workers who had arrived in the 1960s had already carved out little Ankaras and Istanbuls in Germany's major cities.

They built up parallel societies that made the Turkish grocer, corner Doener stand, and mosque part of the everyday urban landscape in Germany. Many Muslim leaders are puzzled why a hijab-wearing woman wanting to teach in a public school is such a big deal nowadays.

"We live in a free, modern society, where everyone has their own self-awareness," says Ali Kizilkaya, head of the powerful and controversial Islamrat, Germany's largest Muslim group. "Are we so weak that a square foot of cloth can make us feel threatened?"

Opponents argue that it is not the head scarf, but the fact that Ludin wants to wear it in a public school classroom. Germany has no official religion, and the state is constitutionally bound to maintain a position of neutrality in religious matters.