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Why German public schools now teach Islam

Public schools in Germany must offer religion classes, and pilot courses in Islam are now being offered in addition to established programs in Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / January 20, 2010

'My Islam Book': Coauthors Evelin Lubig-Fohsel (l.) and Guel Solgun-Kaps hold the German-language textbook they wrote for state-sponsored religion classes in Germany’s schools.

Jochen Luebke/EPA


Dinslaken-Lohberg, Germany

When Lamya Kaddor started teaching at the Gluecklauf School in this mining town, where most children are of Turkish origin, she didn’t expect her “Islamic Studies in German” class to focus on everyday life.

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But it has, says Ms. Kaddor, a Muslim whose parents are Syrian. Her students ask all sorts of questions: “Is it OK to have boyfriends? Can I wear nail polish? Will I go to hell if I’m gay?”

Germany’s Constitution stipulates that religion be part of school curriculum. The initiative was born out of the atrocities of the Nazi era, and aimed at giving young people an ethical foundation and a sense of identity. Roman Catholics and Protestants have conducted such classes (publicly funded) for decades, and Jews were given similar rights in 2003.

Muslims, however, have faced roadblocks. But some observers argue such classes could help Muslims, some 6 percent of the population, better integrate their religious and German identities. Now, pilot projects that are chipping away at the barriers represent the latest evidence of Germany’s changing attitude toward its booming Muslim minority.

“Muslim classes in public schools are a litmus test for integration,” says Michael Kiefer, author of a history of teaching Islam in German classrooms. “Muslims can see that they’re getting something other religions are getting. That has an enormously positive symbolic impact on them.”

Taught by church- or synagogue-appointed teachers with curricula certified by the state’s education ministries, religion classes are graded, but not mandatory.

One of the obstacles to including Islam in school-taught religions, some say, is that it lacks an accepted entity to offer guidance. Germany’s Muslims are mostly Sunnis; the rest are mainly Shiites, Alevis, or followers of the south Asian Ahmaddiyya sect. “There isn’t one Islam, and it’s not easy to reflect the different manifestations of Islam’s pluralism in a class on Islam,” says Jamal Malik, chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Erfurt.

Acceptance of immigrants grows

For decades, Germany did little to help its Muslim minority settle, classifying immigrants from countries such as Turkey as “guest workers.” But Germans are now more willing to view immigration as part of the country’s identity, and not long ago, then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said that it was urgent for Germany’s 900,000 Muslim pupils to be granted state-funded religious teaching. “It can be an exemplary way for our society to acknowledge and overcome all the differences that confront us,” Mr. Schäuble said.