Minority rights win in Germany

This month a German court OK'd use of Islamic methods by Muslim butchers.

A court battle sparked by a butcher's complaint has ended in what is being hailed by some as a victory for ethnic tolerance.

But others see in the decision an ominous advance by Muslim fundamentalists.

Germany's highest court ruled this month that Muslim butchers can slaughter animals according to Islamic ritual. Previously, the exception to state regulations had been granted only for kosher handling under Jewish law.

"The decision ends years of discrimination against Muslims in central areas of their everyday lives," says Dr. Ayyud Alex Koehler, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims, one of two main umbrella Muslim organizations in Germany that supported the lawsuit. "Islam is a religion like the Christian and Jewish religions, and we feel justice has been done."

Many experts welcome the decision as a sign of Germany's effort to integrate its Muslim minority.

"It's another signal to the Muslim community that their needs are being met," says Dr. Dilwar Hussain, a researcher on Muslims in Europe for the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, England.

But to some observers, the recent ruling is evidence of a growing muscle among the fundamentalist part of the Muslim population, whose view of Islam is more conservative than that of most German Muslims.

"The ordinary Muslim doesn't care about the slaughter issue," says Dr. Akli Kebaili, a Frankfurt political scientist of Algerian descent. "It's the fundamentalists that are pushing the issue. They know that in Germany, when you evoke the right to practice your religion, you're going to win - and, little by little, they're winning victories."

The case is one in an increasing number of recent legal conflicts that have pitted practicing Muslims against the culture and practices of predominantly Christian Germany. Among recent, key cases, the courts have banned teachers from wearing Muslim headscarves in class. But last fall, a German court allowed an Islamic group some German officials classified as extremist to provide religious instruction at two Berlin public elementary schools.

Since 1989, the Muslim population here has nearly doubled, today numbering 3.5 million out of a total population of 80 million inhabitants. The Muslims are mostly Turks, who started coming to Germany in the 1960s and filled a severe worker shortage. Their new legal clout reflects their evolution from guest workers to full-fledged residents of their adopted country.

Germany only recently relaxed its strict immigration policies, easing the way for nonethnic Germans to attain full citizenship.

"Our guest workers worked and sweated for years ... and now they're deeply anchored as German Turks, living here permanently," says Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, a theology professor at the University of Marburg and an expert on the German Muslim community. "And now, they're aware of their own rights, of their own possibilities, and of the demands placed on them. They want their children to grow up with their religious traditions. But how do you do that in Germany?"

Prof. Spuler-Stegemann says that efforts to preserve Muslim identity have resulted in the birth of fundamentalist umbrella organizations.

The Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Council are two of Germany's main Muslim organizations, made up of a cross-section of religious mosque groups and representing Muslims of Arab, German, Bosnian and Turkish descent. Together, the two associations claim membership of 10 percent of the country's Muslims. The groups say their goal is to represent the country's Muslims and their faith.

Across Germany, there are roughly 2,200 mosque groups, says Hayrettin Aydin of the Center of Turkish Studies at the University of Essen, which conducted a survey of religious practices of Germany's Turks for the German government.

One group, "Milli Gorus," is under observation by German officials for allegedly trying to create an Islamic state in Turkey. Another group, the Cologne-based Union of Islamic Associations and Communities, or Caliphate State, was recently banned by Germany's Interior minister for promoting creation of a worldwide Islamic state.

While the butcher's case was perhaps the least controversial among recent legal cases, its symbolic value is great. It was the first time a case involving Islam had gone to Germany's high court in Karlsruhe. The court's message was clear, experts say: The government has no right to restrict the practice of a religion.

"My faith in Germany has been restored," said plaintiff Ruestem Altinkuepe. The butcher, whose shop is in Asslar, a small town near Frankfurt, added that he had lost 60 percent of his clientele of religious Muslims before the ruling.

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