Jochen Luebke/EPA
'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.

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.

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.

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.

According to an Interior Ministry study released last spring, 80 percent of Germany’s Muslims want just that. At stake is fairness as well as pragmatism: better to have state--supervised religious courses, conducted in German, than unsupervised Koran classes left in the hands of Islamic groups. “We have to get away from the thinking that Islam is a religion for foreigners, once and for all,” says Mr. Kiefer.

No state has done more to bring Islam classes into schools than North Rhine Westphalia, where one-third of Germany’s Muslims live. Here, 150 public schools offer Islamic studies to 13,000 children in Grades 1 through 10. About 200 schools nationally teach the courses, established by state governments and local Muslim groups.

When Lohberg’s coal mines closed two years ago, most people left this once-thriving Ruhr Valley industrial hub. What remained was a Muslim enclave of 6,500, supported by three mosques. On the streets and in the schools, one hears mostly Turkish.

Teacher, life counselor

“Pupils have to understand who they are so they can understand other religions,” Kaddor says. “The better I know myself, the simpler it is to accept other ways of life…. While politicians talk about legal framework, we have a whole generation of pupils who leave school without getting to know who they are.”

In Kaddor, pupils find somebody they can identify with and who challenges them. She is a non-Turkish Muslim who doesn’t wear a head scarf. She prays and fasts, and speaks German, Arabic, and Turkish. She tries to tell her pupils that Islam often gives more than one answer, the conservative and the liberal answer.

“With me, pupils have to learn how to think about their faith in an independent way,” Kaddor says.

Hans-Jakob Herpers, principal of the Gluecklauf School (which merged with another school after this writing), says Kaddor is not only a teacher, but also a life counselor of sorts, especially for girls, who may not dare tackle certain questions with their parents or in religious schools. All her pupils have stayed, he says.

“She tells them how to cope with life,’ says Mr. Herpers. “Muslim girls are under pressure. They see boys can do everything.... They need tips, they need arguments to assert themselves, to be able to deal with their parents.”

Some schools used to rely on teachers from Turkey, but many resented Turkey’s implicit support of the classes, while private Islamic schools insisted on retaining their control over instruction in the Koran.

“It’s important that pupils get Islam lessons in German,” says Kaddor, who is one of about 250 such teachers across Germany. “We’ve overcome more than a language barrier: In people’s heads it’s no longer unthinkable to be of Islamic faith and be German.”

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