Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Islam Finds a Place in Germany's Classrooms

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Islam Finds a Place in Germany's Classrooms

Article excerpt

A half hour away from the shimmering banks of the Main river, Timur Kumlu has just read 20-odd second-graders a chapter from the Quran, about Abraham looking for Allah, but finding him neither in the sun, the wind, nor the moon.

Who is Abraham? One boy with piercing dark eyes jumps in. "He trusted Allah!"

Good, and who is Allah? "God," answers a pale-faced Albanian boy. Almost half the pupils at the Henri Dunant school are Muslim, their parents coming from as far as Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Albania, Turkey and Morocco.

Mr. Kumlu nods. Allah, he says, is also the god of the Jews and Christians. "All of us have common roots," he says. "Jews, Christians, Muslims."

Germany, like the rest of Europe, tries to engage with its growing Muslim community and weed out Islamic radicalism, but it is doing it in a unique way. In a country where religious groups and the state have always shared deep symbiotic relationships, the government in recent years has taken drastic steps to put Islam on the same legal footing as Christianity and Judaism. And that's not just a matter of legal abstraction, but of real, material change: the faith is being incorporated into public school lesson plans and university disciplines. Revolutionary as it sounds, the approach is extending constitutional rights and protections, hitherto granted to mainstream Judeo-Christian religions only, to Islam.

"Most of the kids here live in two cultures and they don't know where they belong," says Kumlu, who has been going through new, state-certified training to teach Islam. "By giving kids a basis on their religion, we can help them not to fall prey to radical discourse."

Constitutional protections for IslamIn many countries, bringing God into the classroom is taboo. England has a state church. France sees religion as a threat to the republic's sacrosanct laicite, and keeps it out of public institutions.

But the German state sees religions as partners to help citizens - and democracy - remain stable, and it supports religious groups in myriad ways, notably by levying a church tax on behalf of its most established denominations.

"There is an openness toward religions, not only religions as having their own merits, but as contributing to the well-being of society," says Mathias Rohe, head of the Center for Islam and the Law in Europe at the University of Erlangen. It was in response to the abuses of the Third Reich that legal experts anchored religious instruction into Germany's constitutional Basic Law.

But that long applied only to Christians and Jews. German society and lawmakers assumed that Muslim guest workers, brought in as temporary workers from Turkey and other countries, would eventually return home. But Muslims stayed, and their numbers grew: some 4 million Muslims live in Germany, making Islam the country's fastest- growing religion. Also growing is their desire for the public recognition and constitutional rights that the Judeo-Christian faiths have.

It was Wolfgang Schauble, while interior minister in Angela Merkel's administration, who first called for Islam to be taught in schools after declaring publicly for the first time that "Islam is part of Germany" in 2005.

Five years later the German Council of Science and Humanities, a highly regarded advisory body to the government, recommended that Islam find its way in universities, too, so that imams and teachers of Islam could be trained in Germany and in the German language, just as Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians are. Most of the imams at Germany's roughly 2,800 mosques are imported from Turkey.

A EUR 20 million government initiative led to the creation of today's four Islam theology centers at some of Germany's most respected public universities, making Germany ahead of most Western countries in incorporating Islam as an academic discipline, experts say. "Being part and parcel of a world-famous university" means that "Islam no longer stands on the outside," says Omar Hamdan, the Palestinian-Israeli who heads the Islam center at Tubingen University. …

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