NYTimes mostly ‘gets it’ on German schools and Islam

NYTimes mostly ‘gets it’ on German schools and Islam January 11, 2014

A few days ago, George Conger took to this space to “bury” The New York Times for suddenly noticing the rise of Calvinism in unlikely Protestant venues, such as (Southern) Baptist churches.

Today, I’d like to congratulate the Times for, mostly, “getting it” when it comes to Germany’s public schools and religious instruction, in this case about Islam. Here’s the top of that report:

FRANKFURT — For the first time, German public schools are offering classes in Islam to primary school students using state-trained teachers and specially written textbooks, as officials try to better integrate the nation’s large Muslim minority and counter the growing influence of radical religious thinking.

The classes offered in Hesse State are part of a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population if it is to foster social harmony, overcome its aging demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.

The need, many here say, is ever more urgent. According to German security officials and widespread reports in the German news media, this past semester at least two young Germans in Hesse — one thought to be just 16 — were killed in Syria after heeding the call for jihad and apparently being recruited by hard-line Salafist preachers in Frankfurt.

This is, in my opinion, Times reporting just about at its best: a crisp, clean lede, and a close-to-the-top explanation of what it means.

Granted, it’s a bit late, I would suggest, in terms of Germany’s government, since questions about assimilation of “guest workers” from predominantly Muslim nations, beginning with Turkey, has been an issue for decades. But better (very) late than never, one supposes.

There’s also a bit of explanation on how “religious instruction” has come to be in “public” (i.e., state-sponsored) schools, a concept that might be a tad jarring in the U.S. of A., where even bringing candy canes to class can get a grade-schooler in trouble. Read on.

The Hesse curriculum effectively places Islamic instruction on equal footing with similarly state-approved ethics training in the Protestant and Catholic faiths. By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, emphasizing its teachings on tolerance and acceptance, the authorities hope to inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.

Parents have the option to enroll their children in the religious education classes offered in the district. Nurguel Altuntas, who helped develop the Hesse program at the state’s Ministry of Education, said the sign-up for 29 classes in immigrant-heavy districts was enthusiastic.

The classes are optional, and are designed to emphasize “tolerance and acceptance.” So far, so good, and, in fact, very good, in my opinion, when it comes to a specific object lesson:

In one class, Timur Kumlu recently asked his 19 6-year-old students each to take a strand from a large wool ball. He then instructed the children — whose parents hailed from Muslim countries as varied as Afghanistan, Albania, Morocco and Turkey — to examine how, like the threads, they, too, were woven together.

It was a simple lesson containing a gentle message filled with symbolism — that they were linked by their Islamic faith and practices of prayer.

“We are now all bound together — you come from different countries, and so do your parents,” said Mr. Kumlu, who reminded the children that while their parents came from Afghanistan or Albania, they were born in Germany.

His generally well-behaved pupils squirmed a bit, but listened attentively. “They come here with such different backgrounds,” Mr. Kumlu said after the lesson. “We must educate so that they develop a personality with common roots,” in Germany and in Islam.

There is, however, only a glancing reference to anyone remotely resembling an Islamic authority, and then it’s a attorney and organizational person, not an imam:

Fazil Altin, 34, a lawyer who is president of the Islamic Federation, said Muslims and the city authorities in Berlin had wasted 20 years while they battled in court about whether Islam could be taught. Then, Mr. Altin said, the federation had to overcome suspicions about indoctrination — and all for 40 minutes’ instruction per week, which he called “pretty paltry.”

In his view, it will take more than formal state instruction in Islam to bridge the cultural gap between observant Muslims and a highly secular German society. “It is difficult to be a Muslim in Germany,” said Mr. Altin, who said he had been denied access to clients in jails because of his faith. “The fact is, we are seen as a danger.”

Along with getting some more Islamic authorities in the piece, it would have been helpful to have an explanation of why some in Germany see Muslims “as a danger,” so as to put Altin’s complaint in context.

Again, The New York Times mostly got it right here: there’s apparently good instruction in the state of Hesse, and the idea is “mainstreaming” children into tolerance. There are some unanswered questions, however, as well as extra context that could have been added.

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9 responses to “NYTimes mostly ‘gets it’ on German schools and Islam”

  1. From the German Constitution:
    Artikel 7
    (1) Das gesamte Schulwesen steht unter der Aufsicht des Staates.
    (2) Die Erziehungsberechtigten haben das Recht, über die Teilnahme des Kindes am Religionsunterricht zu bestimmen.
    (3) Der Religionsunterricht ist in den öffentlichen Schulen mit
    Ausnahme der bekenntnisfreien Schulen ordentliches Lehrfach. Unbeschadet
    des staatlichen Aufsichtsrechtes wird der Religionsunterricht in
    Übereinstimmung mit den Grundsätzen der Religionsgemeinschaften erteilt.
    Kein Lehrer darf gegen seinen Willen verpflichtet werden,
    Religionsunterricht zu erteilen.

    • 1 The entire school system stands under the overview of the State.
      2 Legal guardians have the right to determine the participation of their children in religious instruction.
      3 Religious instruction in the public schools, with the exception of non-denominational schools, is properly a school subject. Religious instruction is to be granted without prejudice on the part of federal regulatory law, in accordance with the tenets of the religious communities. No student may be compelled against his will to take part in religious instruction.


      • Thank you Dana for the translation. The last sentence, however, should read: ‘No teacher may be compelled against his will to teach religious education.’ In fact, the teachers can opt out or can voluntarily sign in to also teaching religious education among their other subjects. If teaching religion, they need a licence from their respective diocese or regional Protestant Church headquarters. This license is granted by the churches, if the teachers-to-be major or minor in this subject at their University or get a respective certificate through continuing education. The Roman-Catholic term for this license is ‘missio’, the Protestant term is ‘vocatio’.

        • So is there any room in the German system for Mormon and other groups? If they have no chance to teach their views in the school, than the Muslims getting a teacher is more radical than this article has implied.
          If I am understanding this, these are people from the formal, monolithic Protestant Church. This is very, very different than how things happen in the US, where only Utah has a majority of its population in a single denomination, and where even the Southern Baptist Convention is less monolithic than the state churches of Germany.

          • Well, contrary to popular belief, there is no state church in Germany. Thus says the German constitution since 1919. There is neither a monolithic Protestant Church. There are some 20 regional Lutheran or Reformed or Lutheran/Reformed/United church bodies, roughly equivalent to the Roman Catholic dioceses. As to the Mormons or the Baptists or the Methodists – they have very small numbers in Germany. A number of Methodist teachers e.g., however, do teach Protestant Religious Education in public schools on the ticket of the mainline church bodies, there are respective agreements between the church headquarters. As to Islamic Religious Education in public schools, one of the main goals of the government is, that this new subject shall be thaught, using the German language, not Turkish or Arabic. Therefore this presupposes this subject as a subject of the teachers education in the universities.As an example: The University of Tübingen now has a professor of Islamic theology, who has an Israeli passport. There is a growing cooperation in Tübingen with the Islamic theological faculty in Sarajewo, since this is the oldest European faculty of this kind.

  2. So are these heavily “Turkish” areas, or has Germany finally gotten different Muslim immigrants, and have they finally recognized that people whose ancestors first came in the 1950s don’t really count as immigrants.

  3. I wonder though if expecting Muslim spokespeople to be imams is a case of expecting Muslims to act like protestants and Catholics. Islam is a religion where the separation between Church and state has not existed as it did in Catholicism. In Catholicism the head was the Pope, a religious leader, while most Catholics lived in states ruled by kings like France and Spain. In Islam, the model that still controls is Turkey, where the head of Islam was the Caliph, who was the Sultan. He was a political leader who also had a religious title, while the Pope in general is seen as a religious leader, more so since 1870, but in many ways since before 1570, and his being one of the princes of Europe was never his primary role.
    In Turkey, they still deal with having removed the Caliph, but not replaced him. Turkey is the key background since Kumlu is of Turkish origin, and the Turkish immigrants (at least Turkish by nationality) were the main Muslim group in Turkey from the 1950s until at least the start of the 1980s.