Islam Finds a Home in German Classrooms

How is Germany supporting a new generation of home-grown Muslims?

Half an hour away from Frankfurt—the German city of commerce with shimmering bank towers—Timur Kumlu reads a chapter from the Quran to about 20 second-graders. “Abraham, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs, looked for Allah, the God of Islam, but found him neither in the sun, the wind, nor the moon.”

“But who is Abraham?” Kumlu asks.

“He trusted Allah!” a boy with piercing dark eyes exclaims as the children jostle for their teacher’s attention.

“Good!” says Kumlu. “Now tell me, who is Allah?”

“He is God,” says a pale-faced boy.

Mr. Kumlu acquiesces. “Allah is also the god of the Jews and Christians, for we have common roots.”

Islam enters schools in Frankfurt and across Germany

That day at the Henri Dunant School, a run-of-the-mill primary school in Frankfurt—one of the largest cities in the Hessen region, where a third of residents are not born in Germany—a teacher and his students are pioneering something banal yet revolutionary. The students are among the first batch of Muslims in the region to experience something their Catholic and Protestant peers have always gotten; religious instruction in German, from a public teacher, as part of their regular school curriculum.

About six years ago, Hessen became one of the first states in Germany to experiment with teaching Islam in schools along with Christianity, and Timur Kumlu volunteered. “It’s a matter of recognition,” Kumlu says. Most of the children in his class have roots in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Albania, Turkey and Morocco, where Islam is the main religion. “The kids live in two cultures and don’t know where they belong,” says Kumlu. “They are Muslim, but have little sense of their religion. They ask lots of questions, and they want answers.” Kumlu wants to help children understand their own culture and roots better to prevent them from falling prey to radicalization. The added benefit is that he gets to learn more about his own religion.

To qualify as an Islam teacher, he had to enroll for 18 months of training at the public university of Gießen, near Frankfurt, specially designed for new public teachers of Islam.

“It’s long overdue,” says Dunant School’s Principal, Ulrich Grünenwald, adding that parents—Muslim and non-Muslim—have unanimously endorsed the concept. Grünenwald says it’s important that Muslim children are taught their religion in German, rather than Arabic or Turkish, and with a curriculum that is under state supervision.

Not just in Frankfurt, but across Germany, except in the five new länder (regions) from the former Soviet East, public schools are now offering some form of Islamic education. Although controversial, the process is widely viewed as necessary as German society becomes increasingly multi-ethnical.

Integrating religion keeps German democracy stable

The German government has made efforts to help people engage with its growing Muslim community and weed out Islamic radicalization. Being a country where religious groups and the state have historically shared deep symbiotic relationships, the government has taken ardous steps to put Islam on the same legal footing as Christianity and Judaism. This involved efforts to extend the same constitutional rights and protections offered to other religions, and incorporating Islam into public school curricula and university disciplines. In many countries, bringing God into the classroom is considered a taboo. France sees religion as a threat to the sacrosanct laïcité which was established in 1905 to keep the power of the Catholic Church at bay, and has also kept religion out of public institutions, including its école uniques (public schools). On the other hand, the government hands out subsidies to a plethora of private confessional schools.

Germany, however, sees religion as a way of keeping its democracy stable. Enshrined in its constitution, the country’s unique form of church-state cooperation lays out one of the world’s most extensive systems of protecting religious liberties. “Germany considers religions sociologically and psychologically important and part of both individuals and society,” says Mathias Rohe, head of the Center for Islam and Law in Europe at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Bavaria. “There is an openness towards religions, not only as having their own merits, but also towards contributing to the well-being of society.”

A brief history of religious rights in Germany

The privileged position of churches in Germany dates back to the 17th century, when the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation still had myriad principalities where church and state were one. After the German Reich collapsed following World War I, the new Weimar Republic’s political parties disagreed over the  role religion should play in society, including schools, with those wanting to retain the staatskirche (“state-church”) pitted against those pushing for a French-style separation of church and state.

The resulting “church-state compromise of 1919 ” anchored the core of the state-church relationship’s legal framework within the new Weimar Constitution, which remains valid to this day. It abolished school supervision by the Protestant or Catholic Church and enshrined religious education in schools. It reads: “Religious instruction shall form part of the regular curriculum in state schools, with the exception of non-denominational schools. Without prejudice to the state’s right of supervision, religious instruction shall be given in accordance with the tenets of the religious community concerned.” The constitution of Germany’s first Republic reaffirmed the main Christian faiths’ “public corporation status,” endowing them with wide-ranging privileges to operate in society, but it has also made it possible for other religious groups to apply for the status. Today for example, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination has met the legal obligations to attain the public corporation status in Germany.

After the horrors of Nazism and World War II, the moral authority of German churches remained largely intact, and their role in maintaining social cohesion revalorized. “The German historical experience showed that religion can positively contribute to implementing human rights and resist injustice,” says Rohe. Germany’s post war constitution of 1949 reiterated the church-state regime that had been laid out in the Weimar constitution: “The German state is neutral and treats religions equally, but there is a broad range of cooperation between state and religions,” Rohe says.

According to Pastor Patrick Roger Schnabel, a church legal scholar who works for the Berlin-based Association of Protestant Churches and Missions, today, religious societies with the public corporation status continue to enjoy the rights and privileges unheard of in most of Europe. Their most important privilege is levying a “church tax” on their members, equivalent to eight percent of people’s income taxes. The church tax, which people file by declaring adherence, or non-adherence to a particular church, goes towards training theologians and priests, which is used, for instance, to support chaplains in institutions such as prisons and hospitals, as well as teachers of religion in public schools.

For a long time, only churches existing in the cohesive Weimar society of the early 1900s had the public corporation status, and religion classes were offered to the children of the Christian denominations and to the Jewish faith. Christian and Jewish denominations also met the criteria entitling them to receive the “church tax.” German society and lawmakers assumed that Muslim “guest workers” brought from Turkey (as well as countries like Greece and Italy) in the 1960s to help drive the country’s post-war economic boom would eventually return home. But they stayed, and brought their families along with them. They set up organizations to run prayer, youth, and senior activities. They got out of obscure courtyard mosques and built visible ones.

Today, with roughly five million Muslims making up 6.1 percent of the population, Germany has the second largest Muslim population of any European Union country, following France. Just as church memberships—and church tax revenues—have been dwindling, Islam has become the country’s fastest-growing religion.  And now Germany’s Muslims yearn for the same public recognition and constitutional rights granted to the predominant Judeo-Christian faiths. Unfortunately, it was only when radicalization began to spread that the German government realized that taking steps to give Muslims this recognition was a necessity.

An urgent call for Muslim integration in Germany

A wake up call came on September 11, 2001. That day, Germany learned that an Arab engineering student from Hamburg was one of the pilots of the aircraft which hit the World Trade Centre in New York City, killing more than 5,000 people. He was a member of what German and American intelligence officials referred to as the “Hamburg terror cell.” He had been radicalized in one of the city’s more obscure mosques, by an Imam who preached hatred towards the United States.

The terrorist attack hit a nerve in Germany. “It was time to stop marginalising Muslim communities so Muslims and non-Muslims could live together peacefully,” says Rohe.  Germany had to start taking the integration of its Muslim ciitzens more seriously.

Wolfgang Schaüble—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s former Minister of Interior Affairs—took the first step by setting up what would become an annual Islam conference to foster dialogue with Germany’s Muslim groups. In 2005, he became the first German politician to call for Islam to be taught in public schools in the same way as the other religions with the “public corporation” legal status. Mathias Rohe explains that a “coincidence of diverging interests” led to significant funds being pumped into Islam-related projects within a relatively short time.

In 2010, the German Council of Science and Humanities, which advises the German federal government on university matters, said that Islam should be taught in universities too, so that Imams and teachers of Islam could be trained in the German language just like their Catholic, Protestant and Jewish counterparts. With most of the Imams in Germany’s 2,800 mosques being recruited from Turkey, the advisory body also said that it was high time the government promoted a home-grown form of Islam.

Christine Langenfeld, a Federal Constitutional Court judge, applauds the advisory body’s decision:  “A path towards integration, equality and acceptance would bring about a modern understanding of Islam that makes it possible for Muslims to live in Europe side by side with many other religions,” she says. “The hope is that at some point soon it won’t be necessary to import Imams anymore.”

The government has committed to spending €20 million to set up Islam theology faculties at four public universities. The first such center opened in 2012 at the University of Tübingen in south-west Germany, next door to the university’s Catholic and Protestant theology centers. When Koranic expert Omar Hamdan was asked to lead it, he knew that Germany was beginning to take Islam seriously. “Being part and parcel of a world-famous university means that Islam no longer stands on the outskirts,” said Hamdan, a Palestinian Sunni born in Tira, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv. “We stand on equal footing with the other theology schools.”

Education as an antidote to radicalization

In Frankfurt, Islam expert Harry Harum Behr trains future public school teachers of Islam at the Goethe University’s new Center for Islamic Studies. He says that having German-speaking specialists of the religion is important to tackle Islamic radicalization. This became clear four years ago when, in the Bavarian town of Würzburg, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee attacked five passengers aboard a German commuter train with an axe, making the country a part of the deepening spiral of Islamic terrorism engulfing Europe. The attack exposed the danger of young, charismatic, German-speaking Islam “preachers” who were luring vulnerable young people into jihadism.

One such leader is Pierre Vogel, a former boxing professional who converted to Islam, and now has a huge following on the streets of German cities, as well as online. For young people seeking direction, contact with these types of Imams can be the first step towards slipping into religiously-influenced violence.

“When radicals like Vogel appear somewhere on the marketplace, my students will go there and argue with these people, mingle with the crowd and discuss their arguments against radical islam,”  says Professor Behr, who was 17 years old when he converted to Islam. “Young people are thirsty,” he says. “They want real answers, real means on scientific grounds. They say, ‘Mr. Behr, don’t give me the Imam answer!’”

“A sound knowledge of Islamic theology, philosophy and psychology, and strategies of discourse and discussion, are the best antidote to extremism,” he says. Part of his curriculum is to get his students to think critically about Islam. “I teach my future teachers to be uncompromising in their adherence to freedom, to attitudes against religiosity, rigid world views and gender-based hostility.”

Gakan Celik is one of the Islam specialists and a coordinator for the Violence Prevention Network, a non-profit group seeking to reintegrate radicalized youth into society. Before Frankfurt opened its own Islam Theology Center, Celik had considered studying Islamic theology in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Now, with an Islam theology degree from Frankfurt University in hand, he assists the Imam at his local mosque. He is also active as a street worker, trying to help youth at risk of radicalization get back on track.

“How can Turkish-speaking Imams show the Muslims who live here how to live?” says Celik,  “We have to give those kids religion in the German language so they can have a platform to talk about their problems. If we don’t offer it to them, somebody else will.”

Today, around 55,000 pupils at 800 public schools across Germany receive Islam religion lessons—up from 42,000 three years ago. But up to ten times as many would be interested in attending if classes were made available, according to official statistics from Germany’s 16 state education ministries.

With only 4 percent of the country’s estimated 700,000 Muslim pupils receiving religious instruction in German, the country would need thousands of additional teachers of Islam.

And those asking for it aren’t only Muslims. In a decision approved by 90 percent of its delegates in the spring of 2019, the Bavarian Association of High School Parents called for Islam religious classes to be expanded in the state of Bavaria’s public schools so that more teachers would be trained to teach Islam in school. “We are asking for that vehemently,” said Susanne Arndt, the Association chair. “In Catholic religion classes, children get to learn about their religions, they learn about our values, so why should Muslim children be barred from that opportunity?”

One size does not fit all

Yet fitting Islam into Germany’s complex legal church-state relationships framework remains experimental and controversial, mainly because Islam does not have one main representative for the German federal government or state governments to liaise with. This makes it difficult for state governments to find suitable Muslim groups to negotiate the school curricula.

Germany’s Muslims are mostly Shiites, Sunnis and Alevis, but there are myriad other Muslim groups espousing different interpretations of, and approaches to, Islam. The Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Council for the Federal Republic of Germany are the two main groups generally considered to represent Islam in Germany. But critics—both Muslim and non-Muslim—point out that they only represent a quarter of Germany’s Muslims.

As for establishing Islam education in schools, the fact that under Germany’s federalized structure it is up to each of its 16 states to design education policies further complicates the process. Each state has a different approach to teaching religion—some states, like Hessen, allow input from churches or religious organizations, while Hamburg and Bremenhave offer unified religious lessons that include education on different faiths.

By and large, Lower Saxony and the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen have gone the furthest in granting Islam the same protections and rights as other religions by signing agreements with selected Muslim groups. These regulate matters such as how Islam is taught in schools, which days Muslims are entitled to take off, and the rights of Muslim ministers in public institutions.

These two states have also given Islam groups the coveted public corporations status that enables them to benefit from a church tax. Hamburg has allocated it to the Alevi community—a group hated by the Sunni Muslims and persecuted in Turkey, which makes up a third of Germany’s Muslims; and Hessen to the Ahmadiyya Muslims—a group that espouses a moderate form of Islam.

Political instability abroad complicates matters, too. The 2016 Turkish military coup against President Tayyip Erdogan put pressure on the German intelligence services to take a second look at Islam groups in the country, raising questions about Turkish influence in Germany, and doubts whether to continue teaching Islam at all.

“Islam does not have good PR in Germany or Europe, and people are afraid of doing something wrong,” says Rohe. “There is a kind of natural reluctance in decision making toward Muslims.”

Germany stands at the beginning of a difficult but hugely important process. Unlike in France, where a lot is happening behind closed doors, Germany is unafraid to deal with Islam transparently. As a new generation of Muslims are home-grown in the country, this significant minority is becoming an integral part of German identity. The state’s efforts to integrate and equalize Islam is deeply integrated the cultural history, and may be a strategy that other European countries can follow. The effects of this approach will continue to unfold in the coming years.

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Illustration by

Emma Krone