While the prospect of religious education in public schools may confound or upset Americans, it is a common aspect of the German education system. In addition to many other major differences between the U.S. and German public schooling, German schools offer Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religion courses for students hoping to infuse their faith into their education. In recent decades, many Germans criticized religious education in public schools, not for its mixing of religion into public institutions, but rather for the lack of religious education options for Muslims who attend these schools.
Approximately 1 in 20 Germans identifies as Muslim, and Islam follows Protestantism and Catholicism as Germany’s third most popular religion. One would thus assume that German public school curricula would offer religious courses to Muslim students. However, the specter of Islamophobia in Europe (as extensively studied by Dr. Bassam Tibi), bureaucratic constraints, and an insufficient public movement have impeded the establishment of Islam classes (or Islamunterricht) throughout Germany. Recently, efforts to incorporate Islam into public school curricula have garnered bolstered support.
School Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Sylvia Löhrman, announced plans to incorporate Islamunterricht statewide for the 2012-2013 academic school year. Once implemented, NRW will serve as the only German state to offer Islamunterricht region wide. Other states, such Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony, have experimented with Islamunterricht at selected institutions in much lower capacities.
Many believe that this belated development will help mollify animosities between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and thus, aid in fostering multiculturalism in Germany. Furthermore, the establishment of Islamunterricht in public schools garners support from Germans who hope to inhibit the growth of radical Islamic sects within the nation. One of these movements, Salafism, has recently gained strength in urban regions of North Rhine-Westphalia such as Cologne. By educating students in German with a state-sanctioned curriculum, the government hopes to lessen the likelihood of “indoctrination” of citizens. Currently, most Muslims derive their religious education from their families or from Imams in mosques. Imams usually are of foreign origin, and they typically impart their religious lessons in Turkish. With the advent of Islamunterricht in Germany, the government possesses the means to sanction a specific religious curriculum, perhaps more favorable to the German government. A recent study indicated that while few Imams in Germany practice fundamentalist Islam, “significantly more subscribe to interpretations of Islam that place them far outside Germany’s ethical norm—and, in some cases, may undermine tenets of the German constitution.”
Unfortunately, statewide implementation of this curriculum poses a massive logistical challenge to North Rhine-Westphalia. To fulfill this initiative, the state must train teachers for approximately 320,000 students. Furthermore, the state must design a curriculum favorable to the Muslim community and the state government. While umbrella organizations for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews negotiate with the German government, some argue that the German Muslim community lacks a concerted hierarchical organization to adequately fill this role. Many attribute the splintered community to the common Muslim conviction that no one should obviate the relationship between man and God. However, this argument lacks salience in the context of Islamunterricht as institutions such as the Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland (Central Council of Muslims in Germany) and the Türkish-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion (Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs) have operated as German Muslim umbrella organizations for decades. Thus, disinclination to create a curriculum proves more indicative of the German government’s reluctance to incorporate Islam courses into school curricula rather than a symptom of a factionalized religious community. Currently, authorities intend to operate from already established “Islamkunde” or “Islamic Studies” curriculum while preparing an official curriculum for schools in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Despite logistical difficulties and initial reluctance to incorporate Islamunterricht, this movement exemplifies recent trends to concurrently advocate integration and diversity within Germany. If successful, North Rhine-Westphalia’s implementation of Islamunterricht may elicit a nationwide movement to offer these courses in public schools.