Germany: Muslim religion classes introduced in German schools

"According to the German constitution, Muslims do have a right to religious education for their children under the supervision of the state, just as Christians do. Now, for the first time, German schools will have a textbook for Islamic religion classes."
"Saphir", the textbook for Islamic religion classes, presents the fundamental issues of Islam in 15 chapters for fifth and sixth grade pupils. Themes include the concept of God, the Prophet Mohammed, and the structure of the Koran, as well as issues such as the rights of children and social responsibility.
Editions for grades seven to ten are currently being prepared. The graphic layout of "Saphir" is excellent. The textbook is aimed at the world of the pupil and invites them to explore the Muslim faith.

"Saphir" thereby stands at the forefront of contemporary religious education. For Islam in Germany, the new schoolbook is a further step away from the fringes and into the mainstream of society.

The book "does not aim to educate pupils to believe, but rather to make responsible decisions concerning faith," stressed Harry Harun Behr from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Behr, a German convert to Islam, teaches aspiring religion teachers at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Islamic Religious Education.

"Critical distance to one's own religion"

He is one of the authors of the teaching plan for Islam classes at the Bavarian model schools in Erlangen, Bayreuth, Fürth, Nuremberg, and, since the beginning of this school year, also in Munich.

Behr maintains that classes in Islam at school should encourage a "critical distance to one's own religion." The university lecturer feels that a literal understanding of the Koran as an instruction manual is "not a sustainable model."

He regards the Koran as a literary text with a historical point of origin and development.

Islam as a regular subject at German public schools has, until now, only taken place on a trial basis. According to Article 7, Paragraph 3 of the German constitution, Muslims do have a right to religious education for their children under the supervision of the state, just as Christians do. Yet, for many decades, this right has not been implemented due to the lack of suitable partners on the Muslim side.

Islamic instruction across Germany

Since 1999, North Rhine-Westphalia has offered Islamic instruction in approximately 140 schools to some 10,000 Muslim pupils. However, the Islamic instruction does not correspond to religion courses as prescribed by the German constitution. Such a course curriculum is only now being prepared in collaboration with Islamic associations.

Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Rhineland-Palatinate have had trial programs in elementary and high schools. As of last year, the state of Schleswig-Holstein has been testing Islamic education with a large measure of confessional participation. Since 2003, Bremen has developed its own concept for courses on Islam in the public schools.

The model pursued in Berlin remains controversial, as here religious instruction is taught at around 30 public schools under the sole supervision of the Islamic Federation. The state of Berlin has no control over what is taught.

The Islamic Federation reputedly maintains contacts with Milli Görüs, an organisation under surveillance by the German security services. Critics claim that the religious instruction offered by the Islamic Federation does not comply with the educational goals of promoting responsibility and independent thinking among pupils.

German language instruction in Islam

In all of the other German states, the course curriculum is being developed by teams of experts and Muslim associations under the coordination of the education and cultural affairs authorities.

In March 2008, the German Conference on Islam under the chairmanship of Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called for a comprehensive introduction of the teaching of Islamic religion in public schools in the German language. Educational experts have stressed that the teaching of Islamic religion in German by teachers trained at German universities would serve to promote integration.

By contrast, no one really knows for certain what is being taught at the Koran schools set up in various mosques. Typically, students there merely recite passages from the Koran without any critical commentary. Teachers of Islam at public schools, on the other hand, should teach an enlightened form of Islam, tailored to conditions in Germany.

A positive resonance

The response of Muslim parents to Islam classes at school has been generally positive. They see the new school subject as recognition of their cultural background by the majority culture.

Yet, what is lacking most of all are the religion teachers. Some estimates predict that it could take up to ten years until a sufficient number of qualified teachers are available. Up to now, there are only approximately 150 teachers (80 of which are in North Rhine-Westphalia) in the whole of Germany for an estimated 750,000 Muslim pupils. At least ten times as many teachers are required.

Only universities in Münster, Osnabrück, and Erlangen offer programs to train religion teachers in Islam. As a result, it will take quite some time until courses in Islam are part of the normal curriculum at public schools throughout the country.

By: Claudia Mende

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Source: © 2008