German public schools are teaching Islam to students not sure if they belong
Mansur Seddiqzai, 38, teaches Islam at a high school in the western German city Dortmund. (Luisa Beck/The Washington Post) November 3 at 6:00 AM
DORTMUND, Germany â" It was the second week of Islam class, and the teacher, Mansur Seddiqzai, stood in front of a roomful of Muslim teens and pointed to the sentence on the chalkboard behind him: âIslam does not belong to Germany.â
He scanned the room and asked, âWho said this?â
Hands shot up. âThe AfD?â one student with a navy blue headscarf said, referring to Germanyâs far-right anti-refugee party. âNo,â Seddiqzai shook his head. âSeehofer,â tried another. âYes, and who is that?â âA minister,â said a third.
Finally, someone put it all together, identifying Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavariaâs conservative Christian Social Union and Chancellor Angela Merkelâs interior minister and coalition partner, who has on multiple occasions threatened to torpedo her government over the issue of immigration.
âYes, thatâs right,â Seddiqzai said, turning to the others. âAnd what do you think? Is he correct?â
In a country where the debate over âwho belongs?â has deeply divided Merkelâs government, fueled massive demonstrations and propelled the rise of anti-immigrant populism, these 16- and 17-year-olds confront versions of that question every day, in the headlines and in their personal lives: Do I belong, too? Can I be German and a Muslim?
Public schools in some of Germanyâs most populous cities are helping such students come up with answers in a counterintuitive setting: Islam class.
The classes, taught by Muslims and intended for Mu slim students, were first launched in the early 2000s and now are offered as electives in nine of Germanyâs 16 states, by more than 800 public primary and secondary schools, according to the research network Mediendienst Integration. They include lessons on the Koran, the history of Islam, comparative religion and ethics. Often, discussions shift to the studentsâ identity struggles or feelings of alienation.
âWhen a German asks me which country Iâm from, I tell them Turkey,â said Gulendam Velibasoglu, 17, who is taking Seddiqzaiâs 10th-grade Islam class this year. She was born and raised in this western German city. Still, she says, âIf I said âGerman,â they wouldnât accept the answer. They will see me as a foreigner, even though Iâm a German citizen.â
Germany has the European Unionâs second-largest Muslim population after France, according to estimates by Pew Research. In 2016, 4.95 million people, or 6.1 percent of the German population, wer e Muslim. But less than half of those pray regularly, and even fewer regularly attend a mosque, according to the latest government surveys.
The countryâs leaders have expressed an ambivalent view of Islam, at best. Seehoferâs statement that âIslam does not belong to Germanyâ came just months after the Islam-bashing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, entered parliament. Merkel denounced the statement and ruled out sharing power with the AfD. Nevertheless, the AfD has steadily gained support over the past two years: On Oct. 14, it scored the biggest electoral gains of any party in Bavaria, Germanyâs most populous state.
Last year, the AfD hung campaign posters in Dortmund featuring women in burqas and the slogan âStop Islamization.â This yearâs poster bore the words âIslam-free schools!â under an image of five beaming, light-skinned children.
Seddiqzai, who was born to Afghan parents in the German city of Bochum and who wears a full beard and N ikes to school, said he worries about the effect on his students. âThese posters tell them, âWe donât want you here,âââ he said.
âThey are not accepted in Germany, they are not accepted in the countries of their parents, and that produces this craving for a group to belong to,â he continued. âAnd then an Islamist comes to you and says, âYeah, you donât belong to anyone. Therefore just be Muslim.â They offer them a third way.â
Seddiqzai sees it as part of his job to make his students more informed in their consumption of such appeals.
Earlier this year, when local politicians were discussing a ban on headscarves, a group calling itself Reality Islam launched a social media campaign to protest the proposal and recruit students. Seddiqzai showed his students how to trace Realityâs Islamâs links to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group banned in Germany since 2003. He also encouraged them to question the groupâs stance on the headscarf, which it claimed the Koran mandates for women.
âI show them the Koranic verses about the headscarf, and we discuss it and we see there is no clear rule that a woman or girl has to wear a headscarf,â he said. âMost of them think the Koran itself has no contradictions, and even that is wrong. There are many contradictions in the Koran.â
Some German politicians are pushing for an expansion of Islam classes in public schools as a way to encourage the cultural integration of Muslim students and to promote an interpretation of Islam that highlights German values.
âWe need more religious education,â Kerstin Griese, a lawmaker from the governing center-left Social Democratic Party, wrote in an op-ed, âbecause itâs the only way to start a dialogue about our own traditions and values and to understand those of others.â
Such advocates generally donât envision non-Muslim students taking these classes to gain a better appreciation of Islam. While a few German school systems offer religion classes that include multiple faiths or ethics classes that touch on religion, religion as taught in public high schools and supported by Germanyâs Basic Law is generally targeted at specific denominations.
A further rationale for Islam classes is to âimmunizeâ Muslim students from fundamentalism, as Protestant leader Heinrich Bedford-Strohm put it.
Of particular concern is radicalization that might lead to violence. Since 2013, more than 1,000 people have left Germany to fight with or support the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, most of them under 30.
But some educators and politicians resist the notion that Islam has a place in German public schools.
âBesides the fact that we have much more important problems in schools, it canât be true that a German bishop is promoting Islam,â Alexander Gauland, a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, said after Bedford-Strohm voic ed his proposal.
No studies have examined the effectiveness of Islam classes in preventing radicalization, according to Harry Harun Behr, a professor of Islam studies and pedagogy at Frankfurtâs Goethe University.
Still, he said, the classes are valuable because they show students their faith is as important as others taught in their schools and because they show Islam as a religion that is open to reflection and self-criticism.
At Seddiqzaiâs school, where almost 95 percent of students are first- or second-generation immigrants, Islam class is highly popular. When he crosses the schoolyard, he can barely walk five steps without being stopped by a student wanting to tell him about grades, romances or plans for the future.
âWhat Mr. Seddiqzai is teaching me is not really something you learn at mosque,â said 17-year-old Yusuf Akar. âHow to interact with non-Muslims who may not be sure how to interact with us. Or who are scared of us.â
Bu t it is more than that, too. âIt shows me Iâm welcome here,â Akar said. âBecause the school no longer demands that we distance ourselves from our religion. They accept it and even create an opportunity to learn about it. And that gives me the feeling that Iâm part of this society.â
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