German Schools Introduce Muslim Classes

'Anyone Who Wants Integration Has to Provide Islam Instruction'

By Beate Lakotta
March 14, 2008

German-language Islam instruction for Muslim schoolchildren helps with integration and the development of language skills. Now the culture ministers of Germany's states want to introduce the subject for all students.

Lamya Kaddor was out sick for two weeks, but when she returned, the boys and girls in her class greeted the teacher as if she had been gone a year. “Ms. Kaddor, you're back!” Umut, Ebru, Sibel and Glin all shouted in unison. “Look, Ms. Kaddor, I was in the tanning booth and I have a sunburn on my nose,” “Ms. Kaddor, please come here, Mario and Onur …”

Kaddor, 29, could pass as the older sister of the girls who place their arms around her outside during break. Few teachers at the Glckauf Public School in the western German city of Dinslaken-Lohberg near Essen are so popular among students, even among boys going through puberty, with their baseball caps pulled deep down over their faces. “It's because she's one of us,” a boy named Hseyin explains proudly.

The local coal mine closed in Dinslaken-Lohberg two years ago, and those who could afford to moved away. The customers at the local supermarket are now almost all Turkish. The three mosques in the area are also well attended on weekdays. Many of the few Germans who live here came from Russia. Kaddor's parents once emigrated from Syria. “We landed in the ghetto,” she says, “but my mother made sure that we got out of there.”

Kaddor is married to a fellow teacher, a German who converted to Islam. She prays and fasts, just as her students do, and she speaks German, Arabic and Turkish. She also trains teachers in the teaching of Islamic religious studies at the University of Mnster, the first program of its kind in Germany. Germany's integration officials dream of citizens like Kaddor.

At the Glckauf Public School, she teaches “Islamic Studies in the German Language,” a subject that is still offered only at a handful of schools in Germany. But in these few places, it is already evident how beneficial the class is for immigrant children. It allows Muslim students to be experts for once, which helps to promote their self-confidence. Besides, discussing the afterlife or the purpose of alms in German helps the students practice their ability to express themselves.

A pilot study conducted in elementary schools in the northern state of Lower Saxony showed that there are fewer schoolyard fights between Arabs and Turks in schools where Islamic Studies is offered. At these schools the mothers, and sometimes even the fathers, of Muslim students have begun coming to parent-teacher conferences, bringing falafel to school events and working as chaperones on class trips.

For many Muslim parents in Lohberg, the new Religion teacher was a shock at first: a young woman who didn't wear a headscarf and was not of Turkish origin. Nevertheless, not a single child was taken out of the class, and Kaddor suspects she knows why. “Religion is often the only positive aspect of their own identity here,” she says.

Women Are Entitled to Authority

This is why almost all students attend Koran school, where they are simply taught to recite Arab sounds, and are sometimes threatened with beatings. Kaddor compares this with the Latin liturgy. “Nobody understood it for centuries, either,” she says. But now Islam instruction serves as supplement to the Koran school. Mustafa puts it this way: “We learn how to read the Koran at the mosque, but we learn everything else from her.”

The first lesson is that women are entitled to authority. It is unlikely that Kaddor would allow herself to be subjugated by her husband. But most of all the children learn to ask questions, inconceivable in most Koran schools, questions like:

“Is nail polish forbidden in the Koran?”

“Do I have to wear a headscarf if my husband wants me to?”

“Is it true that infidels will go to hell?”

“What does the Koran say about honor?”

Kaddor also tries to make it clear that it is important to know something about the time in which the holy book was written, and that, as a modern Muslim, one can interpret things in the Koran differently today, such as the verse about infidels that reads: “Kill them wherever you find them.” Kaddor explains that in this sentence, Allah is referring to the residents of a specific enemy village back in Muhammad's day. It was not a declaration of war against all non-Muslims, as preachers of hate would have their congregations believe.

'Is it the Duty of Every Muslim to Kill Jews?'

Sometimes even Kaddor reaches her own limits. When she and her students were discussing the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had made a film that many Muslim consider to be blasphemous, some felt that it was okay that “the pig was stuck.” Recently, a boy wanted to know whether it says in the Koran that it is the duty of every Muslim to kill Jews. “Good question,” Kaddor replied, “but do you think Allah has nothing better to do than to stir up people against each other?”

Hans-Jakob Herpers, the principal of Kaddor's school, wants to know why no one thought of the subject earlier, especially since the first request for Islamic religious instruction dates from 1978. It probably has something to do with the fact that the Germans long believed that their country was not a land of immigration — despite the fact that more than 3 million Muslims, with 800,000 school-age children, now live in the country.

But government officials prefer to blame the Muslims. They argue that although the people who immigrated to Germany brought their religions with them, their religious communities were not nearly as well organized as Catholic and Protestant congregations. Within the Muslim community, there are Shiites, Sunnis and Alevites, and they form local and regional organizations that often don't get along. Some are considered radical Islamist groups. But the vast majority of Muslims in Germany are not organized at all, because hierarchies are not traditionally part of Islam, which has no pope, no bishops and no synods.

Part 2: A Dearth of Teachers

But if every imam can teach as he wishes in his Koran school, who should officials in the Education Ministry turn to to help develop lesson plans for religion classes, or even university curricula for teachers of religion?

But now there is movement on both sides. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany was formed in March 2007. And the education ministers of several German states are now announcing plans to expand Islam instruction to make it available to all students as a regular subject.

However, politicians involved with educational policy who no longer want to leave the field open to the mosques face a homemade problem: Where will the teachers come from, if only 2.3 percent of all Muslim high-school students finish school, and if the grades of these few high-school graduates aren't good enough to qualify for university admission?

Today there are only about 120 Islam teachers who teach in Germany, and 80 of them are in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone. Even there, eight times as many teachers are needed. And although a few dozen university students have already registered for Islamic religious studies programs in Mnster, Erlangen and Osnabrck, it will take years before they graduate and are ready to teach.

Stop-Gap Measures

As an interim measure, Kaddor has developed a guideline for interacting with Muslim students. In the guideline she writes, for example, that from the Islamic perspective a girl can participate in swimming class — wearing a full-body bathing suit, if necessary. She also writes that even strictly religious parents can be convinced to allow their children to go on class trips, as long as they are promised that the children will be able to pray and that they will not be forced to eat pork or drink alcohol. Of course, it doesn't hurt to reassure them that German parents are just as averse to sexual relations between boys and girls as Muslims.

In theory, teachers who have been giving “supplementary instruction in their native language” to immigrant children in German schools for decades could help out. But Turkey, for example, tends to send older men to Germany to provide this sort of instruction, men to whom their students' worlds are completely foreign and who usually speak no German. These teachers are also meant to provide some religious instruction, but more often than not they hand out maps of Turkey for the students to color, pull out the Turkish daily Hrriyet and spend the rest of the period reading the paper.

When Kaddor began teaching in Lohberg, some children believed that Muhammad was born in Istanbul and Atatrk, the founder of the modern Turkish nation, was a prophet.

Principal Herpers is now a convert to the new program: “Anyone who wants integration has to provide Islam instruction. We've ignored this for too long, but the Germans can't …”

“I am German,” says Kaddor.

“Yes, of course,” says Herpers.

The teacher quickly organizes a stack of photocopies. Because a translation of the Koran suitable for schools doesn't exist, Kaddor simply went ahead and reorganized, translated and explained individual verses — a rather revolutionary approach in the Islamic world. She hasn't had any trouble yet with the clerics at the mosques in Dinslaken. She hopes that this will not change when her Koran translation is published soon.

Today's discussion topic in her 10th-grade class is a difficult one: our understanding of God. According to Surah 112 of the Koran “He is the one God.” ” He begets not, nor is He begotten.” The students look perplexed. What does beget mean, they wonder? “He can't have any children,” Umut suggests. But why should God, especially God, not be able to do this? Lamya Kaddor reads her own translation out loud: “God had neither fathered children, nor was he fathered.” The Surah, she says, alludes to Christians, who believe that God has a son who is also human.

“It's interesting, learning about other religions,” says Glin, the only Shiite in the class. This has also been a topic of discussion, but in the end the students could not come up with a reasonable answer to the question of why Muslims elsewhere in the world are killing each other.

Another question that is currently on politicians' minds has long been resolved at the Glckauf School. “How would you feel if we did our Islam class in Turkish?” Kaddor once asked her students.

“No! German is incredibly important for us,” Sibel said indignantly. “We have to learn to speak better, otherwise they won't take us later on, when we want to work.” “I don't speak Turkish,” said Sana, who is from Morocco. And then Hseyin said: “Hey, guys, what's the deal? We are Germany!”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan



Photo Gallery: Paving the Road to Integration

The World from Berlin: Germany's Difficult Debate with its Muslim Community (03/14/2008)

SPIEGEL 360: Our Coverage of Muslims in Europe

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From the Archive: Paving the Way for a Muslim Parallel Society (03/29/2007)

Muslim Converts in Germany: Angst-Ridden Germans Look for Answers — And Find Them in the Koran (01/18/2007)

Muslim Integration: Germany's Lost Daughters (11/22/2004)

The Death of a Muslim Woman: “The Whore Lived Like a German” (03/02/2005)

Umbrella Organization Planned: German Muslim Groups to Speak as One (03/09/2007)