What local German authorities including Islam means for Muslims

Two years after Thilo Sarrazin published his book, Germany Is Abolishing Itself in which the author condemned what he considered to be the growing influence of Islam in the country, relations between public powers and Germany’s four-million-strong Muslim community seem to be improving. On 14 August 2012, the city of Hamburg, like Bremen and Berlin, reached an agreement with representatives of its Muslim community in which the latter’s rights and duties were affirmed to be identical to those of every other German citizen.

The most spectacular aspect is that, from now on, certain Muslim holidays will be officially recognized. Employees can choose not to work, though they must take a vacation day or make up the day, and school children may be excused from classes.

But the agreement – which took five years of negotiations to reach – goes much further. The city has agreed that Muslims have the same rights as other citizens, whether Protestants or Catholics (with whom an agreement was signed in 2005) or Jews (with whom agreement was reached in 2007). And they have the same duties as well, such as respect for certain fundamental values such as religious tolerance and equality between men and women.

The agreement also provides for the teaching of Islam in public schools. The subject is legally complex, since the constitution envisages that religion be taught “in harmony with the principles of the religious communities.” Since the Muslim community does not have one sole representative, these principles have not been decreed. As a result, the German states have each attempted to find a solution with local Muslim representatives.

Hamburg goes farther than other regions of Germany by officially recognizing three Muslim associations as representatives of the religious community and permitting them to participate as legally recognized religious representatives: Ditib (the Islamic Turkish Union for Religion), Schura (the Council of Islamic Communities) and Vitz (the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers) – as well as the Alevi community of Germany, an Islamic religious group, neither Sunni nor Shiite, similar to Sufism.

Representatives of the associations that have signed the accord, which represent approximately 170,000 faithful, are pleased with the recognition.

Begun in 2007 by a Christian-Democrat mayor, Ole von Beust, and concluded by his Social-Democrat successor, Olaf Scholz, the negotiation of the agreement did not provoke much political debate. At the same time, elected officials provided detailed information regarding sensitive issues through an extensive FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section on their website.

No, the agreement does not permit parallel laws to be put into place. No, there will not be Islamic day care. Can teachers be veiled? “The accord provides for neither the authorization nor the prohibition of the scarf while working.” Will non-Muslim children have to follow courses on the Muslim religion? Yes, “The meaning of collective courses consists precisely in students discovering something other than their own religion (…), but there will not be any teaching of the Koran by imams in public school.”

This initiative is not completely isolated. In North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 1.5 million Muslims, an agreement was signed between the regional government and representatives of the Muslim communities providing for the progressive establishment, beginning in the new school year, of classes on Islam for Muslim students.

Three parties have approved the text (the Social-Democrats and the Green Party which are in power but also the CDU in the opposition), the liberals abstained and the radical left voted against it.

While the representativeness of the “coordination council” – made up of those Muslims who negotiated the establishment of the courses with local authorities – led to significant debate, the movement must nevertheless carry on.

Since 2011, several universities have been training imams so that the latter can in turn teach children as part of their schooling. Such changes create an integrative German society, where religious communities can live their practices while respecting the legal democratic structure of the country in which they live.

(Frédéric Lemaître is the correspondent in Germany for the French newspaper Le Monde. Former editor of the business and finance section editorialist, and editor-in-chief, he is the author of many works including Tomorrow and The Hunger. This article was first published in the Common Ground News Service.)

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Last Update: Tuesday, 01 January 2013 KSA 07:04 - GMT 04:04
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