Private Prayer in Public School
Ministry of Justice, for Integration and Europe of the State of Hessen
A new curriculum for the instruction of Islam in primary school creates a more inclusive and equitable educational experience for German families with a Muslim background
It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
The German constitution grants parents the right to have their children educated according to their own religious tradition. But until now that’s been restricted to Christian, or “official” religious communities.
No longer. Starting in the 2013/2014 school year, the German state of Hesse made good its commitment to fair and equitable government to some of its newest and oldest citizens by introducing religious instruction in Islam to primary school students in cities like Wiesbaden.
Coming of Age
Like many countries of migration, Germany continues to have conflicting attitudes towards its growing Muslim population which originated for the most part in a post-war generation of Turkish migrant guest workers who have gradually put down roots, and begun to take up citizenship. Almost half a century later, new generations and other nationalities have added to the German Muslim community, it’s grown, evolved and contributed substantially to German culture and economy -think only of the ubiquitous doner kebab, or the films of Fatih Akin. While Germany now calls itself “a country of migration”, many Germans have been slow to accept this population as German.
Not so in Hessse. With a well-integrated Muslim population four time higher the national average (20%), the government in Hesse has plenty of evidence to support a clear position on immigrant integration (2013 Integration Report of Hessen, PDF): “One in every eight people in Hesse has a foreign passport, while one in four has a migrant background. Integration is not a specialized subject, but rather one that will determine Hesse’s sustainability. The State Government promotes the creation of structures necessary to also fulfill the requirements of people with migrant backgrounds in its child care centers, schools, during apprenticeships, in the job market and in the information centers.”
The State of Hesse is not only focused on these changing demographics, it is working to create more pathways to integration and foster social inclusion. And it’s working. The 2013 Integration Report reports that 96% of all people with a background in immigration feel comfortable in Hesse, an increase from 86% in 2011.
Opening up the education system
Opening up the education system to this growing share of the community is an important and logical step towards a more inclusive and equitable relationship with German families (and citizens) with a Muslim background. According to Nicola Beer, Hesse Education Minister and an early supporter of the Islamic instruction, “’I think it’s clear now that for years we made the mistake of alienating people.’ Now, Germans recognize that ‘we are here together, we work together, and we educate our children together.’”
Most German states offer two hours of optional religious education in schools, starting in early elementary grades. Religious education is offered as a subject in public schools, in cooperation with religious associations, but only if they are an official religious community, by law. Until recently, that has excluded Islam due to the specific nature of Muslim migration to Germany. Muslim guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s expected to eventually return to their countries of origin and did not establish the organizations that would later be required to meet the standard for official recognition.
Until now. While efforts to establish Islamic religious education in state schools date back to the late 1970s, in 2008 formal Islamic Religious Education was established after being recommended by the German Islam Conference, to strengthen social cohesion and integration, and prevent extremism. While Islamic instruction is available in some form in most former West German states only two associations have qualified as official religious organizations, both in Hesse – the regional branch of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib) and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat community. Further distinguishing it from other states, Hesse developed a university program to support its curriculum and has taken charge of training teachers.
Religious teaching in German schools is nothing new
According to the German Islam Conference, initially Hesse did not offer Islamic religious instruction as did other states, but offered instruction on Islam in the context of teaching ethics (from 2002). However, that changed in 2013, when the government of Hesse re-vamped its curriculum to include religious instruction for the teaching of Islam. Why? According to the New York Times, because “of a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population, … to foster social harmony, overcome its ageing demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.”
The Hesse curriculum places Islamic instruction on equal footing with state-approved curriculum in the Protestant and Catholic faiths. By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam in primary school, and developing a curriculum that emphasized the values of tolerance and acceptance, the authorities aimed to “inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.”
Not an experiment, a success
“Islamic religious instruction in Hesse is a success story,” declared Minister of Education, Prof. Dr. R. Alexander Lorz. “It is a standard subject under the Basic [Education] Law, taught in German under state supervision… and judging by high student registration numbers has been a success.”
“Islamic religious instruction in Hesse is therefore not an experiment,” Lorz continued, “but an educational policy event of importance to society. The religious instruction in question is provided in the German language, taught by state-trained teachers based on government approved curricula and subject to state supervision. There is nothing experimental in this approach as suggested by some media reports. It is our intention to expand this in the future according to the country’s needs.”
Indeed, a Brookings Institution report looking at religious education trends in 8 European countries, and the United States, identified three good practices for religious education in any country. The Hesse experience ranked high on all three criteria:
- Establish high academic standards for teacher training programs and allocate adequate resources to ensure these standards are met.
- Provide factual textbooks informed by academic scholarship.
- Build upon current curricular and pedagological good practices through international exchange and dialogue of scholars.
For Lorz, the success of the new religious curriculum also affirmed the very real public demand for Islamic religious education. The government’s position flowed from a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population “if it is to foster social harmony, overcome its aging demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.”
For Hesse, this isn’t simply aspirational political rhetoric, it’s practical. According to a Bertelsmann Stiftung study, “Germany’s population is shrinking and ageing. Thousands of new workers will soon be needed. Yet immigration from the EU alone will not be enough to close the gaps in the long term. Stronger immigration from third countries is necessary.”
As Germany continues to open up both to external immigration and recognizes the need to better integrate its existing diverse communities, lessons from Hesse will serve the country well.
Making it Work for You:
- National immigration policies and legislation are important as guidelines for integration, but implementation is local. State and city governments need to take into account local situations, relationships in order to build successful integration practices.
- Building new ideas and projects may seem experimental, but if implemented with strong local partnerships and buy-in from affected communities, the impacts can be immediate.
- Mainstreaming the “other” into government policy and practice not only builds goodwill with isolated or marginalized communities, but also ensures their active participation, increasing the likelihood of success.