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German schools teach Islam to students to give them a sense of belonging

Germany


Dortmund : 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: “Islam does not belong to Germany.”

He scanned the room and asked: “Who said this?”

 

Hands shot up. “The AfD?” one student with a navy blue headscarf said, referring to Germany’s far-right anti-refugee party. “No,” Mr Seddiqzai shook his head.

“Seehofer,” tried another. “Yes, and who is that?” “A minister,” said a third.

Finally, someone put it all together, identifying Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and chancellor Angela Merkel‘s interior minister and coalition partner, who has on multiple occasions threatened to torpedo her government over the issue of immigration.

“Yes, that’s right,” Mr Seddiqzai said, turning to the others. “And what do you think? Is he correct?”

In a country where the debate over “who belongs?” has deeply divided Ms Merkel’s government, fuelled 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 Germany’s 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 Muslim students, were first launched in the early 2000s and now are offered as electives in nine of Germany’s 16 states, by more than 800 public primary and secondary schools, according to the research network Mediendienst Integration. They include lessons on the Quran, the history of Islam, comparative religion and ethics. Often, discussions shift to the students’ identity struggles or feelings of alienation.

“When a German asks me which country I’m from, I tell them Turkey,” said Gulendam Velibasoglu, 17, who is taking Mr Seddiqzai’s 10th-grade Islam class this year. She was born and raised in this western German city. Still, she says, “If I said ‘German’, they wouldn’t accept the answer. They will see me as a foreigner, even though I’m a German citizen.”

Germany has the European Union’s second-largest Muslim population after France, according to estimates by Pew Research. In 2016, 4.95 million people, or 6.1 per cent of the German population, were Muslim. But less than half of those pray regularly, and even fewer regularly attend a mosque, according to the latest government surveys.

The country’s leaders have expressed an ambivalent view of Islam, at best. Mr Seehofer’s statement that “Islam does not belong to Germany” came just months after the Islam-bashing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, entered parliament. Ms 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 14 October, it scored the biggest electoral gains of any party in Bavaria, Germany’s most populous state.