Germany’s New True Believers

If Islam seems foreign to many Europeans, part of the reason is that it is. Unlike in America, where a prosperous Muslim diaspora has widely integrated and built its own local institutions, only rarely do Europe's mosques or schools preach and teach in German, French or any other local language. All over Europe, countless Qur'an schools and cultural centers are financed by wealthy Saudi charities. Paris's Grand Mosque and many others in France are backed by the government of Algeria. And in Germany, one third of its 2,500 mosques are run by Turkey. Sent to Germany for four-year tours, the imams are picked by Ankara's Bureau of Religious Affairs, which also has a say in topics for Friday sermons.

This state of affairs has no doubt added to the widespread perception that the European Union's 15 million Muslims live in an ethnic and religious ghetto. But in an effort to better integrate Muslim citizens into the general populace, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called earlier this month for more mosques to be built all over the country, as a visible sign that "Islam is a part of Germany and Europe." And, as part of a broader movement to radically redefine the relationship between mosque and state, he signed off on a plan to introduce German-language Islamic instruction at public schools throughout the country.

German officials are hoping that state-funded Islamic instruction, support for mosques, and other government favors, will help draw Islamic institutions out of the ghetto, wean them off foreign funds, and turn them into stakeholders in the German system. It is a process that is being duplicated all over Europe. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has talked openly of state-funded construction of mosques as a way to "cut the Islam of France off foreign influences." He has even proposed changing France's sacrosanct 1905 law requiring the strict separation of church and state. In Britain, the government already finances Muslim schools. In Italy, Interior Minister Giuliano Amato has set up a high-level dialogue with Italian Muslims, exactly along the lines of what Schäuble has done in Germany. Amato hopes to empower moderates and institutionalize representative Islamic bodies. The ultimate goal, Amato says, is to "consolidate Italian Islam" by establishing formal relations between the Muslim community and the Italian state.

If the United States is not doing any of this, it's because it doesn't have to. U.S. Muslims are highly educated, incomparably better integrated than European Muslims, and have been far less susceptible to the radical theologies and preachers imported from the Arab world. They're also wealthy enough to build up their own institutions. Europe's Muslims, by contrast, have had to depend on outside funding for their institutions. The vast majority of their mosques and prayer rooms are half-hidden in garages, back rooms and converted warehouses.

Schäuble's plan for the instruction of Islam at German public schools may sound radical. But it is merely the natural outgrowth of a longstanding practice in German education dating from the country's feudal days, in which each region or principality had an official established religion. Like most countries in Europe, Germany never imposed a formal separation of church and state, and instead opened the system of state support to both major churches equally. For years, the country's three established religious communities—Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Jews—conducted religion classes in the public-school system at public expense. Attendance is voluntary, but the classes—run by church or synagogue-appointed instructors—are graded. Students learn Bible stories, religious history, and social-welfare ethics. The curricula are certified by Education ministries to run in accordance with secular constitutional values.

But whether to allow this for religions with fewer followers in Germany has long been a sticking point. Since the 1970s, Muslim organizations have pressed for the right to conduct their own religious instruction in schools. But the German government has largely fended off the claims, arguing that it officially recognizes only religions that have set up representative structures with members and hierarchies. For instance, the Vatican can speak for Catholics; the Lutherans have a synod representing member churches; the Jewish community has established the German Council of Jews to represent most of the nation's 200,000 Jews—Orthodox, Reform and Liberal.

The prize for establishing a formal organization is a big one: government support at every level. The two main churches divvy up €18.5 billion in subsidies and a government-collected "church tax," including €3.5 billion for religious instruction in the schools. (The far-smaller Jewish community gets a lesser sum.) On top of that, the government doles out an additional €45 billion to church-run hospitals, nursing homes and other social services.

But so far, the Muslim community has been unable to build a national organization that meets the government's standards. The German government considers the Turkish state-run mosques to be extensions of the Ankara bureaucracy. And the Muslim community complains that the churchlike hierarchy and transparent organizational structures the Germans would like to see are largely alien to Islam. So far, only one local Muslim organization—Berlin's Islamic Federation—has won the right to conduct religious instruction, as a result of a court order a decade ago. But to the dismay of proponents of integration, it conducts its instruction in Turkish. Worryingly, the federation, which teaches 4,500 students at 40 Berlin schools has in the past been tied to Islamist radicals by German domestic intelligence—a charge the federation denies.

Now, the government is telling Muslims it is willing to meet them halfway. While encouraging the Muslim community to set up national and regional representative bodies, it has also launched a series of pilot projects for Islamic instruction in its public schools. In the biggest such project, involving 130 grade schools in North-Rhine Westphalia, education experts consulted with local Muslim groups to devise a curriculum that most Muslim sects would accept. Teachers explain suras of the Qur'an in German, and discuss how they might live the teachings of the Qur'an in modern, diaspora times. The state-approved curriculum also requires them to learn that men and women are equal in Islam, and know the basics of Christianity and Judaism.

Teachers are now being trained at a new department for Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster, one of four set up at German education or theology departments in recent years. Teachers in the system say these classes are a huge step toward integrating Muslims, reducing discrimination and providing an alternative to what grade-school Islam teacher Lamya Kaddor calls "the import theologians."

Change, it seems, is already happening. Kaddor, a German-born daughter of Syrian immigrants, tells the story of a visitor who recently came to her Islam class and asked the kids whether non-Muslims would go to hell—fully expecting a damning answer. Kaddor was surprised when they answered a unanimous "no." "A few years ago I'm sure they would have answered differently," she says. Still, there is no guarantee that all or even most Muslims will adhere to the script Germany, along with other European countries, seems to be writing for the integration of Islam. But if it helps students feel better about growing up Muslim in Europe, it's a big improvement already.

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