Like most of Western Europe, Germany considers itself a secular democracy. Article Four of its Constitution guarantees equal treatment of all religions. But that hasn't kept the governments of Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg and five other German states from drafting laws that treat different religions very differently indeed. Effective this fall, schoolteachers will be banned from wearing Muslim head-scarves--but not crucifixes, yarmulkes or even nuns' habits. The ban was necessary, the Bavarian government claims, because the scarf has become "a symbol of fundamentalism and extremism" that cannot be tolerated at public schools. By labeling it a "political" and not a religious symbol, the authorities believe they have gotten around the strictures of Article Four. More of Germany's 16 states are likely to follow.

Germany is not alone in grappling with the headscarf issue. In France, a commission appointed by President Jacques Chirac recently recommended forbidding not just teachers but also students from wearing religious symbols, except for small tokens of faith worn around the neck. The ban, says commission president Bernard Stasi, aims to preserve France's strict secularism and counter "forces trying to destabilize the country," a thinly veiled reference to Islamic activists. To devout Muslims--including fundamentalists--scarves, veils or burqas for women are an obligation under God. To many Europeans--as well as many secular Muslims--they are symbols of a newly aggressive anti-women, anti-Western ideology.

At least the French regulations are applied evenhandedly. In Germany, however, there appears to be huge public support for singling out Muslims for special treatment. The furor over headscarves is thus a microcosm of just how resistant Germany still is to its immigrant community. Germany has 3.3 million Muslims, 200,000 Jews and millions more who don't subscribe to any faith at all. Yet the Justice minister of Baden-Wurttemberg, for example, doesn't even bother with Bavaria's tricky legalisms in skirting Article Four. Headscarves are different from crosses, Corinna Werwigk-Hertneck explains, because "our children have to learn the roots of Christian religion and European culture."

At bottom, such attitudes have little to do with fundamentalism. As much as anything, they reflect Germans' continuing rejection of what they call "over-foreignization." Like the blood-based citizenship laws that until a few years ago made it difficult for anyone but ethnic Germans to become citizens, a law to promote "the roots of Christian religion" can have no other effect than to divide "true" Germans from later arrivals. Unlike France, whose strict secularism has in the past helped assimilate religious and ethnic minorities, Germany often pretends as if it were still the (almost) homogenous Christian country it once was. Muslim and Jewish leaders have decried the pretense. But so far, only one major "German" politician has done so. That was Johannes Rau, Germany's figurehead president, who is himself the son of a Protestant preacher. "If the headscarf is forbidden, then it's going to be hard to defend the monk's robe or the crucifix," Rau said in his traditional New Year's speech--for which he was rebuked by much of the German political spectrum.

All this comes just as Germany's Muslims are becoming increasingly visible. Vowing to "take Islam out of the back alleys," newly self-confident Islamic groups have launched a veritable building boom to construct prominent and visible mosques, minarets and all, instead of hiding their prayer rooms in shabby apartment buildings and industrial areas as they've done in the past. Last year, the Islam Archive in Soest counted 141 mosques with minarets in Germany, compared to only 77 in 2002--with another 154 planned or under construction. As more and more Christian churches stand empty for lack of believers, these towers are pins popping German society's illusions of being ethnically homogenous and culturally Christian.

The rise of Muslim Germany also poses troubling questions about the deep entanglement of church and state. It is common for officials such as Werwigk-Hertneck to effectively give government preference and blessing to the Christian faith. In no other country in Europe (not even hyper Roman Catholic Italy) are the two main churches, Catholic and Protestant, as powerful, richly funded and as entrenched at all layers of government as they are in Germany. Together they receive more than 10 billion in general taxpayer funds a year, and an additional 8.5 billion in "church tax" that the government collects from members on their behalf. By law, church officials sit on local and state government boards and commissions, where they help decide everything from how public tax revenue is spent to how public media are run--or which minority faiths are considered "dangerous sects" --a practice the U.S. State Department has repeatedly censored in its Annual Report on Religious Freedoms. German taxpayers pay 2 billion a year to support thousands of nuns and priests giving state-mandated religious instruction in public schools. "The identification of the German state with the Christian religion is deep in our bones," says Johannes Neumann, a professor of church law at the University of Mannheim. "All other religions are experienced as hostile."

The headscarf debate thus exposes Germans' peculiar view of the role of the state. A majority of thinking Germans, including the media, are apparently willing to accord to their government the power to decide which religions, and religious symbols, are "good" and which are less so. "Americans would get outraged if the government made these kinds of decisions," says Gerhard Besier, head of the Hannah Arendt Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism in Dresden. "But Germans want the state to protect them from all eventual dangers." If the state weren't as involved in the daily operations of the Christian churches, he adds, it would be much easier to put religion in the private realm, where most Western societies long ago decided it belongs.

Just as disturbingly, Germans are well aware that their aging, shrinking society will need immigrants to survive, and that many of these newcomers will be Muslims--as almost 40 percent of today's immigrants are. Immigrant advocates argue that the government should be focusing on the growing numbers of them who don't speak the language, are failing in school and are drifting into joblessness or crime. "Instead we are now looking backward, trying to keep what is foreign away from us," says Besier. Given the social and demographic trends that promise to transform Germany, and Europe, that seems ultimately hopeless and self-defeating.