Children's books about Christianity abound in German, but Muslim children in Germany have a tough time finding books about their own religion. A new publisher is changing that.
The company aims to publish bilingual books
"Integration begins with children," said Islam expert Ahmad Milad Karimi. It's a pragmatic view on the subject of integration so hotly debated in Germany of late.
Karimi can also speak from experience. Born in Kabul in 1979, as a child he fled Afghanistan with his parents and settled in Germany. Now, with his newly founded publishing house Salam Verlag, which focuses on religion-oriented childen's literature, he wants to help Muslim children living in Germany feel more at home and adapt to life here.
For decades, Muslims in this country have cultivated their own communities and associations where they can meet, practice and educate each other about their Islamic faith. But Muslim kids need more than that, Karimi believes.
No real reading material exists in the Islamic communities in Germany which promotes children's self-confidence and their integration into German culture, he noted.
Furthermore, illustrated books in regular German pre-schools, for instance, also largely overlook Muslim children of migrants who "have a more complex identity than German-Germans," Karimi said. "They cannot relate to the children portrayed in the regular books."
A 'who's who' in religion
Ahmad Milad Karimi experienced immigration and integration himself
Karimi wants to close that gap with his publishing company, and its name "Salam," which means "peace" in Arabic, is also part of its program. The books are aimed to playfully educate children about different religions, not just Islam, and offer answers to questions like: What is the Koran? Who was Mohammed? Who were Moses and Jesus?
The colorful books are also intended to show the diversity of the Islamic faith and demonstrate how dialogue with other cultures and belief systems can be cultivated. For now, Salam Verlag is publishing in German, but versions in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu and Indonesian are in the pipeline.
It's a task that normal German schools must also take up, said Gabi Netz, editor-in-chief of Lehrer-Online, a portal offering digital educational material and tips to teachers.
"All religions could be taught in schools, not just Christianity, so that a sense of community can develop," Netz said. "The teachers are the ones faced with the challenge of fostering dialogue between German-German children and those with an immigrant background."
Fighting extremism through comics
In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as others, Islam can be chosen among Protestantism, Catholicism or Philosophy to fulfill the religion requirement in schools.
One Salam Verlag book talks about cancer
Within Islamic studies classes, some teachers have chosen to use a comic book called "Andi 2," written in German by Ahmet Arslan and Duran Terzi, "to teach the difference between Islamism and Islam," Arslan said. It's an additional measure in battling right-wing extremism and terrorism by teaching about democracy.
"Explaining to kids what certain terms mean, like 'sharia,' for instance and hearing what they have to say about it - that's just one example of how such classes work," Arslan explained. "'The comic book 'Andi 2' opens the door to the discussion, and once kids get the feeling their opinion counts, whatever it may be, something else happens: they become more open, and that's the first step in the democratic process," he observed.
"And that is a perfect example of successful integration," he said, pointing out that the teaching materials can also be used in politics, civics and philosophy lessons, as well as religion. Furthermore, "when kids realize that the constitution protects the practice of one's religion, then they also develop more respect for the constitution itself."
Books of all sizes and color
Books published by small publishers like the Salam Verlag also want to encourage children's self-confidence, not just their ideas about religion. "Fayzal der Krebsfaenger" is a delicately illustrated book that is intended to offer courage and support to children with cancer - a difficult topic which the author addresses in a fairy tale-like, yet down-to-earth manner.
"Der kleine Hassan," on the other hand, portrays a good, pious little boy who admires flowers and bees and whose mother stays at home, while his father is always ready to answer philosophical questions.
The story is less likely to appeal to the computer and TV-obsessed kids of modern day, Muslim or not, but Karimi added that "It's a tough job for authors to explain intercultural references in an understandable way."
Children need books they can relate to
Regardless of the approach of the books in the Salam Verlag's program, the question remains as to how to motivate children to read them, especially if their parents are not readers themselves?
Karimi, for his part, said it's a major challenge and it's not enough to sell the books in bookstores. He intends to organize events in Muslim communities and socially disadvantaged neighborhoods. It's "pioneering work," he noted, but he's ready to take up the challenge.
A good move, Arslan said. "People should stop all this talk about integration and just get moving. It's time to act and create things that promote integration," he said, referring to books.
Netz pragmatically concurred: "Ultimately, the market will decide on the product's appeal and success."
"Besides, so much junk is usually published, why not print something with content and see what happens?" she added about Salam Verlag's current program.
Author: Louisa Schaefer, Beate Hinrichs
Editor: Kate Bowen