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Germany

Learning About Mohammed and the Koran in German

Schools in three states are offering Muslim students a chance to learn about their faith in the German language instead of in their mother tongue, in a move that’s hoped to contribute towards better integration.

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Listening to Islamic religious instruction in German.

As schools in Germany get ready to welcome back students after six long weeks of summer vacation, a few in Berlin, Lower Saxony and Bavaria feature a new subject on their curriculum -- Islamic education.

The idea isn’t exactly new. In the months since Germany became known as the launching pad of the September 11 terrorist attacks with the discovery of the Hamburg terror cell, politicians from all sides have been advocating better integration of the country’s estimated 3.5-million strong Muslim community.

Proposed measures included standardizing Islamic education in the German language. But Germany’s complex federal system of education, whereby education remains a prerogative of the Länder or states, has meant that the proposal couldn’t be applied across the board.

The German constitution states that "religion classes in agreement with the basic tenets of religious communities" should be offered as a full-fledged subject. German students are required to take religion classes unless they get written permission to take an ethics class instead. Schools so far offer classes in either Protestantism, Catholicism or Judaism and in a latest example, two schools in Berlin begin offering Buddhism starting this week.

"Contributing towards integration and tolerance"

The number of states offering Islamic education in German has been growing gradually.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 800,000 Muslims, has sponsored optional Islamic religion instruction classes as a sort of test run in 24 schools since 1999. Last year, in a rare move, Berlin, Lower Saxony and Bavaria committed themselves to introducing concrete Islamic education in the German language in close cooperation with Islamic organizations in the country. While Berlin got off to a head start with the subject already offered in around 20 schools and now being extended to 30 this week, Lower Saxony and Bavaria are treading new ground with it.

Mr. Weszling, a spokesman at the education ministry in Lower Saxony, home to about 40,000 Muslim students, told Deutsche Welle the model was initially being tested on eight primary schools in the state and had been hammered out together with Islamic organizations. "The parents will decide whether they want to send their children to the class," he said, but added "we’re hoping it will contribute towards integration, tolerance and more understanding of the religion." The classes, Weszling said, would deal more with the factual aspects of the faith rather than the practice and belief.

Bavarian Education Minister Monika Hohlmeier stressed earlier this year at a press conference, the Islamic education model at a school in Erlangen was based on close cooperation with Muslims living permanently in Bavaria and receptive to integration. She said it gave priority to "values laid down in the constitution such as human dignity, freedom, equality and tolerance." The minister added the aim was to "allow Muslim students a suitable offer in their schools to learn more about their own faith."

Lessons in German can ensure transparency

Islamic instruction in German may be a new feature, but private lessons have existed in Germany since the first Turkish immigrants began arriving in the 1960s and are now offered by teachers across the country in Arabic and Bosnian as well.

However the discovery of the Hamburg terror cell and Germany’s subsequent clampdown on Islamist and extremist organizations in the country, have heightened concerns about extremist views trickling into lessons conducted by Islamic organizations in Koran schools and back rooms of mosques. Officials stress that drawing the State into the issue will ensure it a greater degree of transparency.

"When Islamic classes are held in German and under the state-school board, we know what gets taught," Social Democrat Ute Vogt, head of the domestic policy committee in Germany’s parliament said last year during the height of the debate."It’s important for the state to have control so that there’s no possibility Islamic education could turn into an anti-democratic movement," Hans-Gert Lange, spokesman for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution told Deutsche Welle.

No legitimate Muslim representative

But it’s not just security concerns that have delayed efforts so far in getting Islamic education well off the ground.

Most states interested in offering the subject in German complain there’s no legitimate representative on the Muslim side such as is the case with the Church, who they can deal with in shaping religious lessons. "It’s a very fundamental problem," Thomas John of Berlin’s education ministry said. "There are so many Sunni, Shiite and Alewites groups. It’s difficult to find a unified voice. We can only hope the Muslims can come to an agreement about that."

Unlike in France, where a recently-formed National Council for Muslims represents the country’s five-million community and deals directly with the French State on all issues, Germany has a bunch of splintered Islamic organizations, all with their own agenda and often in competition with each other.

But Ali Kizilkaya the chairman of the Council of Muslims, one of the largest organizations, said there were enough Muslim representatives the German State could talk to if it was interested. "We have the impression that all models are headed towards not allowing Muslims to participate," he told news agency AFP.

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