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Multicultural Symbol or Gateway to Fundamentalism?

Of the issues dividing Europe and its Muslim communities, the headscarf, or hijab, is perhaps the most controversial. In Germany, Muslim teachers are fighting for their right to wear headscarves to class.


Long a part of the landscape in German big cities and now a threat to some.

Having spent the last 15 years of her life wearing the Muslim hijab, Emine Oztürk, who is studying to become a teacher, can’t imagine taking it off in public, even for just one minute.

But that’s exactly what Oztürk might have to do if she ever wants to get a job in a Berlin public school.

“It’s part of my identity,” said the 25-year-old German of Turkish descent. “How can I lay my identity at the door of the classroom?”

It is a question on the minds of many here following a decision last fall by Germany’s highest court allowing teacher Fereshta Ludin to wear her head scarf in class as long as there were no state laws against it. Though the court upheld Ludin's right to wear the hijab, it also opened the door for states to pass laws banning teachers from donning it in the classroom. Since the decision, the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, where Ludin first brought her case, has passed just such a law.

The state government in Berlin has proposed a law banning all religious symbols, including the Jewish Kippa and Christian crucifix, from jobs in the public sector. A majority of Germany’s 16 states are expected to pass similar laws.

Banned in France, encouraged in England

In the debate taking place across Germany, politicians and Muslim leaders have begun to ask some very serious questions about the place their religion and identity holds in a Europe rooted in Christianity and Judaism, but with a growing and powerful Muslim population.

“You have a new generation of Muslims …reasonably educated, fluent in the cultures and languages they live in … demanding a sort of legitimization. They want it without having to become assimilated,” said Shireen Hunter, the head of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and editor of “Islam, Europe’s Second Religion.”

Kopftuch Demonstration in Indonesien

Thousands worldwide protested against the French headscarf ban.

In March, the French parliament approved legislation that banned head scarves and other religious symbols from state schools beginning in September. In Great Britain and Sweden, a more open attitude prevails. Teachers and even female Muslim police officers are allowed to wear their head scarves.

Germany’s relationship to its 3.2 million Muslims is decidedly more fragile.

Touchy issues of integration such as Muslim dress and the ritual slaughter of sheep in accordance with Islamic law have been brought before courts in recent years. Earlier this summer, the constitutional court ruled that a department store could not fire a Muslim woman because she wanted to wear her head scarf during work.

A cloth menace?

The legal conflicts are symptoms of the neglect of both the German government and the Turkish community in addressing the issue of integration, say historians. By the time integration became a topic, the sons and grandsons of the Turkish guest workers that arrived in the 1960s had already carved out little Ankaras and Istanbuls in Germany’s major cities. The hijab has long been part of the German streetscape.

“We live in a free, modern society, where everyone has their own self-awareness,” says Ali Kizilkaya, head of the powerful and controversial Islam Council, Germany’s largest Muslim group. “Are we so weak that a square foot of cloth can make us feel threatened?”

Opponents argue that it is not the head scarf, but the fact that


State schools in Bavaria have to remove crucifixes if just one student objects.

Ludin wants to wear it in the public school classroom in a country with a strong secular tradition. Eight years ago, the constitutional court ruled that crucifixes would have to be removed from classrooms in Bavaria if just one student objected. The fact that Muslims want what many see as more freedom to express their religion than German Christians makes parliamentarian Wolfgang Bosbach angry.

Next page: Accommodate Islam? No way.

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