Human Rights Watch criticized the German law banning female teachers from wearing the Islamic headscarf. DW's Felix Steiber, however, says that schools must remain neutral and secular.
When Angela Merkel became chancellor on Nov. 22, 2005, she ended her oath of office with the words "so help me God." The chancellor presented herself as a faithful Christian, but in doing so, she did not pose a challenge to German constitutional order -- on the contrary. She is allowed to exercise her office as a Christian, but not for Christians only or in a way that privileges this religious group. This is the essential difference.
Would all Germans feel represented by her if she wore a headscarf? Definitely not. If she chose to publicly and visibly demonstrate her Muslimhood, she would on a daily basis be stressing what spiritual -- or, rather, religious -- ground she stands on. That cannot and should not be the legacy of the European enlightenment in the 21st century.
Secular and religious powers are separated. Territorial states are no longer headed by religious leaders, and no western head of state or government can demand from his or her citizens allegiance in religious matters.
The modern European state is pluralistic: its citizens can believe in whatever they like or nothing at all. And that’s why when Angela Merkel goes to church on Easter Sunday, she goes as Angela Merkel and not as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Civil servants are the public face and the symbolic image of the state. If the state is ideologically neutral, then its direct employees, i.e. civil servants -- which in Germany includes teachers -- must also be neutral. I can’t choose which tax inspector will calculate my tax debt, which police officer will give me a ticket for my driving, or which teacher will educate my child, but I need to be able to rely on the fact that they will do these things from an ideologically neutral basis.
Is that discrimination? Absolutely not. Those who do not want to comply with this neutrality by giving up certain elements of their clothing can easily choose another career. If I don’t want to be served by the headscarf-wearing saleslady at a bakery, I can look for an alternative by going to another bakery. But there is no alternative to the state. And that’s why I insist upon its independence.
Author: Felix Steiber
Editor: Toma Tasovac