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Opinion: Will Beards Be Banned Soon Too?

The German fight over headscarves has been inappropriate and has taken up too much time. Naturally, dangers must be fought when one meets them. But the headscarf alone does not represent such a danger.

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It sounds absurd that German officials want to liberate Muslim women with a law on headscarves.

President Johannes Rau is certainly not someone who keeps his distance from the church. The son of a preacher, who has also appeared as a lay preacher himself, has shown repeatedly during his 40-year political career how important equality, tolerance and dialogue between different religions and cultures are to him.

Shortly before the end of his five-year presidential term that tolerance has placed him in the crossfire of criticism because during an interview about the headscarf debate, which for a fairly long time has been provoking some people, Rau reflected: If one bans the headscarf from schools for being a religious symbol, then one could hardly defend the monk’s habit.

Constitution requires equality

The German constitution requires equal treatment of religions in the public sphere, which includes schools. The country’s Christian heritage won’t be called into question because of this, nor does Germany’s future as a Christian country depend on how many people wear which clothing to school.

“That depends only on how many convinced and believing Christians there are in our country,” the president said.

Nonetheless, politicians in seven of the 16 federal states have decided to create a legal basis for banning Muslim teachers from wearing headscarves. They believe that the headscarf expresses an aggressive political or missionary stance that has no place in a neutral state facility.

This campaign was pushed by a September judgement by the Federal Constitutional Court, in which the ban on teachers wearing headscarves was determined to be illegal as long as there weren’t any laws on the subject.

Legal challenge set off debate

The question only became an “affair” because a feisty young teacher with Afghan roots wasn’t accepted as a civil servant in the state of Baden-Württemberg due to her headscarf – and she fought back through the legal system. Although in other states more than a dozen women who wear headscarves teach without problems or objections, this case brought the question to the political stage.

And thus the question landed in a place where it perhaps least belongs: Neither bureaucrats nor politicians should decide which meaning, one or the other, a religious symbol has. And the balance shouldn’t tip based on what is ON rather than IN the head. And by no means should symbols of one religion be banned, while those of others are further protected, cared for or determined to be harmless.

So those who support the ban on headscarves argue, by enlisting the Koran among other things, that this piece of fabric is not a religious symbol at all, but rather it stands for the suppression of women. The monk’s habit or the crucifix, however, are seen as an expression of the “nearly 2,000-year Christian culture of the occident.”

Individual freedom at risk

Only with real effort has the discussion avoided the use of the vexing expression, the Christian “dominant culture,” which recently created waves but then was banned as an instrument of discrimination and suppression. But it is this stance that consciously or unconsciously informs some critics. And that which actually should be protected ends up falling victim: the freedom of the individual. Whether the person is Christian, Muslim or neither.

About 3 million Muslims live in Germany. But teachers wearing headscarves will not make this country into a Taliban state. And it sounds absurd that German officials or politicians want to fight for the liberation of Muslim women with the help of a law on headscarves.

At least Germany is not going as far as France, where the state regulations are not restricted to the representatives of the state – teachers – but apply to the population at large: Paris wants to ban students from school if they are wearing a headscarf, a Kippa or a cross. In Germany, that remains a private issue. Here, the wearing of headscarves would only be banned for civil servants, in this case, teachers.

But the German fight over headscarves has been inappropriate and has taken up too much time. Naturally, dangers must be fought when one meets them. But the headscarf alone does not represent such a danger. According to the same logic, male Muslim teachers with a beard would have to shave before going to work, while bushy Protestant beards would still be tolerated.

That cannot be. The state should remove itself from this discussion and as in other cases, only step in when freedom is abused. And the state should not let excessive zeal allow it to forget its constitutional rules on equality. That’s just what the president meant. But many people obviously didn’t understand him.

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