Germany Adds Lessons in Islam to Better Blend Its Melting Pot

FRANKFURT — For the first time, German public schools are offering classes in Islam to primary school students using state-trained teachers and specially written textbooks, as officials try to better integrate the nation’s large Muslim minority and counter the growing influence of radical religious thinking.

The classes offered in Hesse State are part of a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population if it is to foster social harmony, overcome its aging demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.

The need, many here say, is ever more urgent. According to German security officials and widespread reports in the German news media, this past semester at least two young Germans in Hesse — one thought to be just 16 — were killed in Syria after heeding the call for jihad and apparently being recruited by hard-line Salafist preachers in Frankfurt.

Such cases have stirred alarm not only that some young Germans are increasingly feeling alienated and vulnerable to recruitment, but also that they will eventually bring their fight home, along with new skills in the use of weapons and explosives gained on distant battlefields. Other parts of Europe with expanding Muslim minorities — including France, Britain, Spain and Scandinavian countries — are facing similar challenges of integration and radicalization.

The Hesse curriculum effectively places Islamic instruction on equal footing with similarly state-approved ethics training in the Protestant and Catholic faiths. By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, emphasizing its teachings on tolerance and acceptance, the authorities hope to inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.

Parents have the option to enroll their children in the religious education classes offered in the district. Nurguel Altuntas, who helped develop the Hesse program at the state’s Ministry of Education, said the sign-up for 29 classes in immigrant-heavy districts was enthusiastic.

For German authorities, countering the expansion of more radical religious thinking has presented a vexing problem. For now, the domestic intelligence service keeps close watch on a growing number, with 4,500 Salafists under observation in 2011 and 5,500 in 2012, according to an annual government report. The figures for 2013 are not yet available, but “we are reckoning with another increase, whether sharp or gradual I cannot say,” said a security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Increasingly, attention has turned to education and ways to nurture greater inclusion for Germany’s approximately four million Muslims, a number that has steadily increased since German industry recruited the first Turks as “guest workers” in the 1960s. How to integrate that minority has long been a source of tension in a country of more than 80 million that has also struggled with — and even resisted — absorbing Christian and European outsiders into the fabric of German life.

One answer, officials in Hesse hope, is being put in effect in classes where young children are guided by a state-trained teacher working from a state-approved curriculum.

In one class, Timur Kumlu recently asked his 19 6-year-old students each to take a strand from a large wool ball. He then instructed the children — whose parents hailed from Muslim countries as varied as Afghanistan, Albania, Morocco and Turkey — to examine how, like the threads, they, too, were woven together.

It was a simple lesson containing a gentle message filled with symbolism — that they were linked by their Islamic faith and practices of prayer.

“We are now all bound together — you come from different countries, and so do your parents,” said Mr. Kumlu, who reminded the children that while their parents came from Afghanistan or Albania, they were born in Germany.

His generally well-behaved pupils squirmed a bit, but listened attentively. “They come here with such different backgrounds,” Mr. Kumlu said after the lesson. “We must educate so that they develop a personality with common roots,” in Germany and in Islam.

Suspicion of radical Islam mounted when a Hamburg-based cell of Arabs was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The so-called Sauerland cell, which targeted Germans in 2007, and a foiled bombing of the Bonn railway station in December 2012 both involved German citizens.

Enduring battles over whether any public servant can wear a head scarf also underscore the persistent gap between non-Muslim Germans and Muslims who are nonetheless an ever larger part of each other’s lives.

For many teachers, German officials and, not least, Germany’s Muslims, wider instruction in Islam is a belated effort to redress decades of exclusion from the mainstream. Those years of marginalization, they say, meant many of Germany’s Muslims learned their faith by rote teaching at Quran schools, or from the hard-line musings over the Internet or in the courtyard mosques of immigrant neighborhoods in major cities like Hamburg or Berlin.

“I think it’s clear now that for years we made the mistake of alienating people,” said Nicola Beer, who as education minister in Hesse was one of several politicians, professors and teachers who pushed for the Islamic instruction. Now, she said, Germans recognize that “we are here together, we work together, and we educate our children together.”

In the broadest terms, the curriculum in Hesse attempts to counter the strident proselytizing of more hard-line strains of Islam. But while offering instruction in Islam is part of the equal treatment craved by many of Germany’s Muslims, it is also no straightforward task in legalistic and federal Germany.

Each of the 16 states determines its own education system and how noncompulsory religion, or ethics, instruction is offered. Islamic instruction in some form is available in all former West German states, though none of the eastern ones, where there are historically few Muslim immigrants. What makes Hesse special is that the state developed a university program and has taken charge of training teachers.

In other places, such as Berlin, instruction in Islam has already been offered for several years, but teachers have been provided by organizations like the Islamic Federation, a community group, which also helps to decide the curriculum.

Fazil Altin, 34, a lawyer who is president of the Islamic Federation, said Muslims and the city authorities in Berlin had wasted 20 years while they battled in court about whether Islam could be taught. Then, Mr. Altin said, the federation had to overcome suspicions about indoctrination — and all for 40 minutes’ instruction per week, which he called “pretty paltry.”

In his view, it will take more than formal state instruction in Islam to bridge the cultural gap between observant Muslims and a highly secular German society. “It is difficult to be a Muslim in Germany,” said Mr. Altin, who said he had been denied access to clients in jails because of his faith. “The fact is, we are seen as a danger.”

The Jens Nydahl school, in Berlin’s heavily Turkish and Arab Kreuzberg district, is a prime example of the challenge of integration.

During an open house intended to attract new parents, the only visitors — a native German man and his wife — got a heavy sell from the deputy principal, who assured them that if they could recruit four or five other parents, the school would never split up the resulting nucleus of German-speaking children.

Sabine Achour, a German lecturer and educator in Berlin who is married to a Moroccan lawyer, said that even German parents who live in multicultural districts like Kreuzberg draw the line at too many immigrants in their children’s schools.

Ms. Achour voiced doubts about Germans’ willingness to meet Muslims halfway. “Teachers here have a feeling that something doesn’t fit with Islam and democracy,” Ms. Achour said. Even where Islamic law, or Shariah, fits with German practices, it is not applied because, she said, “Shariah is seen as something very traditional and even contemptuous of human beings.”

It is not clear that other German states will shift toward the version of Islamic instruction pioneered by Hesse.

Mr. Kumlu, 31, the first-grade teacher, had to undergo 240 hours of extra schooling at Giessen University to be accepted as one of Hesse’s first 18 teachers of Islam.

He said he was motivated by his own ignorance about Islam when confronted with prejudice as he grew up. “I wanted to clear this up,” he said. His pupils now are third- to fifth-generation German, he noted, “and they should be on an equal basis with other religions.”