Lessons of Islam in German Classrooms

You could call it Exhibit A. It's a drawing in a text used to teach Islam to Muslim students at German elementary schools, and it shows a family at a table, a father, two children, and a mother, with plates of food in front of everybody - except the mother, who wears a head scarf.

"The mother is shown like a servant," said Marion Berning, the principal of the Rixdorfer Grundschule, a large elementary school in Neukölln, a largely immigrant neighborhood of Berlin. "This is a big problem for the girls."

Ms. Berning has become something of a figure in Berlin lately for the complaints she has been raising about the way a German Muslim group, the Islamic Federation, has been teaching about Islam in the local public schools. Her complaints, moreover, are echoed by some people in the Berlin educational establishment, who believe that, under the cover of giving court-mandated religious instruction to Muslim children, a sort of fundamentalist or, at least, separatist philosophy is being imparted to children inside the very schools that should be teaching equality and the essential sameness of all people.

Representatives of the Islamic Federation, which is believed to have about 30,000 members in Germany, vehemently deny that accusation, saying that the difficulty they confront in trying to carry out a program already being carried out by other religious groups is a bias against Islam, not an accurate description of what takes place inside any classrooms.

"Whatever we do, the way the schools look at this, we're going to disagree," Burhan Kesici, the chairman of the board of governors of the Islamic Federation and the person in charge of the Islamic education program, said in an interview. Mr. Kesici, a German born, German educated political scientist whose parents came to Germany as "guest workers" several decades ago, recounted a long list of incidents showing what he regards as this bias. In one case, he recalled, a school principal actually washed his hands after shaking hands with Mr. Kesici.

In many ways the argument about religious instruction seems to bring together several currents in Germany today, not least the uncertainty palpable in a country fully realizing for the first time that the Muslim population that exists here is both large and permanent. There are 2,300 mosques across this country. In the school where Ms. Berning is principal, some 74 percent of the children are foreign born or have parents who were, and a vast majority of them are Turkish Muslims.

Berlin, which is both Germany's capital city and a state, has a special situation in this regard. Unlike the practice in other German states, where classes in religion are part of the regular school curriculum, in Berlin, parents decide whether they want their children to have religious instruction or not, and outside groups, in the past almost entirely Protestant or Catholic, have the right to teach their religions inside the public schools.

For many years, the Berlin government tried to keep the Islamic Federation, which it plainly did not and does not like, out of its schools. But the federation went to court, and then went back to court again, and after 20 years of trying, it finally won a ruling identifying it as a "religious community" with the right to do the same thing that the other religions were doing. It now holds classes in 28 schools in Berlin, and plans to expand to 15 more schools next year.

So what's the difference between the Muslims and other religious groups, whose presence causes no alarm? Ms. Berning and those who share her view note several things - most important, perhaps, that the Islamic Federation does not allow outsiders like Ms. Berning to attend their classes, so the impression is given that something secret is taking place in them.

But beyond the specific worries is the more general feeling that the Islamic Federation's version of Islam is a very conservative one, possibly fundamentalist, and therefore at odds with German values.

"I do not believe that they are teaching their pupils to make bombs," Klaus Böger, the senior education official in the Berlin City government, said of the federation, "but I think they are rejecting our society and are teaching an intolerant form of Islam."

Ms. Berning says that some Muslim girls, under the influence of their outsider Muslim teachers, have stopped taking gym and swimming classes, and that a few of them have started wearing head scarves. The broader notion that worries her, as she summarized it, is that "there are two kinds of people" - Muslims and non-Muslims, with the implicit suggestion that Muslims are better.

Mr. Kesici's rejoinder is that, in fact, very few girls have stopped gym classes or wear head scarves in school and that there is no evidence that more of them do those things in schools where his group teaches than in schools where they do not. His teachers, he said, do not talk about head scarves or swimming lessons, since parents are going to decide those issues themselves.

As for the two kinds of people, the idea taught, he said, is that "in Islam, we have obligations to our Muslim brothers and sisters, but we should not forget that we are all human beings and we are all created by God and we have to find a way that we can all live peacefully."

But just last week, the credibility of explanations like Mr. Kesici's was shaken when an advisory board in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced the conclusions of a study of textbooks used in a private Islamic school in Bonn. According to German television, which reported on the board's conclusions, Muslim children are taught that "the Muslim people's existence has been threatened by Jews and Christians since the Crusades, and it is the first duty of every Muslim to prepare to fight against these enemies."

There is no evidence that such ideas are being taught by the Islamic Federation in Berlin, but that has not lessened the widespread suspicion that something wrong takes place in the Muslim classes.

"It is a political organization; it represents political Islam," a Turkish born member of the local state assembly, Ozcan Mutlu, said of the Islamic Federation, explaining why he opposes the group's presence in the schools.

"I feel they do a good job in many ways, like teaching Muslim women to read and setting up programs to help children with their homework," Mr. Mutlu said. "But they also say: 'We don't belong to this society. We are different.' "