As previously mentioned in the introduction, the approach to teaching religion in German public schools is very different from the American experience. Yet the core challenges facing German educators, scholars, and public officials are fundamentally the same as in the United States. These challenges include how to better take into account the growing diversity of the population, how to better integrate minorities—especially Muslims—and how to prevent conflicts and religious fundamentalism. In other words, how to adapt the traditional model of religious education to the complex realities of a multi-faith democracy in a globalized world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Religious education in Germany has a special constitutional status, because Article 7-3 of the Basic Law requires Länder to provide courses on religion in public schools as a “regular part of the curriculum” in accordance with the relevant religious communities.30 Even more remarkable is the fact that religious education is the only school subject that is explicitly mandated by the Federal Constitution. Today, every Land offers religious education in its public schools, although they do not all have the same approach to the topic. Most schools provide a choice of either Protestant or Catholic denominational, confessional education. Students who do not wish to participate in these courses—or parents who object to them—may opt out, but they then have to take an alternative ethics course, sometimes called “Values and Norm”—Lower Saxony—or “Practical Philosophy”—North-Rhein Westphalia.
A few exceptions to this mandatory religious education are allowed by the so-called “Bremen Clause” of the Basic Law. The Clause provides that regulations requiring compulsory confessional religious education must not apply to those Länder where “another state law regulation was in existence on January 1, 1949.” Although most east German Länder—where religion had been completely excluded from public schools under the communist regime—made religious education mandatory after the Reunification in 1990, this is not the case in Berlin. There, confessional religious education is only provided as an optional, extracurricular course, but students have to take a class called LER—Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religionskunde—in which they study ethics and comparative religions.
How, and to what extent, does the diversification and politicization of religion influence and transform this approach to religious education in Germany? It can be argued that there are two parallel trends today. On the one hand, there have been attempts to include non-Christian religions—particularly Islam—but without changing the traditional model of religious education, for example, by introducing confessional Islamic education alongside the already existing Protestant and Catholic courses. The other trend, the other method gives up the confessional, sectarian system of religious education entirely in order to replace it with a more inclusive and interfaith approach to teaching religion.
I. The Difficult Integration of Islam into a Structurally Unequal, Christian-Dominated System of Religious Education
If reunification had initially raised questions for the future of religious education in Germany, the most important challenges today, however, are those triggered by Islam. Since the 1970s and 1980s, Muslim organizations have repeatedly asked for equal treatmentaccording to Article 7-3 of the Basic Law, so they can provide Islamic education in public schools alongside Catholics and Protestants. This is of course an issue of right—being granted the same opportunities as members of other religious groups—but it is also, more generally, an issue of inclusion and recognition. The institutionalization of Islamic education in public schools would signal that Muslims, whose number is constantly increasing—they are now about 6% of the population31—are officially acknowledged as an important part of contemporary German society, not simply perceived as foreigners or migrants, bound to eventually go back to their respective countries. In 1984, the Education Ministers of the various Länder—Kultusministerkonferenz—agreed that, given the growing number of immigrants in Germany, Islamic education needed to be included in public schools.32 But, despite the growing assertiveness, organization, and mobilization of Muslims, the inclusion of Islamic education into German public schools has been a very slow process until today. The case of Islam thus testifies to the deep inequalities at the heart of the German system of religious education, which is structurally biased towards Christian churches.
Accordingly, if the Basic Law of 1949 provides for freedom of faith and conscience and prohibits the establishment of an official church in Germany. But the state is, in practice, not completely neutral towards religion as a special partnership exists between the government and Christian churches via the legal status of Public Law Corporation—Körperschaftsstatus (PLC)—that is granted to some religious groups. The PLC status was first established by the Weimar Constitution, adopted in 1919, and Article 137 states that:
Religious associations have the right to incorporate according to the general provisions of the civil code. Religious associations shall, to the extent that they were formerly, remain public corporations. The same rights may be accorded to other religious associations if, by their constitution and the number of their members, they give assurance of permanence …. Religious associations which are public corporations are entitled to levy taxes on the basis of the civil tax lists in accordance with provisions of the laws of the states.33
Accordingly, therefore, a religious community that is a PLC can indirectly collect taxes through the state, but also appoint prison, hospital, and military chaplains. Furthermore, the status of PLC gives access to public funding for hospitals or religious schools. Being a PLC, however, is particularly crucial when it comes to religious education, as only legally recognized groups can offer instruction in public schools, participate in accredited teacher training programs in public faculties of theology, and have the salaries of teachers paid by the state. This close relationship between the state and religious communities has been characterized as a “positive accommodation model of democratic secularism” by political scientist Alfred Stepan. He further describes this arrangement as a “historically constructed and negotiated, often consociational, bargain” between Christian churches and public authorities.34
In that context, therefore, it is not surprising that this PLC status has precisely been the main legal and institutional obstacle for minorities willing to cooperate with the state and to teach their religion in German public schools. According to the Basic Law, the decision to grant the PLC status is made at the local level, by the Länder, which base their assessment on a number of specific criteria, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. These criteria, which fit the history and organizational model of the Catholic and Protestant churches,35 have proved very problematic for minorities, especially for Muslims who are not as institutionalized as Christian groups, do not have a central authority, and are often divided into several branches. As Stepan sums it up:
New immigrants, such as Muslims, in principle, could be included in such accommodation, but much of the positive accommodation has historically been developed by the European states’ tradition of treating religions as hierarchical legal bodies that qualify as public corporations that can enter into legal agreements with state authorities …. [F]rom the German state’s perspective Muslims do not yet qualify as a public corporation for reasons mainly of their internal diversity which makes them difficult to fit into long-standing German law.36
Some Alevite groups did manage to obtain PLC status, but until the turn of the twenty-first century, requests made by most Muslim communities had been almost systematically rejected, thus de facto restricting their rights and influence within German society and, more particularly, in the sphere of public education. This situation has slowly begun to evolve over the past few years. The rise of a global and political Islam; 9/11 and other terrorist attacks perpetrated by extremist Muslim groups; the fact that hundreds of young Germans chose to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq; and the arrival of close to one million refugees from the Middle East in Germany since 2015. These developments have made German public authorities aware that it was in their best interest to develop a close partnership with Muslim communities and, more particularly, to foster Islamic education courses in public schools in order to better monitor, and even influence, what is being taught to young German Muslims.
As theologian Rolf Schieder explains it, religious education in Germany carries an intrinsic civic mission. The state has historically used Christian religious education as a means to foster a civil religion—to fight religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and separatism, and to turn young believers into respectful, open-minded, and pluralist citizens.37 How, according to Schieder, is that “civilizing” of religion made possible, despite the constitutional requirement for state neutrality towards religious groups? This is done in an implicit manner by controlling the training of religious education teachers. They study for many years at departments of theology of public universities that are largely independent from churches where they critically learn about their own religion, are taught to interpret the texts by themselves, to develop their own opinion, and to not blindly follow the teachings of a higher authority. As Schieder puts it, religious education teachers:
who received their training at theological faculties are exposed to a plurality of theologies … and to a plurality of spiritual behavior. This forces them to realize that their own way of believing is just one among many …. They are able to respect and embrace different perspectives and positions even when it comes to matters of faith and belief.38
As a result, religious education in public schools is different from what children learn with their family or at their place of worship. Historian Jean-Paul Willaime similarly explains that public schools, because of their very nature and specific requirements, almost automatically “include [the] religious facts [they teach] in the citizenship of pluralist democracies,” and thus help to “objectivize” and civilize religious identities.39 Religious education courses in public schools show students that their beliefs can be an object of scrutiny and examination, and thus “contribute to the epistemic ability to consider one’s own faith reflexively.”40
Accordingly, as Schieder also argues, it is in the best interest of the German state today to provide a space for Islam in public schools. In that way—and as it is already the case with Catholic and Protestant religious education—the state could better control the content of courses and the training of teachers, prevent fundamentalism and foreign influences, and promote liberal, democratic values among Muslim children. Therefore, a greater institutional recognition of Islam in Germany, and the inclusion of Muslim communities within the positive accommodation framework of religion-state relations—notably through the expansion of Islamic education in schools—is no longer the particularistic, undue demand of a foreign minority but has become, in the eyes of many, a crucial political and civic necessity. In 2008, for example, Wolfgang Schäuble—then-Minister for the Interior—officially acknowledged that an Islamic religious instruction, consistent with Article 7-3 of the Basic Law, should be introduced in public schools across the country.41 Over the past decade, a growing number of Muslim groups have been effectively granted the status of Public Law Corporation, thus enabling them to provide Islamic religious education. As a result, the number of Islamic religion classes has significantly increased all over Germany. Länder with existing programs of Islamic education—such as Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, North-Rhein Westphalia, Lower-Saxony, Berlin, and Hessen—have recently announced plans to expand Islamic religion courses to additional grade levels and schools. Many of those Länder directly cooperate with local Muslim communities to develop their course offerings and to draft the curricula.
Yet, the institutionalization of Islamic religious education in German public schools is bound to be a long-term process, notably for practical reasons: There is a need for more faculties of Islamic theology to properly train the growing number of school teachers, and these faculties in turn need to hire scholars of Islamic theology, of which they are currently very few in Germany. In 2010, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research—Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung—decided to support the establishment of centers for Islamic Theological Studies at several universities by creating professorships and junior research groups, for example. According to the official guidelines, these centers are intended to become “internationally recognized places of Islamic theological research that educate and promote scholars of Islamic Theology to be later employed at schools and universities.”42 The centers will be funded by the Federal government and the Länder. Currently, Islamic theological studies exist at the Universities of Tübingen, Frankfurt-Giessen, Münster-Osnabrück, and Erlangen-Nürnberg. In 2018, Humboldt University in Berlin announced the establishment of the Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology—“BIT.”to officially open in the Winter semester of 2019/2020. The BIT will be responsible for training imams, theologians, and religious education teachers. It was developed in collaboration with scholars and members of the Berlin Senate, as well as with the largest Muslim associations in the city. In that respect, the University purposely sought to have different Muslim sensibilities represented within the BIT´s Advisory Board so as to maintain a position of neutrality and, more generally, as a way to fulfill the mission of the Institute: To “emphasize a theology of diversity” and “in particular [to] give due consideration to Sunni and Shia teachings in comparison.”43 Yet, the decision to invite a representative of the Islamic Association of Shiite Communities of Germany to be part of the Advisory Board, although the organization is allegedly close to groups monitored by the German intelligence services, was decried by liberal Muslim figures, as well as by CDU and Green politicians, who argued that the presence of a “conservative” organization within the Board contradicts what should be one of the main goals of the BIT: To counter and prevent religious extremism.44
II. Towards an “Integrative,” Interdenominational Religious Education in German Public Schools?
Beyond the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction, other initiatives have emerged in recent years in order to adapt Germany’s system of religious education to an increasingly diverse society. Some have suggested replicating what has been done in Canada and other European countries: Abandoning the confessional, sectarian, and Christian-dominated model of religious education in favor of what Wanda Alberts has called an “integrative” approach to teaching religion.45 In that case, religious education courses would still be mandatory and part of the regular school curriculum, but it would be interfaith, taught mainly in an academic perspective, and thus inclusive of all students, who would not be separated along religious lines anymore. Today, this trend remains marginal in Germany, although there have been a few experiments with integrative religious education. Since the 1990s, for example, the Land of Hamburg has provided a course called “Interreligious Religious Education” or “Religious Education for All,” instead of the traditional Protestant and Catholic classes. The goal of this course, which was initiated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is to foster dialogue about differences and diversity among students. The decision to replace the sectarian classes with a more inclusive, interfaith education was made because of the very diverse religious landscape of the Land of Hamburg, which houses a significant migrant population, and where more people identify as religiously unaffiliated than as Protestants. In Hamburg, non-Christian religious groups—Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists—directly contribute to the religious education curriculum, teaching materials, and training programs for teachers.
Is it possible to assert, however, that this type of interfaith course will become the norm in Germany, and that the country will at some point definitely move away from a denominational approach to religious education, towards an integrative model? This is unlikely to happen in the short to medium term, as the influence of Christian churches remains too strong. It is not surprising, in that respect, that both the Catholic and the Protestant leaderships in Germany have supported the inclusion of Islamic education in public schools: It allows them to deflect the debates over whether to give up the entire confessional, sectarian system of religious education in favor of an academic and comparative “religious culture education” for all, based on a phenomenological approach to the study of religion.46 Arguably, this latter model—successfully adopted in Québec, England, and Scandinavia, for instance—would certainly make it easier to integrate minorities and would be better suited to a pluralistic, secular democracy, where the number of non-Christians, unaffiliated citizens, and non-believers keeps increasing. But it is also a model of religious education that does not give much space or power to religious communities. In that sense, the expansion of confessional Islamic education in Germany is what paradoxically contributes today to the preservation of influence of Christian churches in public schools across the country, as well as, to their special and historical relationship with the state.