DORTMUND, Germany — It was the second week of Islam class, and the teacher, Mansur Seddiqzai, stood in front of a roomful of Muslim teens and pointed to the sentence on the chalkboard behind him: “Islam does not belong to Germany.”
He scanned the room and asked, “Who said this?”
Hands shot up. “The AfD?” one student with a navy blue headscarf said, referring to Germany’s far-right anti-refugee party. “No,” Seddiqzai shook his head. “Seehofer,” tried another. “Yes, and who is that?” “A minister,” said a third.
Finally, someone put it all together, identifying Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s interior minister and coalition partner, who has on multiple occasions threatened to torpedo her government over the issue of immigration.
“Yes, that’s right,” Seddiqzai said, turning to the others. “And what do you think? Is he correct?”
The article on teaching Islam to Muslims in German schools starts right off the bat by affixing labels to the AfD party: “far-right” and “anti-refugee.” The party is not “far-right” in any meaningful sense, unless of course being critical of Islam is enough to make a person or a party “far right.” Nor is the party “anti-refugee,” but rather, “anti-Muslim refugees.” There is a difference.
Then comes the remark made by Horst Seehofer, a Bavarian politician and a putative poster-child for intolerance. He is quoted as saying “Islam does not belong to Germany.” We are meant to be offended by this remark, not to stop and consider what Seehofer meant. The teacher, Mansur Seddiqzai, might have told his students that Seehofer had both a historical and an ideological justification for his remarks. First, Muslims were never part of Germany’s history until the 1960s, with the influx of Turkish gastarbeiter, male guest workers, who came to work in West Germany’s mines and factories, sent money home, and upon retirement most moved back to their families in Turkey. It is only in the last few decades that vast numbers of Muslim migrants, including families, have been allowed in to Germany, with the consequences we can all see. Second, ideologically Islam was never part of Germany’s religious, political, or intellectual history, but rightly regarded as an alien creed. Third, Seehofer may also have been thinking of how Muslims themselves are taught to regard non-Muslims — that is, with contempt and hostility — and further told to keep their distance from them, not to befriend them, for “they are friends only with each other.”
Mansur Seddiqzai could have asked his students whether Seehofer might have been thinking of the Qur’anic verse “Unbelievers are the most vile of created beings.” No doubt many of them have never read or heard that verse, but it could provide a starting point, provoke a real discussion, about what Islam teaches about Unbelievers and why Seehofer might have said what he said. That one verse could then lead to a wider discussion of what is written elsewhere in the Qur’an about non-Muslims, none of it friendly.
In a country where the debate over “who belongs?” has deeply divided Merkel’s government, fueled massive demonstrations and propelled the rise of anti-immigrant populism, these 16- and 17-year-olds confront versions of that question every day, in the headlines and in their personal lives: Do I belong, too? Can I be German and a Muslim?”
Public schools in some of Germany’s most populous cities are helping such students come up with answers in a counterintuitive setting: Islam class.
The classes, taught by Muslims and intended for Muslim students, were first launched in the early 2000s and now are offered as electives in nine of Germany’s 16 states, by more than 800 public primary and secondary schools, according to the research network Mediendienst Integration. They include lessons on the Koran, the history of Islam, comparative religion and ethics. Often, discussions shift to the students’ identity struggles or feelings of alienation.
These classes apparently include the ”history of Islam.” What might be included in such a history? The faith expanded inexorably through warfare and conquest, but it is doubtful that the Jihad, or rather the many Jihads conducted by Muslims for 1,400 years, will be examined in these classes, taught by a Muslim to Muslim students. Instead, I suspect that bland phrases will be used to hide a bloody reality. One can well imagine, for example, a sentence like this (lifted from a textbook): “Within the first century of its existence, Islam expanded throughout the Middle East and North Africa.” “Expanded” — yes, but how? There is likely to be no discussion of how Muslim conquerors ruthlessly subjugated many different lands and peoples, or of how they offered those they conquered exactly three choices: death, conversion to Islam, or permanent status as dhimmis, subject to many onerous conditions, including payment of the Jizyah, a tax that ensured freedom from attack by Muslims.