Some students looked away when a teacher in Vienna showed them the Muhammad cartoons. They were allowed to. You didn’t have to look at the way the Prophet’s head is depicted as a bomb, he describes it. After these and other drawings were published in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” in 2005, Danish flags burned in the Islamic world, embassies and churches were attacked. The case is a prime example of how differently the Orient and Occident deal with freedom of expression.
The question of who looks at the caricatures and who doesn’t need to be a litmus test based on the motto “How do you feel about the free and democratic basic order?” The teacher says. It is not about confrontation, but about reflection. In the 11th grade history course, where he showed the caricatures, mostly “Muslim socialized” students are present. Some of them find it wrong to draw or show such caricatures. That doesn’t change the fact that everyone in the course condemned the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty last year near Paris.
The attack rekindled the debate about the limits of freedom of expression and artistic freedom in Germany and Austria. It is a variation on the smoldering argument about the influence of Islam and Islamism on society. This time it draws attention to a special place: the school.
When students in Europe remembered the murdered teacher in early November, it was soon heard that individual Muslim students boycotted the minute’s silence. News of an eleven-year-old boy who threatened a teacher in Berlin with violence and beheading made headlines in November.
Some people might just have waited for such news. A few days before the minute’s silence – it was the end of October – the domestic political spokesman for the German right-wing AfD parliamentary group picked up chalk and painted the alleged „Islamization of the Western schoolyard“ on a wall.
The MP said in the Bundestag: “A catastrophe is looming in German schools as well.” The „German Teachers’ Association“ speaks of a “climate of intimidation” by Muslim students and parents. Teachers complain about Muslim students who act as machos towards women. “What we don’t need here are headscarf teachers who mentally instruct the next generation of dangerous people.”
In fact, the President of the Teachers’ Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, said: “We are concerned that a climate of intimidation will develop in Germany as well.” The pressure on focus schools with a high proportion of students with a corresponding migration background is very high. Meidinger distances himself from the propaganda by the AfD. “If you were always thinking about who could misuse a statement, you couldn’t say anything anymore,” he said.
For Meidinger, it would be “a shortcut” to just look at who is radicalizing himself in the sense of turning to terrorism. It is about the question of which religion is so binding that this could lead to “inadmissibly exercising special rights and influencing other groups”.
Many teachers can tell of the fact that they have to ban advent calendars from the classroom or rename them, that they have to make sure that children from conservative Islamic families do not eat gummy bears because they are not halal, and that some students are not allowed to take part in swimming lessons because it is sin. Some teachers also experience more extreme situations. A crucial question is always, how they deal with it.
“We don’t hear anything by the slogan ‘Sharia Police’”, says a teacher from Vienna. “We don’t have any Islamists at school.” He does not deny that particularly conservative religious views can be an issue. He tells of a student who did not want to fast and who was pressured by others to keep Ramadan. A colleague then made clear that whether one fasts is a matter between oneself and God.
A secondary school teacher from the German Ruhr region, who does not want to read her name, speaks about her school in a different tone: “A Jew would never be happy with us, Christians have a hard time with us. “Anti-Semitism is a big problem. “For us it is extreme normal that we move into a religious parallel society,” says the teacher about her attitude towards life in everyday school life.
She speaks of a tenth grader who refused to talk about the burial culture of other religions and of a ninth grade student who cried when the lesson was about Paty’s murder. But she wept not for Paty, but for the offended prophet. The teacher does not speak well about mosque communities. “I notice very clearly when children go to mosque communities. They are somehow determined.”Often it is not so much about religiosity, but about belonging to a group. In the past, students in Germany have already radicalized themselves, some emigrated and between 2014 and 2016 went to the “holy war”.
Burak Yilmaz is someone who might give an insight from his daily work as a teacher. He is responsible for theater projects against anti-Semitism in schools. “We definitely have a part of the student body who has Islamist ideas,” he says. But the problem is manageable. “I notice again and again how the whole thing drifts towards generalizing Muslims.”
The debate suffers from the fact that there are no relevant studies on Islamist radicalization of children and young people. This is also confirmed by Rauf Ceylan. The sociologist teaches at the Institute for Islamic Theology at the University of Osnabrück. There are no numbers, only experience reports that he takes very seriously, he says. Studies are urgently needed. There is the phenomenon of Islamist radicalization, and it cannot be neglected, “but neither can one pretend that an avalanche of Islamism is breaking over society.” What is a provocative saying by an adolescent who presents himself as an Islamist without any knowledge? What are deep religious feelings that stir up? When does someone have a closed Islamist worldview?
The already mentioned secondary school teacher from the Ruhr area contacted a governmental hotline three years ago about a ninth grader. He told her at the time that it was right to chop off a thief’s hands as a punishment. That is how Sharia wants it. He later started demonstrating prayers in the school yard, and once during the five-minute break he went to a class of younger students and talked about Allah.
Via the hotline, the teacher was recommended to use the “Cross-Border Crossing Advisory Network” in North Rhine-Westphalia. A counselor spoke to the teachers and also to the student’s parents. The student lived with his mother, who originally comes from Turkey, and grew up separately from his father, who has Tunisian roots. When he was 14 years old, he sought to be close to his father. The counselor found his views very dangerous. He is said to have watched videos of Salafist Pierre Vogel with his son and said in a conversation at school about the assassination attempt on Berlin Breitscheidplatz, that these are peanuts compared to the countless dead in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
A long process began: for a year the counselor met the student week after week. It remains her secret how she managed to win his trust. She talked to him about his goals in life and learned Arabic with him, because she herself comes from Egypt. Over time, he distanced himself from his father. Now he even wanted to become a police officer. Before he left school, the counselor asked if he still insisted on Sharia law. No, he replied: That sucks.
The teacher from the Ruhr area is happy about the rescued student, for whom the influence of a fundamentalist mosque community probably played a role alongside the father. Wherever Islamist thoughts come from – from the Internet, from the kitchen table, from fundamentalist mosque communities – attacks regularly wash these views to the surface of classroom discussions.
In many classrooms, the minute’s silence sparked off fire. Teachers’ experiences can be very different even within the same school. It was the same with a teacher who teaches at a school in Cologne. He led the minute’s silence in ethics class in a seventh grade. A third of the 26 students are Muslim, he says. He suspects that three students have a conservative Islamic background.
He describes the situation in the class as follows: After the minute’s silence, a student said that this was already an insult to the prophet. The class community wouldn’t let him get away with it. A student with a headscarf countered: Who do you think would go to heaven? The teacher or the perpetrator? The student replied that murder was wrong – but so was showing the Mohammed cartoons.
He tried to pull the student over to his side: You are wearing a headscarf, aren’t you a Muslim? In this class, the critical youth was a single voice. In any case, according to the teacher’s perception, he is in a difficult position. The teacher asks himself whether he just wanted to provoke or if there was more to it than that. “The student is probably being taught a very conservative Islam and perceiving it as an offer of identity.”
The teacher had a different experience with a tenth grade a few days after the minute’s silence. Here, the criticism of Paty came not just from one student, but from the majority. The teacher had to explain why the minute’s silence was needed: “Because it is about a very central value of a democratic society, freedom of expression, and because it happened at a school.”
Then the reactions came, the teacher remembers: Yes, okay, if school is so important then why are there no minutes of silence after bomb attacks on students in Syria or for the victims of Hanau. In his view, the students hit a point. It is important to him that Samuel Paty is remembered. In this class, however, the memory would predictably lead to polarization.
Many felt “instinctively attacked, even if they are not religious, but they see themselves as Muslims from the point of view of themselves and others”. That is difficult. “You say something against Islamists and they feel attacked. They also didn’t know what the difference between Islam and Islamism was.” The teacher does not see any danger of Islamist tendencies in this. “In my experience, that’s an absolute minority.” But it could “pop up” when group cells were formed.
The conflicts over often conservative and sometimes fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, which lie in a broad field between a ban on gummy bears and misanthropic positions such as anti-Semitism or the contempt for homosexuals, are a reality. The extent of the phenomena is still unknown.
Sometimes seemingly alarming statements are quickly removed from the schoolyard world, and the specter of Islamization disappears as quickly as it came. During a break, a seventh grader came to see his teacher at a school in Vienna. According to his memory, the student asked almost casually: Do those who are not Muslims go to hell? The teacher explained to the student that people grow up differently and that all religions have their place. “The boy found that very plausible.” And then he went back to play football.