In a landmark case, Germany’s Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig will rule on Wednesday whether schools need to provide practicing Muslim pupils with a place and the opportunity to pray.
The case revolves around Yunus M., who was 14 years old when he was barred from observing midday prayers in the corridor of his school in Berlin. Although Muslims have been praying in German schools for decades, his case marks the first time German courts have had to rule on the issue.
“I think the case has been hyped from both sides. Now, we have almost reached the final legal stage and that’s why it’s now turned into a political debate,” said Aiman Mazyek, of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims. “In the past, schools have been more pragmatic and laid-back about the issue, but now that has been pushed back.”
Other experts on Islam, such as Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf at the University of Bonn, chime in with that view, arguing that schools have usually had a flexible approach to Muslim prayers, allowing midday and afternoon prayers to be combined, for example. “The majority of Muslim legal experts agree it’s possible to shorten or combine prayers because of illness, travel, or requirements at work,” she said.
Employers have had a practical approach to Muslim prayers since the 1960s. Depending on the company, Muslims are allowed to observe prayers if it does not interfere with their work.
German law stipulates that the state has to be neutral, meaning it cannot favor any religious faith or creed, as that would compromise freedom of religion. In practice, it means German schools must accommodate both the state’s neutrality and the individual’s religious freedom, which is something Muslim associations are trying to exploit, according to Ralph Ghadban of Berlin’s Protestant University of Applied Sciences. “It’s about the school, about the state and its duty to remain neutral. That’s where Muslim organizations step in,” he said. “In this case it’s a convert, and they’re often particularly extreme. They try to capitalize on that, to Islamize that area, so to speak.”
But since only a small minority of students belongs to Muslim organizations, the Muslim Council’s Mazyek believes Islamization is not an issue. “It’s not down to us, it’s down to those often harsh critics of Islam that issues to do with religious practice are artificially whipped up into problems,” he explained.
Update: See “No right to pray for Muslim pupil at German school”, BBC News, 30 November 2011
And “School allowed to ban Muslim pupil’s praying”, The Local, 30 November 2011