The German Approach to Religious Tolerance

An Imam holds Friday prayers at the Central Mosque of Hamburg, Germany.
Photo: Reuters

The German city of Hamburg, one of 16 German states, entered into an agreement that might prove to be an effective way to deal with the rising number of Muslim citizens in Europe.

The agreement, which came after five years of negotiation, is based on a balance between rights and duties. It allows Muslim workers and students to celebrate their own holidays. For the administration of Hamburg, it is simply a matter of equality between its citizens and follows agreements signed with the Catholic and Protestant communities (2005) and the Jewish community (2007). The Islamic community has repeatedly asked for a right to celebrate its own holidays, since, like in France, many of the celebrated holidays are Christian ones.

The new agreement will come with compensations. For workers, it will mean supplementary hours of work, or the holiday will simply become a regular day off. Students will be authorized to skip class on those days.

Religion classes in public schools will also include lessons about Islam, which will be taken by students of different religions. A pluralist education regarding religions is one of the traditions of the German curriculum. The question of the veil still remains unanswered, however.

The agreement requires the acceptance of several fundamental principles, the main one being religious tolerance and equality between men and women. This acceptance is seen as a duty to be fulfilled by all.

However, religious issues are not an easy topic in Germany and several parallels can be drawn with the similar situation in France. In France, the debate regarding specific holidays for Jews or Muslims is a recurring issue, which never leads to clear actions and is a divisive issue in the country. Hamburg’s example is still an exception.

Commenting on the subject, Daniel Abdin, a member of the council of Islamic communities in Hamburg said he hoped “that the introduction of Muslim religion classes in the northern city-state will be a signal for the other fifteen German states”.

Nevertheless, a few months ago, Volker Kauder, a political friend of Angela Merkel, asserted that Islam was not compatible with German traditions and identity. It may ring a bell for the French who heard some of their political leaders assert that France had Judeo-Christian roots and that Muslims had to accept them, rather than demanding to see their religious traditions accepted.

In the German city of Cologne, the local court banned circumcision, sparking discontent among the Muslim and Jewish communities, a situation very similar to the various “anti-burqa” laws in France.

The Hamburg case may be a good example for all the western communities and the countries that are faced with religious tension. It is a third solution, moving beyond the opposition between a naïve secularism that ignores religion, and the xenophobic reaction that focuses on it too heavily.

Denying the fact that their communities are no longer made up of people who share the same religion is the worst mistake. It is true that communities need to be built on common ground, but that ground does not necessarily need to be a religious one. Human rights, tolerance, and equality between men and women might be a better start.

In Hamburg, there are 150,000 Muslim citizens. One of the members of this community said that, “Muslims consider Hamburg their home”. Those communities clearly do not want to be alienated where they live and one can be sure that the Muslims of Hamburg feel at home there now more than ever. Being recognized as a member of a community is the first step to accepting its laws and traditions.

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