Religious Tradition or Political Symbol? Muslim Headscarves Test the Limits of German Tolerance

For years, Germany's legal experts have been arguing about whether Muslim public officials have the right to wear headscarves. The issue raises difficult questions about religious tolerance and constitutional rights in Germany.

Head scarves go before the court. What are the limits of modern German tolerance?

Head scarves go before the court. What are the limits of modern German tolerance?

"When you do something," Brigitte Weiss says, "you need to do it right."

It's a motto she knows from home. She remembers people saying it where she comes from, a coal-mining area in Germany's western Ruhr region. Later, as a grade school teacher in Mettmann, a small town near Düsseldorf, she tried to pass the homespun wisdom on to her students. Whether it was their homework in German, geography, home economics, or whatever else they were doing -- the main thing was to do it right.

"All of my students," Weiss says, "were happy to have me as their teacher."

Now this is no longer entirely the case. The reason is Brigitte Weiss's conversion to Islam. Now she has a new name, Maryam, and she dresses differently: She wears a headscarf.

The problem is that for nearly two years it has been against the rules for teachers in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to wear headscarves in public schools. So Weiss has received a letter from the schools administration asking to know why she wore hers.

Yes, why? "Because I'm a Muslim," she says.

But what does wearing the headscarf mean? Is it obedience to religion? Or submission to a man? Or is it a rebellion against the society shaped by Germany's post-war constitution?

Nonsense, says Maryam Brigitte Weiss. For her, wearing a headscarf is something "typically German, 100 percent German" -- just like herself. At home, at school, or as a Muslim, she applies the same rule -- no half measures. "Whenever I do something, I do it right, dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's."

The question of what the scarf on Maryam Brigitte's head signifies is now being examined by the courts. She lost her case before the administrative court in Düsseldorf, but the judges allowed an appeal because of the case's "fundamental importance." It's precisely because of this fundamental importance that Weiss, who is also women's affairs representative for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, has no intention to back down. She plans to fight this all the way to the nation's highest court.

Question of the Day

She's not the first Muslim woman to have this matter addressed in a court of law. Across Germany, judges in administrative courts and labor courts as well as constitutional experts are all struggling with the same question, one which would have been simple for the mothers and grandmothers of these legal experts to answer back in the 1960s: What is a headscarf?

The issue has become a major controversy ever since a 2003 decision handed down by Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. The judges ruled in favor of Fereshta Ludin, a teacher of Afghan origin, who was denied a job in the Baden-Württemberg school system because she wore a headscarf.

The judges were unable to agree on clear principles in their verdict. Whether all headscarves should be banned or only some, how to distinguish the bad ones from the good ones -- it all grew too complicated for the judges. When is wearing a headscarf an expression of religious freedom? Can a teacher who wears a headscarf have a bad influence on her students? Or even on a free and democratic society?

Those weren't questions for a court, the judges ruled; it was a matter for parliament. Since legislation on schools falls under the jurisdiction of individual states, the headscarf issue has landed on the agendas of Germany's 16 state parliaments.

So what is a headscarf? Some states, like Rhineland-Palatinate, preferred to stay out of the controversy and didn't pass any headscarf laws. Others, like Schleswig-Holstein, wanted to leave nothing open to interpretation and attempted a radical ban on all religious symbols from schools. This brought in complaints from churches, which worried about the right of a Christian teacher, say, to wear a crucifix. These states also wound up doing nothing.

To avoid these angry reactions, Germany's more pious states (like North Rhine-Westphalia) formulated laws in a way that did not apply to symbols of "Christian and Occidental culture" but did apply to headscarves.

Needless to say, these laws provoked anger, too. Legal complaints are piling up, and not just in North Rhine-Westphalia. A judicial zinger was handed down by an administrative court in Stuttgart in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Doris Graber, a teacher in Bad Cannstatt, won permission to wear a headscarf. The judges refused to follow the state's pious law, arguing that regulations that treat Christian symbols as good, but Muslim symbols as the devil's work, were unacceptable under the German constitution. The case was referred to a higher court in Mannheim, which quicky overturned the brash decision of the court in Stuttgart.

None of these cases has yet landed in front of the nation's highest court in Karlsruhe. But German experts agree that one of these plaintiffs -- whether it's Brigitte Weiss or Doris Graber -- will wind up there eventually. The legal system in the Christian West is hermetically closed, something that members of the legal profession are proud of. "One wonders," Aiman Mazyek, secretary general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, reflects self-critically, "whether we really needed to go to court over the headscarf issue."

Defining a Symbol

But so far no one has answered the fundamental question: What does a headscarf mean? It's not a legal question. The controversial piece of clothing has provoked a culture clash in Germany. It has become a fetish. The Christian majority has come to see it as an irritating religious symbol. The Muslim minority -- which numbers in the millions -- has come to see it as a symbol of emancipation and self-confidence. For both sides, the headscarf has become a test of conflicting guarantees of freedom -- in a constitutional society where they want to live together.

Member of parliament Ekin Deligöz received death threats after speaking out against headscarves.

Member of parliament Ekin Deligöz received death threats after speaking out against headscarves.

So what is a headscarf? The question isn't a trivial one. Ekin Deligöz, 36, a woman of Turkish origin and a member of the German parliament for the Green Party, received death threats after announcing that it might be better for Muslim women in Germany not to wear headscarves. She had to be placed under police protection. "The headscarf is a political symbol," Deligöz said. But her particular faith, the Alevi branch of Islam, does not require women to wear headscarves.

So maybe a headscarf is a symbol of intolerance. Critics who see it that way charge Islamists with belligerence and arrogance in their claim to an exclusive religious truth. The European Court of Human Rights rejected a discrimination suit brought by a Swiss Muslim woman on the grounds that a headscarf "is very difficult to equate with a message of tolerance, equality, and nondiscrimination."

Necla Kelek is a sociologist of Turkish descent and a participant in the so-called Islam Conference organized in recent years by German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. She sees the headscarf debate initiated by German Muslims as part of a "religiously motivated political offensive being waged under the veil of religious freedom."

Islam, according to Kelek, is conducting a cultural war in pursuit of "a different set of political and social ideals." She noted that the culture of Islam is "not tolerant itself, but takes advantage of the tolerance available to it through our legal system in order to grow."


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