It may be just a symbolic gesture, but the German city-state of Hamburg has garnered widespread praise for signing an official agreement with its Muslim community that guarantees Islamic holidays, religion courses in schools and burial ritual rights.
The deal, which must still be approved by the city's parliament, is the first of its kind in Germany. It was agreed to by representatives of Hamburg's Muslim and Alevi communities, whose holidays will gain the same status as non-statutory Christian holidays. On these days, people who wish to observe the holiday have the right to either use a vacation day or make it up another time.
Aydan Özoguz, the deputy leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party and a federal parliamentarian from Hamburg, said that the agreement will have a concrete meaning in the everyday lives of Muslims and Alevi, a liberal branch of Islam which forms Turkey's largest religious minority. "There is a big difference between a Muslim worker having to say to his boss, 'I'm taking vacation,' and being able to be more direct and say, 'This is my religious holiday, and I would like to celebrate it, so I'll take it off and make up the work later'," she said.
The Hamburg agreement creates more openness and recognition not just in Hamburg, but across the country, where there has also been great interest in the initiative, Özoguz added. "I would be very happy if other states followed suit," she added.
Few Real Changes
Indeed, praise for the deal came from across the country, including the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. "The Hamburg initiative is a strong signal for both sides -- the state and Muslims -- in the political debate over whether Muslims belong to Germany," said the state's Integration Minister Bilkay Öney.
The spokesperson for the government of the city-state of Berlin, Richard Meng, said he was also pleased that Hamburg had "opened the way for more openness and tolerance," pointing out that the German capital had also already taken some similar measures, such as providing the right to taking Muslim holidays off for students and workers.
But the agreement is unlikely to change much in reality for the some 130,000 Muslims and Alevi living in Hamburg. Workers will still have to use their holiday time or make up work, while students have already been given important Muslim holidays off. Essentially, the deal is nothing more than a symbolic welcome and recognition of the will to achieve equal rights and recognition for Muslims and the Alevi. According to the Hamburg city government, it is a "gesture" to indicate that the city recognizes the religion.
Not the Same Rights
The biggest change will be to school religion courses. Until now, the Protestant church in Hamburg was responsible for non-denominational religion courses. But now the model will be further developed to include Muslims and Alevi in the coming five years.
Another aspect of the agreement that caused a stir among the opposition in the SPD-led state parliament is actually nothing new. Teachers are still permitted to wear headscarves, and any disputes will be decided on an individual basis. But currently there are no known cases of teachers who actually wear a headscarf to begin with.
Islamic groups also won't be granted anything close to the same rights as Christian churches in Germany, which are recognized as statutory corporations that receive a church tax levied on members by the state. Still, the fact that the city-state has officially reached out to the Turkish-Islamic Union (DITIB), the "Schura" association of Islamic communities in Hamburg and the association of Islamic cultural centers (VIKZ) is viewed as an important step.