by Faruk Sen and Sinan Ozel

Girding For A Useless Fight

Essen, Germany 

A ruling by the highest court of Germany seems to have sparked a debate which may eventually harm the integration of the Muslim immigrant society in Germany.

The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled last month that a Muslim teacher cannot be forbidden from wearing a head scarf in a public school. The decision may have ended the legal battle involving an Afghan-born woman, Fereshta Ludin, who was not allowed to teach at a school in Stuttgart because she resisted taking her scarf off. The decision, however is only a partial victory for Ludin. The legal battle will continue but now in a different level.

The court said in the decision that there was no law prohibiting Ludin from wearing a scarf, and unless the states decide to pass such laws head scarves could be worn by teachers in public schools. In effect, the court has thrown the controversial issue back to the governments of the 16 states.

Within 24 hours of the ruling, six of the 16 German states officially declared that they would pass necessary laws to prohibit teachers from wearing the head scarf, as it represents an excessive intrusion by religion into publicly financed schools.

This is not a rational action, for two reasons:

First, such a hurry to pass a special "head scarf law" will not help the integration of the immigrants, but will alienate them. Germany is currently redesigning its laws to open itself more for immigration to provide the high-skill labor it needs for its economy.

The actions by the states do not serve this end. Successful integration can be achieved only when minority groups feel that they are seen as equal partners in the society. In this case, the victim will be the Muslim society of Germany which is already under pressure since the Sept. 11 attacks. Special laws designed against them will alienate them further from mainstream society.

Secondly, as research by my institute from 2001 shows, the head scarf is losing its relevance among the Muslims in Germany. The study was conducted among women from the Turkish community in Germany. The 2.6 million Turks form the largest group among the 3.5 million Muslims in Germany.

The women were asked how important was the head scarf. Only 27 percent demanded that head scarves be allowed in public schools. Women with higher education or from younger generations said they would accept a ban of head scarves in public spaces. For example only 20 percent of young students demanded the allowance of head scarves.

This means that the decision of the federal court will affect only a minority of Muslim women in Germany. It also shows that the issue of the head scarf is not as threatening as it is made out to be by the Christian Democrat intellectuals, as in the long term the head scarf will lose its relevance and the demand to wear it will decrease even further.

Although the Constitutional Court's decision is an important signal of what German society will demand from immigrants in the future, it only touches a side issue.

The neutrality and secularism of German schools is an example for the whole world. This neutrality should be preserved, as it is one of the most important conditions for a peaceful integration in the society of the immigrants. The wearing of head scarves in state schools would not help, but harm this neutrality.

There is no need, however, to rush to pass laws addressing only the Muslim population in Germany. A healthier approach would be to address all religious symbols in the society with one law. This would not only help maintain peace, but would also serve as an example for the countries of Eastern Europe as they prepare to join the EU and to meet their first immigrants. Faruk Sen is the director of the center for studies on Turkey at the University of Essen. Sinan Ozel is a research fellow at the center.