End of Germany's culture war?
The last defensive battle has been fought, the rearguard action lost. The state of Berlin is not allowed to impose a blanket ban on its female teachers wearing headscarves. The Federal Labour Court in Erfurt had already ruled against the state of Berlin two and a half years ago. However, the then Senator for Education, Sandra Scheeres (SPD), refused to accept the ruling and, supported by lawyer Seyran Ates, filed an appeal with Germany's Federal Constitutional Court.
This appeal has now been rejected. It marks the end of Berlin going its own way, and also the end of a tough and bitterly fought cultural struggle that, after 25 years, has come to an end without much ado.
Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, the German-Afghan teacher Fereshta Ludin was not accepted into the teaching profession in Baden-Württemberg because she wanted to wear a headscarf for religious reasons. 1998 was the beginning of what was to go down in German history as the "headscarf controversy".
At the time, the right-wing populist Republican party was still represented in the state parliament in Stuttgart and exerted appropriate pressure, and the former CDU Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, was emphatically tough: the headscarf was a "symbol of Islamism" and the "oppression of women" and had no place in school staffrooms.
Germany's Basic Law guarantees freedom of religion
Such strident tones were to characterise the debate for almost two decades. In most cases, it was about more than just the headscarf: conspiracy fantasies of an alleged creeping "Islamisation" of Germany resonated with many critics of Islam.
With its first headscarf ruling in 2003, the Federal Constitutional Court generated considerable confusion. Many federal states understood it as a call to introduce legal headscarf bans for female teachers. The state of Berlin went even further and prohibited all teachers at public schools from wearing any religious symbols at all while on duty – regardless of whether it was a headscarf, a kippa or a crucifix pendant.
It would be twelve years before the judges in Karlsruhe clearly stated that a blanket ban on headscarves was not compatible with the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Basic Law. Only if the peace of a school was threatened could it be banned in individual cases. Since then, Muslim teachers wearing headscarves have been teaching at state schools in several federal states.
Harmony within schools has seen little disturbance – except by intolerant parents or colleagues who have a problem with headscarf wearers. The horror scenarios have not come true, the moral panic was unfounded.
Of course, teachers are not allowed to proselytise. But this does not apply solely to Muslim teachers and has, in fact, always been the case. So far, it remains unclear whether any pupils have spontaneously converted to Islam on seeing a headscarf.
On the contrary, when even female teachers wear a headscarf, it is no longer really seen a symbol, as a means of demarcation from the majority society, or even the adult world. Through its normality, the headscarf has become depoliticised.
Almost all federal states now allow female teachers to wear a headscarf if they want to. Only Berlin held out to the very end. Germany's capital city even preferred to pay compensation to teachers who felt discriminated against rather than abolish its questionable "neutrality law".
The name is cleverly chosen, but misleading: it turns the meaning of state neutrality into its opposite. A truly religiously neutral state does not curtail the religious freedom of its teachers and does not impose dress codes on them. The German Federal Constitutional Court has made this clear.
Berlin's own particular path
Berlin's own particular path was influenced by Prussian state Protestantism, which always eyed visible signs of religiosity with suspicion. During the German Empire, this was directed against Catholics; in the Berlin Republic, against Muslims. It is not without a certain irony that – apart from the AfD – only the party with a "C" (for "Christian") in its name ultimately wanted to uphold the Berlin law, which breathed the spirit of authoritarian French secularism.
When religious symbols are "ostentatiously displayed in state institutions", it endangers "peace and cohesion", Berlin Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Cornelia Seibeld commented on the decision from Karlsruhe. Of course, the church policy spokesperson for the CDU parliamentary group in the Berlin House of Representatives was referring neither to Christmas trees nor Easter decorations, but to the headscarf worn by female teachers.
Having surprisingly won the election re-run in February 2023, the CDU is now part of the government in Berlin. Even before the new senate was formed, the Berlin Senate Education Department wrote in a letter to all head teachers that the state of Berlin now accepts in principle that Muslim teachers may wear headscarves in class.
A ban should only be imposed in exceptional, justified cases. It is not to be expected that the new education senator Katharina Gunther-Wunsch (CDU) will depart from this position, with which Berlin has now fallen into line with the practice in other federal states.
The fact that the German courts have repeatedly insisted on religious freedom for all shows on the one hand that the rule of law works. However, it took them a long time to do so, which does not reflect well on the politicians. They could arguably have acted on their own initiative to ensure clarity. Instead, state governments, especially those with Christian Democratic leanings, preferred to push populist laws that discriminated against Muslim teachers in the name of an allegedly Christian dominant culture or "Leitkultur".
Even in liberal Berlin, the SPD, the Left and the Greens did not dare to abolish the controversial headscarf ban on their own initiative, preferring to wait for a ruling from Karlsruhe. For those who wonder why some Muslims keep their distance from German politics, there's the likely answer.
The battle over the headscarf has now shifted from education to other areas. Some federal states have introduced new laws in recent years prohibiting female judges, prosecutors and even trainee lawyers from wearing a headscarf in the courtroom.
The headscarf remains an irritant. Today, however, it is no longer the only issue that provokes overreactions. The fight against "wokeness", "cancel culture" and other presumed excesses of an allegedly exuberant identity policy has meanwhile replaced the headscarf as the number one issue to be feared.
© Qantara.de 2023