Bodies are a big business. Susie Orbach

No Skanks Allowed

For years, a Muslim student fought for his private prayer room – all the way to the German Constitutional Court. The case shows: The debate is not about private prayer but about the greatest visible dominance of Islam.

“Christian pigs” is a favorite nickname of adolescent Muslims for their German neighbors and fellow students. The devaluation of, and distancing from, Christians is part of the standard repertoire of the worldview of Muslim youth. It is a worldview that is usually inherited from parents and/or Islamic traditions. Those role models are not especially squeamish in their descriptions of non-Muslims. That’s old news.

The dispute that now culminated in a ruling from the German Constitutional Court (which did not grant the Muslim the right to a prayer room in school, out of consideration for others in a multi-faith environment) kept multiple levels of the German judiciary on their toes for years. One court would affirm the right to a prayer room, another court would deny it. Now a final verdict has been reached.

The German Muslim Council has lamented the limits this verdict places on the exercise of one’s freedom of religion. It argues that the state must not balance something as fundamental as the freedom of religion against the rather trivial commitment to a peaceful learning environment. Well, Muslims are wrong in this regard. When prayer inhibits peaceful coexistence, when religion does not foster the formation of community, it does not have a place in schools. Others argue that religion should generally be banned from schools. The Constitutional Court disagrees: The verdict is particular to this case. Circumstances matter.

Yet the school environment was not disturbed by prayer as such. The problems arose from the conditions that Islamic prayer imposes on the environment. Celebrated in the hallways or the courtyard, it serves to culturally differentiate Islam from other religions. That attitude has long been cultivated in Islamic circles – it is not something that adolescent Rambos just dream up. We often read that Islamic prayer does not respect other faiths, and that it is not predicated on the idea of loving thy neighbor (as we can expect from faithful Christians). Instead, praying Muslims insult all those who do not believe in their One God and their idea of religious celebration as “skanks”, “Jews” or “Christian pigs”.

What is the content of their prayers? There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet. By contrast, what is the content of Christian prayers? Forgive each other, let there be food for each of us. And even if we abandon those simplified characterizations, I believe that a big difference exists between Christian and Muslim prayer. The former aims at fostering the construction of community. The latter wants to separate itself and overcome a community it regards as inferior. The former is acceptable, the latter is not. Indeed, the former is acceptable for all religions, regardless whether they are Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism. It would be misguided to see community and empathy as the sole properties of Christian belief. But since Christians constitute the majority in Germany and have a disproportionate influence on our cultural traditions, we can expect them to embrace their importance as role models.

For the Muslim Council, freedom of religion seems to be defined as follows: We can do everything as long as we justify it with reference to religion. And the rest of you simply have to accept it! Let’s pursue that argument to its logical conclusion: We would have to accept religiously inspired disorder and violence, since the freedom of religion apparently towers above other fundamental rights. That is the argument the Muslim Council wanted to see affirmed. It did not pan out that way, for good reason. An ideology of superiority has no place in public schools, even when it comes veiled as religious belief.

Some say: “Christians can be intolerant as well.” Others respond: “Your arguments distort the teachings of the Quran.” Two true statements. But neither aspect is contested in the present debate. Neither Christians nor Muslims must necessarily and urgently pray at a certain hour in a highly visible way. Muslims are allowed to make up for prayers they missed, and they need not turn their prayer into a public spectacle for floor-kissing devotion.

This case, quite simply, was not about praying. Anyone who says otherwise has clearly missed the memo.

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