The Muslim Holiday Debate: Germany Mulls Meaning of Religious Freedom

A recent controversy in Germany over whether Muslim holidays should be recognized by the state highlights a complex debate across Europe over cultural and religious integration. Yermi Brenner reports on the reactions of Muslims and local authorities in Germany.

Written by Yermi Brenner Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Three Muslim women at the Sehitlik Mosque in the Neukoelln district on the Open Mosques Day on October 3, 2017. Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

BERLIN – On religious holidays, Sadiqu al-Mousllie, a devout Muslim who has been living in Germany for most of his life, closes his dental clinic and takes his children out of school so they can attend mosque together.

The father of five children, al-Mousllie said some of their teachers are considerate of Muslim students and avoid teaching important lessons during Islamic holidays, but others are not. While al-Mousllie is self-employed, other German Muslims have to sacrifice paid vacation days to mark Islamic holidays, he said.

Al-Mousllie was born in Syria and came to Germany as a student 28 years ago. He lives in the city of Braunschweig and is chairman of the Lower Saxony branch of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims. The organization has been calling for legal recognition of Islamic holidays in Germany. Its leader, Aiman Mazyek, said such a step would be “an important sign of integration” and “would emphasize tolerance in our society.”

While Germany’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, there are no official days off at public schools and workplaces for the holidays of the country’s religious minorities – including Muslims, the country’s largest non-Christian group.

As Germany undergoes significant demographic shifts, the public debate over recognition of religious holidays has intensified. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of Muslims living in Germany rose from 3.3 million to nearly 5 million, around 6 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. One factor was the arrival of about 850,000 Muslim migrants and refugees during that period. Pew projects that by the year 2050 the share of Muslims in Germany’s population will be between 8.7 percent and 19.7 percent.

The issue burst onto the national stage in recent months. When Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere suggested he was “willing to talk about the possibility of introducing Islamic holidays,” there was an immediate backlash from members of his own party, while a representative of the far-right Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD) party wrote on Twitter: “So Islamic holidays? Day of stoning? Day of the lynched homosexual? Day of the burning church? What should it be?”

Not everyone fiercely objected. Martin Schultz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party said the idea is worth thinking about. The Central Committee of German Catholics took the position that “in a multi-religious society, an Islamic holiday can be added in areas with a high percentage of devout Muslims without betraying the Christian tradition of our country.”

A Pragmatic Approach

Riem Spielhaus, a professor of Islamic studies at Göttingen University, said the question of religious holidays is part of a much wider discussion on religious freedoms for Muslims in Germany, including burial rites, the building of mosques, and pastoral care in prisons, hospitals and the military. “When society really become plural in terms of religion, then religious freedom becomes a challenge,” Spielhaus said. “It is not something easy.”

In some of Germany’s 16 Federal States – like Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg – a more pragmatic approach to Islamic holidays has been adopted. This pragmatism is on display in the office of Arnold Mengelkoch, the Migration Officer of the Neukölln, a borough of Berlin, where the wall is decorated with a large calendar on which holidays of different religions – including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism – are color coded.

“It is a simple instrument for intercultural competence,” Mengelkoch said of the calendar, which was created by the Berlin Senate Department for Integration, Labor and Social Services.

This intercultural calendar is distributed in schools throughout Berlin, and teachers are instructed to avoid scheduling exams on religious holidays. While public schools in Berlin are not shut down for Muslim Eid-al-Fitr as they are for Christian Easter, Muslim students are permitted to skip classes on Islamic holidays without asking for permission and without worrying that they might miss important schoolwork.

Sadiqu Al-Mousllie at the Ramadan tent in Braunschweig, Germany. (Jacob Al-Mousllie)

Mengelkoch’s view is that to ensure social cohesion in such a diverse borough – nearly 20 percent of Neukölln’s population are Muslim – authorities must be very considerate of religious holidays because it is impossible, he said, to “push religious thinking and feeling out of human life.”

Other European countries also have growing Muslim communities and many follow this pragmatic approach, said Meghan Benton, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “Most countries enable schools to make their own decisions on what they want to do,” Benton said. “So they can decide… to acknowledge religious holidays, or they can do it in a more subtle way, which is basically deciding not to schedule tests on a religious holidays or not to penalize pupils for their absences.”

Benton believes there is a strong case for making subtle accommodations on a local level, rather than trying to implement wide-scale, top-down regulations or laws. “If there is a perception that minority culture is being imposed on the majority that’s when you get this risk of backlash and that can exacerbate divides between different groups,” she said.

Backlash and Dialogue

This is what troubles 37-year-old German Muslim Ercan Karakoyun, the president of the Berlin-based Dialogue and Education Foundation, part of a movement founded by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. On the one hand, state recognition of religious holidays can “foster dialogue, integration and acceptance,” Karakoyun said. On the other hand, he fears far-right groups will capitalize on such recognition as proof that Germany faces “Islamization.”

Ercan Karakoyun believes state recognition of religious holidays can foster dialogue and integration but is concerned about backlash. (Dialogue and Education Foundation.)

Before asking for recognition of their holidays, Germany’s Muslims must do a better job of communicating with non-Muslims in Germany and explaining the true values of Islam, Karakoyun said.

“There is a lot of wrong information concerning freedom of religion, freedom of thought and democracy in Islam,” Karakoyun said. “This is work that we as Muslims – Muslim society, the mosques, the communities – have to do.”

This is what al-Mousllie – the father of five from Braunschweig – is trying to help achieve. For the past six years, his local Muslim community set up a large tent in the city’s main square during month of Ramadan. “We use the time to meet people, to talk to them about Islam and about Ramadan, to inform them, to take barriers away,” he said.

Al-Mousllie believes there’s room for Islamic holidays in Germany once Muslims help address the fears some Germans have. “They think that the Muslims are taking something from them,” al-Mousllie said. “Actually, Muslims are working and paying taxes. We are a real part of the society and this hasn’t been really declared or explained well.”

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