The Canisius-Kolleg, an elite Catholic secondary school in Berlin has made national headlines in Germany by appointing a Muslim teacher wearing a hijab. The school is run by the Jesuit order and is located in the calm and upmarket diplomatic district of the German capital.
Long-standing court battles
Teachers with Islamic headscarves have for years been a bone of contention in Germany. In 2015, the country’s highest court invalidated blanket provisions prohibiting teachers from wearing the hijab. However, the legal terrain remains mined – particularly in Berlin, where a controversial ‘neutrality law’ prevents teachers at public schools from displaying any religious symbols.
The Canisius-Kolleg, although situated in Berlin, is exempted from this legal rule due to its status as a private, confessional institution. Here, teachers are for instance free to showcase necklaces bearing the Christian cross.
Berlin is also home to a private Islamic elementary school where children from the ages of six to twelve are being taught by a diverse staff, some of whom are wearing headscarves.1. (The only Islamic secondary school in German-speaking Europe leading up to a qualification for university is currently situated in Vienna.2 )
A decision based on merit – and on a sense of social mission
Sporting a long ponytail and an earring, the Canisius-Kolleg’s principal, Tobias Zimmermann, hardly looks like a classical Jesuit figure. Finding himself at the centre of media scrutiny and political commentary, Zimmermann has strongly defended his decision to hire a hijab-wearing teacher. He also used his newfound notoriety to mount an attack on restrictions placed on the expression of religious belonging in public spaces.
In an opinion piece for the Huffington Post, Zimmermann stressed that the Muslim woman applying had been the most highly qualified for the job. Yet by offering her employment, Zimmermann had also wanted to uphold what he saw as a core part of the school’s mission – namely to reflect the diversity of German society and to allow for a constructive expression of religious identity in social spaces.3
Expressing religious belonging in public
In particular, Zimmermann has taken a stance in the debate surrounding Berlin’s neutrality law. Banning all religious symbols from public institutions is, according to Zimmermann an easy cop-out: It is a “smallest common denominator” strategy so as to avoid having to address the genuinely complex questions of our time – such as what constitutes a good, shared life in a diverse community of citizens.
Zimmermann also criticised Berlin’s laicist path – unique among Germany’s 16 federal states – for violating the spirit of the constitution. For the German Basic Law provides not for a categorical separation of religion and state but rather for a cooperative arrangement in which religious denominations are allowed to participate in the public sphere.4
Re-establishing Christian symbols
Attempts to go against this constitutional settlement and banish religious identity to the purely private sphere “share part of the responsibility for the decline of Christian religion in Germany”, Zimmermann asserted.5
Consequently, instead of fearing the ‘Islamisation of the Occident’, Germans of Christian roots should become more active in embracing their own religious heritage. For Zimmermann and others like him, asking Muslim women to remove their headscarves means barking up the wrong tree; instead, Christians ought to bring back into everyday life their own symbols, such as the Crucifix.6
Even for Zimmermann there are limitations, however. He would not have hired a teacher wearing a burqa or a niqab, given the centrality of interaction and communication for the teaching profession. And he stressed the need that the hijab be freely chosen by the women who don it – rather than being forced upon them.7
Political forces’ reactions
The echo to Zimmermann’s stance has been predictably divided along party-political lines. The Berlin Green Party, who had spearheaded recent efforts to repeal the neutrality law, expressed its support for the Canisius-Kolleg’s decision.
By contrast, Berlin’s AfD party section took to twitter to vent its anger, deeming the decision to admit a hijab-wearing woman to be “completely crazy”. “The decline of values in formerly conservative circles has now also reached the Catholic Church. No to headscarf-teachers!”8
Fereshta Ludin returns to the debate
In the days and weeks after the Jesuit college made headlines, Fereshta Ludin wrote an opinion piece for the Tagesspiegel newspaper. Ludin had been the first Muslim woman to sue the authorities for banning teachers from wearing a hijab. Although she won her case in front of Germany’s constitutional court in 2003, she never entered the public school system. (Today, she teaches at the abovementioned private Islamic elementary school.)
In her article, Ludin complained that Muslim women who wear the hijab had been “submitted to years of enormous social, societal, political, media, and cultural pressure not to be allowed to be what we want to be.”
“We are human beings. Not cases and dusty folders that can be cast aside and shredded by a ‘neutrality law’. We are human beings with exacting standards of emancipation, dignity, and liberality. We believe in democracy. We believe in the constitution. And we believe in the basic rights contained therein, which are also our rights and which are also made for us – for you and me.”9