DORTMUND, Germany — It was the second week of Islam class, and the teacher, Mansur Seddiqzai, stood in front of a roomful of Muslim teens and pointed to the sentence on the chalkboard behind him: “Islam does not belong to Germany.”
He scanned the room and asked, “Who said this?”
Hands shot up. “The AfD?” a student with a navy blue headscarf said, referring to Germany’s far-right anti-refugee party. “No,” Seddiqzai shook his head. “Seehofer,” tried another. “Yes, and who is that?” “A minister,” said a third.
Finally, someone put it all together, identifying Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s interior minister and coalition partner, who has on multiple occasions threatened to torpedo her government over the issue of immigration.
“Yes, that’s right,” Seddiqzai said, turning to the others. “And what do you think? Is he correct?”
In a country where the debate over “who belongs?” has deeply divided Merkel’s government, fueled massive demonstrations and propelled the rise of anti-immigrant populism, these 16- and 17-year-olds confront versions of that question every day, in the headlines and in their personal lives: Do I belong, too? Can I be German and a Muslim?
Public schools in some of Germany’s most populous cities are helping such students come up with answers in a counterintuitive setting: Islam class.
The classes, taught by Muslims and intended for Muslim students, were first launched in the early 2000s and now are offered as electives in nine of Germany’s 16 states, by more than 800 public primary and secondary schools, according to the research network Mediendienst Integration. The classes include lessons on the Koran, the history of Islam, comparative religion and ethics. Often, discussions shift to the students’ identity struggles or feelings of alienation.
“When a German asks me which country I’m from, I tell them Turkey,” said Gulendam Velibasoglu, 17, who is taking Seddiqzai’s 10th-grade Islam class this year. She was born and raised in this western German city. Still, she says, “If I said ‘German,’ they wouldn’t accept the answer. They will see me as a foreigner, even though I’m a German citizen.”
Germany has the European Union’s second-largest Muslim population, after France, according to estimates by Pew Research. In 2016, 4.95 million people, or 6.1 percent of the German population, were Muslim. But less than half of those pray regularly, and even fewer regularly attend a mosque, according to the latest government surveys.
The country’s leaders have expressed an ambivalent view of Islam, at best. Seehofer’s statement that “Islam does not belong to Germany” came just months after the Islam-bashing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, entered parliament. Merkel denounced his statement and ruled out sharing power with the AfD. Nevertheless, the AfD has steadily gained support over the past two years: On Oct. 14, it scored the biggest electoral gains of any party in Bavaria, Germany’s second-most populous state.
Last year, the AfD hung campaign posters in Dortmund featuring women in burqas and the slogan “Stop Islamization.” This year’s poster bore the words “Islam-free schools!” under an image of five beaming, light-skinned children.
Seddiqzai, who was born to Afghan parents in the German city of Bochum, has a full beard and wears Nikes to school, said he worries about the effect on his students. “These posters tell them, ‘We don’t want you here,’ ” he said.
“They are not accepted in Germany, they are not accepted in the countries of their parents, and that produces this craving for a group to belong to,” he continued. “And then an Islamist comes to you and says, ‘Yeah, you don’t belong to anyone. Therefore just be Muslim.’ They offer them a third way.”
Seddiqzai sees it as part of his job to make his students more informed in their consumption of such appeals.
When local politicians were discussing a ban on headscarves this year, a group calling itself Reality Islam launched a social media campaign to protest the proposal and recruit students. Seddiqzai showed his students how to trace Reality’s Islam’s links to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group banned in Germany since 2003. He also encouraged them to question the group’s stance on the headscarf, which it claimed the Koran mandates for women.
“I show them the Koranic verses about the headscarf, and we discuss it and we see there is no clear rule that a woman or girl has to wear a headscarf,” he said. “Most of them think the Koran itself has no contradictions, and even that is wrong. There are many contradictions in the Koran.”
Some German politicians are pushing for an expansion of Islam classes in public schools as a way to encourage the cultural integration of Muslim students and to promote an interpretation of Islam that highlights German values.
“We need more religious education,” Kerstin Griese, a lawmaker from the center-left Social Democratic Party, which is part of Merkel’s ruling coalition, wrote in an op-ed, “because it’s the only way to start a dialogue about our own traditions and values and to understand those of others.”
Such advocates generally don’t envision non-Muslim students taking these classes to gain a better appreciation of Islam. While a few German school systems offer religion classes that include multiple faiths or ethics classes that touch on religion, religion as taught in public high schools and supported by Germany’s Basic Law is generally targeted at specific denominations.
A further rationale for Islam classes is to “immunize” Muslim students from fundamentalism, as Protestant leader Heinrich Bedford-Strohm put it.
Of particular concern is radicalization that might lead to violence. Since 2013, more than 1,000 people, most of them under 30 years old, have left Germany to fight with or support the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.
But some educators and politicians resist the notion that Islam has a place in German public schools.
“Besides the fact that we have much more important problems in schools, it can’t be true that a German bishop is promoting Islam,” Alexander Gauland, a leader of the AfD, said after Bedford-Strohm voiced his proposal.
No studies have examined the effectiveness of Islam classes in preventing radicalization, according to Harry Harun Behr, a professor of Islamic studies and pedagogy at Frankfurt’s Goethe University.
Still, he said, the classes are valuable because they show students their faith is as important as others taught in their schools and because they show Islam as a religion that is open to reflection and self-criticism.
At Seddiqzai’s school, where almost 95 percent of students are first- or second-generation immigrants, Islam class is highly popular. When he crosses the schoolyard, he can barely walk five steps without being stopped by a student wanting to tell him about grades, romances or plans for the future.
“What Mr. Seddiqzai is teaching me is not really something you learn at mosque,” said 17-year-old Yusuf Akar. “How to interact with non-Muslims who may not be sure how to interact with us. Or who are scared of us.”
But it is more than that, too. “It shows me I’m welcome here,” Akar said. “Because the school no longer demands that we distance ourselves from our religion. They accept it and even create an opportunity to learn about it. And that gives me the feeling that I’m part of this society.”