Germany is abuzz these days with controversy about a German professor who claims that the Muslim prophet Muhammad may have never existed.
Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who converted to Islam at age 15, is a professor at the university in Munster, Germany. So far the focus of the controversy has gravitated to Kalisch’s peculiar historical-critical approach. But due to the nature of Kalisch’s university position—as much one of a government official as an esoteric scholar—what might otherwise be an academic molehill is becoming a public mountain.
In 2005 Kalisch became the first faculty member in Germany assigned the task of training Islam instructors for German public schools. While American public schools, for example, usually give students a social-studies introduction to world religions, German public schools offer students government-sanctioned instruction in their respective religious faiths.
And it is this—the role of the German government in trying to determine what is and what is not a “legitimate” interpretation of a faith— which merits attention.
Kalisch is a strong advocate of academic freedom, including in Islamic studies. But his role as a government-appointed professor tasked to train government-sanctioned public school teachers of Islam leaves academic freedom subject to political pressures. In fact, the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany has rejected Kalisch. They have begun to call for a replacement for Kalisch and have urged aspiring teachers of Islam to not take Kalisch’s lectures. Even in this there is a government role, namely in selecting which Muslim organizations the government chooses to recognize as the official representatives of Islam, which lacks the formal structures of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church.
Entangling intellectual explorations of Islam with governmental attempts to sanction one viewpoint over another for children’s religious education is more likely to stifle than encourage the much needed open, free public space for explorations of the meaning of Islam. In selecting Kalisch, a moderate Muslim from the minority Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, the German government appears to have thought it could impose moderate Islam. But in fact, all the German government accomplished was to establish itself as arbiter of Islam. Kalisch is now out, but the efforts to bring government-sanctioned Islamic education into the public schools are already well underway. The established Islamic groups in Germany are more likely to represent conservative interpretations of Islam, and are now seizing the ouster of Kalisch to impose their own selection.
The structure of the German government’s sanctioning of religious instruction in schools was designed with organized religions that have a clearly identifiable hierarchy in mind. Islam, however, has no such formal structure, especially not in its Sunni branch. Rushed efforts to recognize the most organized groups as the official representative of Muslims in Germany may in fact aid rigid conservatives and inhibit free discussion and exploration of the relation of Islam to modern society.
So what is the alternative? The golden rule for government protection of religious freedom is play fair. In light of this, the German government cannot continue to offer Christian religious education in public schools while excluding Muslims from their own religious education. It may be time to consider that, perhaps, the most fair and sensible move the German government could make is to extricate itself from the business of religious education entirely.
The German government has a legitimate concern that now-marginal radical Islamism could become main-stream among Muslims in Germany. Yet what the German government views as a solution—namely government sanctioned religious education in public schools—may well prove to be the primary barrier to a solution. In Muslim majority countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the governments exercise tight political control over the Islamic universities, leaving little room for intellectual freedom, and even less room for religious freedom. The result has been marginalization, or even exile, of rationalist, liberal Muslims from Arab Islamic studies programs. Now in Germany, by trying to place the government as an arbiter of intra-Muslim (and for that matter intra-any-faith) disputes, the German government risks limiting, rather than protecting, free intellectual exploration of faith at a time when the need for such free and open exploration within Islam is great.