Posted on January 5, 2005

Europe’s Identity Crisis

Anna Mulrine, U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 10

BERLIN — Told that she couldn’t sit in on religion classes for the Muslim students at Rixdorfer Elementary School, Marion Berning went into the classroom anyway on the pretext of fixing a window. What she found stunned and angered her. The teacher was saying that “women are for the house, for the children. And the girls were sitting like this,” she says, placing her hands in her lap, slumping her shoulders in an imitation of a meek posture, and casting her eyes downward. “While all of the boys,” she is yelling now, “they were talking and playing. This is fundamentalism.”

Berning isn’t a nosy meddler. She is the principal at Rixdorfer school in the Berlin neighborhood known as Little Istanbul, where Turkish markets line the streets and Muslim worshipers file into discreet prayer rooms down back alleys. And these days her job is complicated by a widening gulf among her students. There have been more fights and more name-calling incidents at Rixdorfer, Berning says, since a German court granted an umbrella group called the Islamic Federation the right to teach religion classes in Berlin schools — where 8 percent of students are Turkish Muslims. Muslim girls are dropping out of sports classes and field trips, she says, and there are fewer friendships between Muslim and non-Muslim students. Although the Islamic Federation is under observation by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which suspects the group of being an extremist organization, the religion classes continue.

In Britain, in the basement day-care center of a church near London’s Hyde Park, a Christian group holds a workshop on heckling Muslims at the park’s famous Speakers’ Corner. Participants then head there for the afternoon debates. One recent Sunday, a spectator denounced an imam as a Muslim extremist, though at the time the imam was decrying violence in the name of Islam. The preacher didn’t respond, but someone in the crowd did. “Yes, my friend, I am an extremist,” the man said. “And I hope my children are extremists.” Some verbal exchanges have escalated into fights, leading the British government, with the backing of the Muslim Council of Britain, to consider new laws against inciting religious hatred that could have the effect of restricting free speech in a place long considered one of the world’s great locales for open debate.