Germany: A Country with a Christian Character

The Trouble with the Head Scarf

It is just a piece of cloth, one that comes in a variety of qualities and colors and has more or less gone out of style as headwear in Western Europe. On the other hand, any piece of cloth that is used ostentatiously can be perceived as a threat. Take, for instance, the flag that leads troops into battle or the white sheets East German citizens once hung out of their windows to underscore their desire to leave the country—or the carefully tied head scarf worn by Muslim women. Thus, the row that has broken out over head scarves in German schools is by no means a trivial one, though it does sometimes reveal traces of hysteria.

Take, for instance, the current uproar surrounding the [German President] Johannes Rau [after his speech at the end of December, when the president stated that a ban on head scarves in schools should also lead to a ban on crucifixes—WPR].

It is almost acceptable that [the leader of the Christian Democratic Union] Angela Merkel contradicted the president “with all due respect,” and her Bavarian counterpart, Edmund Stoiber, admonished Rau, a devout Protestant, with similar (though one might say hypocritical) civility not to cast doubt on “our identity as a country with a Christian character.” But the shots that have been raining down on Germany’s president from the lower ranks of the [conservative] Christian Democratic and Christian Socialist parties for the past several days often go outside the bounds of permissible debate. There has been mention of an “error of judgment” and an “inexcusable faux pas.” Christian Democratic teachers in the state of Hesse have had the presumption to declare that the nation’s highest public office has been “permanently marred.”

All this after Rau said nothing more than what the Federal Constitutional Court had said three months earlier. When the high court judges in Karlsruhe pushed the head-scarf decision back into the hands of the states on Sept. 24 [see State of the Debate, WPR, December 2003], they did so under two conditions.

First, a ban had to have a legal basis. Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria began work on this immediately. And second, members of different religions must be treated equally. There’s no trace of this in the draft legislation coming out of Stuttgart and Munich, where lawmakers want to ban the head scarf but defend the crucifix and the monk’s habit. Such state laws will likely eventually end up being nixed by the federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

Until then, oversimplifiers and reductionists will be doing all the talking. The good vs. bad attitude spans parties as well as religions. According to it, the crucifix stands for tolerance, freedom, and reconciliation and, as Social Democrat [and president of the German Parliament] Wolfgang Thierse said, is “not a symbol of oppression.”

At the very least, this is an ahistorical view. In olden days, Saracens and Indios certainly had a very different experience of the crucifix, and many of today’s Christian fundamentalists give plenty of reason to doubt this view.

The head scarf, on the other hand, is perceived as a symbol of intolerance, extremism, female subjugation, and, as Munich’s Cardinal Friedrich Wetter put it, a “militant challenge to the values of our Basic Law.”

There is a willful failure to recognize that the motives for covering up are as diverse as those of the people on either side of the debate. A woman may wear a head scarf for reasons of timid reserve, tradition, or old-fashioned attitudes; but she may also wear it as a form of rebellion against secular tendencies, as a demonstrative symbol of self-assertion in a foreign culture.

A democratic state governed by the rule of law need not worry about the former, but caution is advisable in the latter case. Yet, we are all putting too much emphasis on the piece of cloth. For even if all female teachers come to school with heads bared, it does not mean tolerance has prevailed. No more so than hanging the crucifix in classrooms can prevent the Christian church’s loss of importance.

There are two honest ways to prevent the political or religious indoctrination of children that can, but need not be, manifest in symbols. The first way is to examine individual cases, to tolerate head scarves, crucifixes, and Jewish skullcaps until there is proof of undue influence or proselytizing.

At first glance, this appears to be the more liberal option, but it can also lead to a climate of ideological spying the likes of which the Federal Republic of Germany experienced in the days of the “Radikalenerlass” [a decree that was passed on Jan. 28, 1972, by the heads of states excluding members of extremist organizations, especially the militant extreme left, from civil-service employment—WPR].

The second path is the secular approach, that is, the separation of church and state at least on school grounds. This is the path taken by Turkey and soon to be taken by France. This approach would entail a ban on the wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols because, as Rau very rightly said, public schools must be for all pupils—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagans alike.

This consistent approach would by no means be incompatible with the current system. As civil servants, teachers are already obliged to exercise restraint and can reasonably be expected to refrain from wearing a head scarf or a crucifix in much the same way that they refrain from wearing party badges on their lapels.

To some church people and politicians, however, who have expressed worry this would constitute a ban of Christian culture from public life, I offer a matter-of-fact response: There is plenty of room for religion, even for engaging in missionary work outside school grounds.