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Making Room for Muslim Educators

EUROPE'S MUSLIMS: Fourth in a series of occasional articles

October 12, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Muenster, Germany — The son of an immigrant coal miner, Musa Bagrac was raised in a city of steam and smoke, a place where men walked with crumpled lunch bags in calloused hands and Muslims felt adrift in makeshift mosques shadowed by church steeples.

Bagrac moved like an unsure spirit between two worlds. In Hamm, his hometown about 20 miles south of here, he attended St. Joseph's Elementary, where he sang "O Tannenbaum" in the choir. Twice a week he went to an Islamic school, learning the Koran and about the prophet Muhammad, wondering how to escape the working-class life of most German Turks.

"We need poets, doctors and a middle class that German Muslims can aspire to," said Bagrac, a 28-year-old university student with a wide face and sideburns. "Germans have come to see Islam as a religion of the working class. But Islam is a religion of all classes. That's why it's so important to get more Muslim teachers into schools."

Bagrac is a missionary of sorts in this nation of 3 million Muslims -- nearly 4% of the population. He and about a dozen other students at the University of Muenster are enrolled in the first course of its kind in Germany: a curriculum preparing Muslim instructors to teach Islam in public schools while being sensitive to Western culture.

Such ambitions have arisen against the backdrop of a troubling arc of violence, from the Sept. 11 attacks to last year's train bombings in Madrid to this summer's assaults on London's transit system. The Islamic extremists' war against Europe is widening, and conservative and liberal politicians across the continent are perplexed about how to better integrate a Muslim community that has doubled since the 1980s but remains in a largely parallel universe.

Young Muslims such as Bagrac personify the intersection of the Islamic creed and European life. They carry iPods and hang out at dance clubs. Many are more attuned to reality TV than the bloody politics of Iraq. But they also pray five times a day, wanting to be devout without being stereotyped as fanatical. Most believe they can keep their faith despite the increasingly secular atmosphere around them.

They move not apprehensively, but in a manner that suggests there is an invisible yet impenetrable divide between them and native Europeans. Some are demure. Others are quiet but forthright. A few are angry. They sip nonalcoholic beer and sweet tea; some of the more intense among them quote from both the Bible and the Koran.

They have learned how to politely refuse "currywurst," or pork sausage, sandwiches. And most have grown used to, though some still blush at, the public nudity in parks and on billboards advertising sex shows.

This is a continent where Christmas, Hanukkah and Ramadan coexist, and national constitutions eloquently uphold human rights. But the rising militancy among young Muslims has challenged those constitutions and cast a shadow on the meaning of being European.

"Learning Islam in school will finally give Muslim children the feeling of being home," Bagrac said of his course, which awaits final state approval and may start graduating prospective teachers within three years.

"That's something we wanted for so long, to feel at home in this country. If Muslim kids feel accepted by public schools, the schools will become synonymous with the state and it will improve cultural coexistence."

Bagrac's classmate Denya Abou Zaher wears a head scarf embroidered with butterflies, a badge of Islam that sets her apart in the nation she hopes one day will embrace her.

"If a Muslim lives in a Western society, he has to stick to the laws of Western society. He can't say he wants an Islamic state," said Zaher, 25, whose parents are Palestinians who emigrated here from Lebanon in 1970. "We were not influenced in fundamentalist directions. Islam can coexist with democracy. It comes down to tolerance."

Tolerance is often clouded by cultural prejudices as Europe's desire to preserve its identity collides with a growing Muslim population. Zaher, for example, will be limited in where she can teach. Seven of the 16 German states consider the head scarf a potent religious symbol and forbid public school teachers to wear it.

Germans want Muslims to accept Western ways, said Zaher, who has worn a head scarf since she was a girl, and are often unsympathetic to Islamic beliefs.

"I can't wear a head scarf if I want to teach in Bavaria," she said. "The irony is that Europeans think the head scarf is a symbol of oppression, but by not letting me teach, isn't that a kind of oppression too?"

When Zaher left class, she walked across cobblestones, along a vegetable market and past alleys humming with bicycles. Steeples rose and stained glass glimmered. The city center was all burnished stone and leafy trees, resembling a postcard from a bygone Europe. No minarets appeared on the skyline.

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