The northern German state of Lower Saxony announced recently that it was establishing the country's first academic department of Islamic theology. The department, to be based at the University of Osnabrueck, will provide a place for theological research and will offer training for future imams.
The move reflects fresh efforts across Germany to address concerns about Islam that threaten to overshadow decades-old achievements in integrating Muslims into German society.
Those fears have mounted since the events of 9/11 and their aftermath stirred anxiety among many Germans over a perceived rise in radical Islam.
A perception has persisted that some immigrant-based population groups have already developed "parallel societies" that are inaccessible to the German mainstream but particularly susceptible to outside influence -- in this case, international Islamist groups.
Resulting demands for stronger efforts to integrate Germany's Muslim communities have grown louder and more frequent. Nowhere have they been more acute than in the debate about whether and how to integrate the Islamic religion into the German educational system.
Osnabrueck's new department of Islamic theology looks like one step, then, on what could be a very long road.
Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims, or about one in 20 people. Many are immigrants who've been in the country for decades and have watched the debate over integration rage the entire time.
A teacher of Islamic religion at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt upon Main since 2006, Oemer Oezsoy, says the notion of opening German academia to Islamic theology is an idea whose time has come.
"I tend to understand 'integration' as the normalization of the situation of Muslims who arrive here in Germany," says Oezsoy, earned his degree in Islamic Sciences in Turkey. "The Muslims are already here, but as long as they're not engaging in theology here, as long as they have to depend on importing professors from abroad, this is a sign that they haven't really arrived -- their theology hasn't arrived here."
Juergen Heumann, a professor of protestant religion and pedagogy at the University of Oldenburg, welcomes the move to establish an academic base for Islamic theology in Germany.
He says he hopes a "German-speaking Islam" adapted to the country's constitutional norms might emerge.
"I think the integration of Islamic theology in German academia, especially of those Muslims who want to integrate in the cultural spheres of Western Europe or Germany, is very good," Heumann says. "It could also lead to a debate within Muslim societies and communities of how much they want to -- and have to -- integrate."
Heumann adds, with special emphasis, that "I believe this will promote integration, because the debate has to take place in public, and not somewhere behind closed doors."
Osnabrueck and four other universities in western Germany already offer courses for people seeking to teach Islam at German schools, but usually only as a supplement to other studies.
Question Of Representation
There is still no obligation to offer classes on Islam at German schools, however.
Islamic programs have been instituted in some German states but are voluntary and meant to test the success of such initiatives.
That approach differs sharply from the way Christianity is taught at German schools. German states are constitutionally required to offer classes in Protestantism and Catholicism in public schools. The churches have the right to approve both the teachers and the curriculum.
But attempts to introduce Islam to the coursework in German schools face legal and procedural hurdles. First among them is the practical question of who speaks for the community. As with Christian faiths, German authorities need a central body with the legitimacy to negotiations on curricula and the appointment of professors and teachers.
But German Muslim groups have generally appeared averse to the idea of such a centralized organization.
The impasse has left attempts to introduce Islamic religion classes to German schools at a standstill for decades.
Call For Pragmatic Solutions
Oezsoy argues for greater pragmatism on the parts of both Muslims and German authorities to ensure that Islam is eventually taught alongside Christian religions in German schools.
"This has to be the aim, in the end -- only then will Muslims feel that they have equal rights and are being treated as equals," Oezsoy says. "So that's the right thing to do. But until we will reach that point, preliminary solutions can be found, like the nonconfessional and neutral teaching of the contents of Islam."
Heumann agrees, although the protestant professor says he has slightly different ideas about the perfect model for dealing with religion in education.
"I am promoting an even farther-reaching idea concerning religious classes: an integrative subject, where all pupils learn about all religions," Heumann says, conceding that such an option is still a long way off. "As an intermediate step, we are in urgent need of [classes in Islamic religion at German schools]. Once again, I don't think we in this society can afford for children and youth of Muslim faith to enter adulthood without critical information about their religion -- toward which they should keep a sympathetic attitude, nevertheless."
Young Muslim children in Germany will have to wait some time for any realistic chance that they all might attend classes in Islam in German schools.
Aside from the political and legal problems that still have to be overcome, several thousand teachers of Islamic religion have to be provided -- with no educational infrastructure to meet such demand.