Islamic veils and headscarves are still the subject of heated public debate in Germany. Some see them as an integral part of religious freedom; others as a symbol of the oppression of women in Islam. The German justice system has already addressed the question of whether teachers should be banned from wearing a partial headscarf or a full veil – or any other overtly religious symbol – in class. To complicate matters further, not all of Germany’s 16 states agree on the issue, which is gaining visibility due to the country’s changing demographics.
Germany’s Muslim population, which has grown rapidly in recent years due to immigration from Muslim-majority countries, was estimated at between 4.4 and 4.7 million people, or around 5.5% of the total population of the country in 2015, according to the Federal Statistical Office. The number is arguably higher now, according to the agency, but there are no updated official figures.
These demographic changes are accompanied by societal debates, one of which, that of the Islamic veil, has been a continual source of discussion. The latest headscarf controversy, which has grabbed headlines across Germany, happened at a planned university conference – something even its organizer did not expect.
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Academic accused of peddling ‘anti-Muslim sentiments’
Professor Susanne Schröter, who has been researching Islam in Europe at the University of Frankfurt since 2008, has planned a lecture titled “The Islamic Veil – Symbol of Dignity or Oppression? for May 8. A small group of students criticized the conference, accusing it of trying to spread Islamophobic sentiment and calling for its resignation.
Zuher Jazmati, a member of the ‘Uni gegen antimuslimischen Rassismus’ (‘University Against Anti-Muslim Racism’) initiative, told DW: ‘We don’t think there should be any value judgment that someone whether or not one wears a veil. a judgment is annoying and a burden for any woman who bears one.” Jazmati believes that such discussions even encourage violence against Muslim women.
He also disagrees with several of the guest speakers. Jazmati disputes the presence of the German journalist Alice Schwarzer, who publishes Emma, a feminist magazine. He also opposes the critic of Islam Necla Kelek, whom he accuses of having made very controversial remarks in the past and of perpetuating a racist discourse. “When we discuss this subject, we should do so with women present who wear a veil so that they can talk about themselves,” stresses Jazmati.
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“Just a Regular Conference”
Schröter is confident that the event will go ahead as planned. She told the dpa news agency: “I assumed it would just be a regular conference that wouldn’t be controversial. After all, we’ve been discussing the Islamic veil for almost 20 years now.” While she said the Islamic veil had indeed become a hotly debated topic, she pointed out that the conference was planned simply to contextualize the controversial “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibit at the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts. The professor noted that supporters of the veil, such as theologian and Quranic expert Dina El-Omari, who wears the veil herself, were also invited to the conference.
Yet Schröter is known for her critical view of Islamic veils. In August last year, while attending a conference by women’s rights nonprofit Terre des Femmes, she reportedly said that the blanket hinders women’s freedom and is often “linked to a whole set of restrictions”.
At the beginning of April this year, she published an article in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled “What’s God got against showing hair? Those who favor Islamic fashion should be aware of its repressive nature.”
Freedom of expression threatened?
Meanwhile, the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV) has warned that freedom of speech is under threat at German universities. “Different opinions should be respected and tolerated,” insisted DHV President Bernhard Kempen. Differences of opinion should be resolved through debate and not through boycott, smear, bullying or violence, he stressed.
Birgitta Wolff, president of the University of Frankfurt, supported Schröter, pointing out that it is part of his job as a professor to organize academic conferences at which differing opinions are expressed.
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Schröter says that universities should be synonymous with freedom of expression and plurality of opinion: “Universities are a place for discussion, not a place where small pressure groups decide what can and cannot be said. ” In an interview with the German daily Die WeltSchröter said critics had tried to “intimidate” and “defame” her, and they attacked the principle of free speech, adding that they accused her of “anti-Muslim racism” because that they rejected any criticism of Islam.
At present, it seems unlikely that an amicable solution to the conference dispute will be found. Jazmati says the list of guest speakers means that neither he nor others in his organization will be attending the event, although he says he will review lecture excerpts posted afterwards to see if things that his organization was expecting had happened. So far, there has been no direct communication between Schröter and the band that Jazmati represents.
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