In the last few weeks, many Germans have come to know a young Muslim blogger in Berlin named Betul Ulusoy. Having obtained a law degree, Ms. Ulusoy applied for several jobs in Berlin’s city administration as a trainee, and was hired for a post in the city district of Neukölln.
But when she came to sign the contract in a head scarf, she says, she was informed that the administration would have to reconsider the decision because of the city’s “neutrality law.” Like several other German states, Berlin requires its employees in certain positions by law to refrain from wearing religious symbols or dressing in a way that makes them recognizable as members of a certain denomination.
Uncowed, she took her story public and set off a fierce debate about the place of the head scarf in German society.
Though opposition to the head scarf is more closely associated with France, many liberals and conservatives in Germany also believe that the head scarf as a religious symbol should be banned from official posts and schools. They are supported by feminists, who see the head scarf as a symbol of the religious submission of women.
Not everyone agrees, of course: Most of Germany’s sizable Muslim population supports wearing head scarves, and parts of the political left and some conservatives view the neutrality rules as an infringement on individuals’ right to freedom of religion.
Ms. Ulusoy refuses to fit Germany’s most cherished immigrant stereotype, the oppressed Muslim woman. In the world according to Germany, it’s either-or: A young Muslim woman either wears a head scarf, meaning she is subject to the cruel rule of a strictly religious Muslim family patriarch, doomed to be married off to a distant cousin and a life of endless flatbread-making; or she has a law degree, a blog, strong political ideas — and no recognizable Muslim identity.
That piety and independence, religion and political wit can go together indeed doesn’t fit into many Germans’ heads. Germany has become deeply secular in recent decades. Both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches have been losing members rapidly. Today, over a third of all Germans do not belong to any denomination.
Immigration, however, is bringing religion to Germany. The number of Muslims in Germany is estimated to be between 3.8 million and 4.3 million, about 5 percent of the population. That makes the Muslim community in Germany the second-largest in Europe, after France.
Though such projections show that Islam will remain marginal in Europe for decades to come, the fear of “Islamization” is widespread. It has led to the rise of right-wing populist parties from Finland to France. Their rise is usually regarded as a political phenomenon. It might as well be seen as a result of cultural alienation, though. In Germany, many have come to see faith as a spooky and potentially dangerous pathology. Want to make a character on a Friday night TV detective show look suspicious? Let him pray.
In Germany’s secular society, religion in general, and Islam in particular, is regarded as an atavism, a relic from a premodern era from which the country has luckily matured. Renunciation and deliberate submission, common elements of religion, throw the average German hedonist into a state of panic (unless they are part of a no-carbs diet or yoga routine). Why would anybody in her right mind refrain from eating or wrap a scarf around her head in the summer? Whoever does so — like Ms. Ulusoy — must either be out of her mind or the victim of some dark power.
Neutrality laws like those in France, Belgium and some of Germany’s federal states also draw from a certain tradition of interpreting religious freedom. In Europe, it tends to be defined as the freedom from religion — not the freedom to practice faith. This approach is deeply rooted in our history, a lesson from the close alliance between monarchy and church, and countless bloody religious wars.
In the rearview mirror, a strict laicism makes sense. But up ahead, there’s a multicultural Europe that requires more room, not less, for religious expression.
At the heart of Europe’s neutrality laws, there’s a bitter misunderstanding: Being antireligious is not neutral. It doesn’t heal the cultural divide that can come with immigration but emphasizes it. Just look at France.
Since 2004, French students have been prohibited from “ostentatiously” showing or wearing religious symbols at school. Since 2011, the burqa has been banned from streets and public places.
Since the prohibitions, the country has engaged in a petty war over inches of visible skin. Just a few months ago, a Muslim student in the town of Charleville-Mézières was suspended because she was wearing a black skirt that went to her ankles. The girl usually wears a head scarf, but takes it off before school. A local newspaper reported the case, and a nationwide Twitter debate broke loose. The country’s minister of education admitted that a skirt was not a religious symbol per se — but lauded the principal for reinforcing neutrality.
Fortunately, it has become less likely that Germany will follow France down the path of interdiction. In March, the Constitutional Court overturned state legislation banning head scarves for teachers. In its verdict, the court said that the constitutional neutrality of the state “promotes religious freedom for all denominations alike.”
Still, the idea of a postfaith German “Leitkultur,” or common culture, is not dead. Every couple of months a politician from the ranks of the conservative Christian Democratic Union calls for banning the burqa. And Betul Ulusoy’s will certainly not be the last contested head scarf. She still has a lot to do, starting with showing that there is no contradiction between using your head and wrapping it in a scarf.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.