Hungry Students? Postponed Exams? Ramadan In German Schools

In Frankfurt, Germany
In Frankfurt, Germany
Ricarda Breyton and Thomas Vitzthum

BERLIN — This past week marked the beginning of a period of peace and quiet for Muslims around the world. It is Ramadan, a month dedicated to reflection, prayers, and fasting, where disputes are meant to be avoided wherever possible. But instead of harmony, conflicts around Ramadan itself have increasingly been coming to the fore in German schools. There is increasing discussion of health risks, especially for fasting children, of coercion and unfulfilled duties.

"Many students now take fasting very seriously," says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, President of the German Teachers' Association. At schools with a significant number of families from a Muslim background — and there are now many of them across Germany — how to react to observing students during the month of Ramadan has become a central topic that school administrators and teachers must confront.

In some cases, the Muslim parents are exerting strong pressure on school administrations not to schedule any examinations or field trips during this period. It becomes particularly difficult when the religious concerns of a few individual students restrict all students. "We are sort of asked to massage examinations for all students during a certain period of time. That's not possible," Meidinger says. "We're already constantly discussing whether schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves." The questions raised by the Muslim practice of fasting are, however, much more crucial for the practical role of education.

This year the problem is particularly serious. For these days not only mark the beginning of the Ramadan: After Pentecost, all pupils in Germany are faced with a last great wave of exams. High school students still have some written and almost all of their oral examinations ahead of them. It's simply not possible to put these exams several weeks back. For the fasting students, this is particularly difficult — especially for those who take the fasting commandment so seriously that they don't drink water during the day. "There are always students who simply pass out," Meidinger says.

There's growing peer pressure to fast.

The Association for Education and Upbringing (VBE) also fears the issues related to Ramadan. "Primary school children don't have to fast, and neither should they," says the association's chairman Udo Beckmann. Not eating any food for a long time and above all not drinking anything can harm your physical well-being. The students' performance and their ability to concentrate are also severely affected. And according to the VBE, more and more young people take the fasting commandment seriously.

Nowadays, even children in elementary school have begun fasting, even though Islamic sources say that young people are only obliged to observe the commandments from puberty onwards. But younger kids apparently want to emulate the older ones — fasting seems, somehow, cool. "Often the children fast because they want to impress their parents," explains Karin Jahn, who runs a primary school in the Berlin district of Wedding.

As it happens, the children have been sent to school with food and drink, but don't touch them. Although not all Muslim children fast at school, Jahn believes that there's growing peer pressure on them to do so. "If I have three children in a class who fast at the beginning (of Ramadan), there will soon be five and then ten."

Breaking fast in Germany — Photo: Fredrik Von Erichsen/DPA/ZUMA

Jahn too believes that children's health suffers from fasting, but she says her room for maneuver is limited. "How teachers deal with individual pupils, in this case, depends on their own intuition."

It's clear that politicians are uncertain about how to deal with the topic of Ramadan in schools. On the one hand, they try hard to preserve the religious freedom of Muslim children. After all, Christian also have their own fasting period, Lent, before Easter — though hardly any student still does it voluntarily. On the other hand, state authorities need to respond to the demands of schools, including the basic physical protection of children.

In the Berlin district of Neukölln, a twelve-point recommendation guide for Ramadan was given out to schools and parents a year ago. But in trying to compromise, the guide winds up sounding vague. Here's one example: "The age at which fasting should begin is not clearly defined. There are very different views among Islamic experts as to when fasting should begin," it reads. Elsewhere, it says: "There is no coercion in religion. A health hazard to the child or adolescent is not in the interest of Islam." What can a teacher do with that statement?

Priority should always be given to health and school performance.

The former mayor of Neukölln and now Federal Minister for Family Affairs Franziska Giffey (from the Socialist Party SPD) had initiated the work on this guide, in cooperation with Muslims — but she seemed disenchanted with the result. What came out was a "minimal consensus," she says. She also laments about the unwillingness of mosque leaders to take part in the debate.

Hermann Gröhe, the parliamentary representative for churches and religious communities for Angela Merkel"s CDU party, demands a greater commitment from those concerned: "The Muslim associations should participate intensively in a public debate on the protection of children," Gröhe says. "I take the concerns expressed by teachers, but also by pediatricians, very seriously." For primary school children, in particular, priority should always be given to health and school performance. "Religious pressure must be avoided, as must the disparagement of religious commandments," Gröhe emphasizes that there should be no social pressure to start fasting from a very young age.

A look into the religious sources could relax the discussion over how to deal appropriately with fasting in the school's everyday life. "The Koran is clear about the duties and rights of fasting," says the Islamic theologian Serdar Kurnaz of the University of Hamburg. "When you find yourself in a situation where you cannot fast comfortably, you do not fast." This could apply, for example, to physical education classes — and especially to the upcoming end-of-year examinations.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!