When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.


Why Being Muslim Can't Get You Out Of Swim Class In Germany

Muslim girls in Burkinis
Muslim girls in Burkinis
Johan Schloemann

BERLINRitual circumcision for Muslim and Jewish boys remains legal in Germany. Germany’s legislative body, the Bundestag, decided as much last year in what was a win for the country’s religious minorities. But Muslim girls must participate in co-ed swim classes, according to a recent decision by Germany’s highest court on such matters — although they are free to wear the Burkini, a swimming suit that leaves only hands, feet and face uncovered. These recent developments seem like a contradiction — religious freedom sometimes, but not others.

But they’re not contradictory. To understand why, it’s important to realize the way religious freedom is conceptualized — and coded into law — in Germany. It has been necessary to organize some measure of religious tolerance here since the reformation. Protestants had to be able to tolerate Catholic processions and feasts without going ballistic — and vice versa.

Religious freedom has expanded to become both a guarantee and an obligation, especially in public, where differences can clash. Even when there was a painful learning process, people practiced restraint long before the democratic state was established. That doesn’t mean that the Catholic and Protestant churches didn’t argue, just that the cultural differences were generally tolerated.

Believe whatever you want

Religious freedom has become harder to ensure as increased immigration has brought more adherents of very different religions to Germany, particularly Muslims. There is a difference between circumcision and swimming class: The law protects the practice of religious rituals and traditions, as long as they are acceptable to the overall society. In this sense, circumcision, baptism and first communions are all considered protected.

You can believe whatever you want, which is why employees and schoolchildren are allowed to take time off for religious holidays.

But swimming class is not in the same category. There is no problem with wearing a headscarf in math or German class — because the headscarf doesn’t interfere with the mission of teaching. But during swimming class or gym class, there are certain types of attire that can get in the way.

If a 13-year-old girl and her parents think swimming is too obscene — as in the case recently decided by the court — then the official response is that the feeling of shame is not a “religious practice.” It is not a ritual or a religious service, just simply a clash between a religious person and the secular world around him or her.

In today’s secular world, there are billboards for swimming attire and classmates who are obsessed with Germany’s Next Topmodel. These are simply unavoidable. And plenty of non-religious students going through puberty feel uncomfortable during swimming lessons too, and not just because of the presence of the other sex. Being uncomfortable with nakedness is something that all students, not exclusively religious ones, have to deal with as part of their personal development, particularly in co-ed swimming and sport classes.

Allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear Burkinis during swimming class is an acceptable way to mitigate religious concerns, the court believes. Similarly, the court held that a boy who is a Jehovah’s Witness could not be excused from watching a popular film in school because the film depicted magic — something the boy’s religion doesn’t accept. If students were allowed to be excused from watching or reading material that might offend their religious beliefs, they could just as easily excuse themselves from Faust or Hamlet — or even any of the Grimm fairy tales.

In the end, almost all religions demand total control over their believers’ daily lives. But as philosopher Jürgen Habermas said, “Religious believers have to abandon that total control as soon as they become part of a pluralistic society that differentiates between the religious community and the larger political community.” The requirement that children go to school is just one of the many examples of this, and it is something that all families must accept.

“A classroom in which all possible religious beliefs are taken into account is not practical,” the court wrote in its verdict. That sounds enlightened, but it remains to be seen if it will have the desired effect of making peace.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


The Trumpian Virus Undermining Democracy Is Now Spreading Through South America

Taking inspiration from events in the United States over the past four years, rejection of election results and established state institutions is on the rise in Latin America.

Two supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dressed in Brazilian flags during a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Bolsonaro supporters dressed in national colours with flags in a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on November 4, 2022.

Ivan Abreu / ZUMA
Carlos Ruckauf*


BUENOS AIRES — South Africa's Nelson Mandela used to say it was "so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build."

Intolerance toward those who think differently, even inside the same political space, is corroding the bases of representative democracy, which is the only system we know that allows us to live and grow in freedom, in spite of its flaws.

Recent events in South America and elsewhere are precisely alerting us to that danger. The most explosive example was in Brazil, where a crowd of thousands managed to storm key institutional premises like the presidential palace, parliament and the Supreme Court.

In Peru, the country's Marxist (now former) president, Pedro Castillo, sought to use the armed and security forces to shut down parliament and halt the Supreme Court and state prosecutors from investigating corruption allegations against him.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest