When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

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 monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Russia's Military Failures Are Really About Its Soldiers

No doubt, strategic errors and corruption at the highest ranks in the Kremlin are partly to blame for the Russian military's stunning difficulties in Ukraine. But the roots run deeper, where the ordinary recruits come from, how they are exploited, how they react.

Army reserve soldiers go to Red Square to attend a Pioneer Induction ceremony

Anna Akage

To the great relief of Ukraine and the great surprise of the rest of the world, the Russian army — considered until February 24, the second strongest in the world — is now eminently beatable on the battlefield against Ukrainian forces operating with vastly inferior firepower.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

After renouncing the original ambitions to take Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government, the focus turned to the southeastern region of Donbas, where a would-be great battle on a scale comparable to World War II Soviet victories has turned into a quagmire peppered with laughable updates by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on TikTok.

The Russians have not managed to occupy a single significant Ukrainian city, except Kherson, which they partially destroyed and now find difficult to hold. Meanwhile, Ukrainian civilians are left to suffer the bombing of cities and villages from Lviv to Odessa, with looting, torture and assorted war crimes.

The reasons for both the poor performance and atrocities are many, and include deep-seated corruption and lack of professionalism up through the highest ranks, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who had never served in the army, and arrived in his position only because of his loyalty to the No. 1 man in the Kremlin.

Keep reading... Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch Video Show less
MOST READ