September 14, 2005

A.D. White Prof Discusses Islam in Schools

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Bassam Tibi continued his third visit to Cornell with a discussion on Islam in European public schools yesterday in Goldwin Smith Hall. Leila Mohsen Ibrahim grad, a native of Lebanon and doctoral candidate in government, shared the panel discussion with Tibi.

Tibi presented first, focusing on Germany, where he has taught for many years. He feels that there is a great lack of knowledge in Germany about the religion of Islam and Muslim people. He believes all students should be educated about Islam, whether they are Muslim or not, in order to increase awareness and acceptance.

“There is a great need to know about Islam in Europe,” Tibi said.

Tibi spoke about the importance of integrating Islam into Europe as well as European culture into Islam. He feels that though Muslims constitute a large percentage of the population in France, Germany and Great Britain, many Christians and Muslims still view Muslims as outsiders.

Tibi believes that much of the problem lies within the Muslim community, where parents try to shield their children from becoming assimilated and losing their faith and culture.

Nevertheless, xenophobia needs to be dealt with in Europe or there will be even more problems in the future. Population trends suggest that in 30 years, the number of Muslims in Europe will triple.

“Both have to come to terms with one another,” Tibi said.

A large part of the problem for Muslims in Europe relates to the segmentation of the Muslim religion along ethnic and religious lines. Because of this segmentation, there is not one organization promoting Muslim rights in Germany but two competing groups.

“Islam has always been characterized by diversity,” Tibi said.

Ibrahim focused her speech more on France, where she lived for many years. She spoke of a renewed republicanism in France starting in the 1980s that related its philosophical defense of secularism to the French Revolution.

Though France strives to have a model of political unity with minorities, there is a great need to integrate Islam into public space, according to Ibrahim.

A 1905 law mandating the separation of church and state helped create a nationally-bound system that elevates secularism above religion. French law guarantees neutrality between religions as well as a private sphere for religion; however, this neutrality often results in problems for religious observers.

One recent infamous example was a law prohibiting the wearing of overt religious symbols, such as crosses, Stars of David and headscarves, in public schools.

“The secularly-interested life is more valuable [in France] than a religious life,” Ibrahim said.

According to Ibrahim, France and Germany differ greatly in their perceptions of religion because Germany has always been religiously divided between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In Germany, this allows both religions a degree of autonomy from each other and the state not available in Catholic-dominated France.

The addition of Judaism as the third established religion in Germany helps create a more natural environment for the addition of other religions. Islam may soon be the fourth established religion, which would force German public schools to teach Islam as an academic subject.

“[There is] no such hostility to religion in Germany [as there is in France],” Ibrahim said.

After Ibrahim spoke, the audience was able to discuss the speeches and ask questions. Several audience members asked about the comparisons the speakers had made between Germany and France, wondering if their outlook on religion was as different as the speakers had alluded.

The discussion also examined the differences between a generally non-religious group of Christians in France, Germany and Great Britain and the practicing Muslims in those countries. Tibi felt that Muslims could adapt better in the United States because the it has strong cultural and religious orientations similarly to Islam.

In response to a comment Tibi made that Muslims in the States kiss the flag, even after the surge in anti-Muslim sentiment following Sept. 11, 2001, audience members said that Americans are considerably more patriotic.

“You would not see a German kissing a German flag,” said Prof. Antonia Ruppel, classics.

Tibi, the director of the Center for International Affairs at the University of Göttingen in Germany, began his position as an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large this fall. Tibi is well-known for his views on contemporary Islam and how Islam challenges Europe. He has written books and articles on modern Islam, Arab nationalism, democracy and religion as well as challenges between Islam and Europe. He has written in Arabic, English, German and French.

A native of Syria, Tibi has lived in Germany for 40 years, spending the past several years traveling around the world. In 1995, Tibi received a Medal of State/First Class from the president of Germany; he was selected Man of the Year by the American Biographical Institute in 1997 and won the European Awareness Prize Award from the Swiss Foundation along with Prof. Michael Wolffsohn of Munich in 2003.

The discussion was co-sponsored by the Department of German Studies, the Department of Government, the Einaudi Institute for European Studies and Andrew D. White Professors-at-Large.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staff Writer