“Pierre Vogel?! Everybody here knows who he is.” This appraisal by a teacher in Berlin’s Neukölln district reflects the pervasiveness of Salafist messaging in public life. It also points out the need for training and counselling that can enable educational staff to deal with this problem.
In the light of polarised debates surrounding Islam and Muslims in Germany – together with the impact of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq – educators are faced with the challenge of having to address religious issues more frequently as part of their work with their students. This means, of course, that they must develop ways of dealing with the topics of Islam, racism, and radicalisation.
Examples of this can be found in the reports of teachers and social workers concerning the controversial disputes that arose among young people in Berlin in the wake of the Paris attacks in January 2015. As in similar debates over the past years, the faith of young Muslims came under sharp media focus. As a response, demonstrative and defiant avowals of Islam were frequently made by youths of Turkish or Arab descent (“Je suis Muslim!”). This also affected youths for whom religion does not play a role everyday life. As a reaction to public discussions concerning Islam, they often embrace religion as a means of provocation.
This desire for protest and provocation is a mainstay of Salafist agitators. They seize upon rudderless adolescents’ and young adults’ deeply felt desire for orientation and community. But Salafist agitation promotes an anti-democratic and illiberal understanding of Islam.
Objectives and programmes
It is against this background that we devised a model project offering ongoing training, guidance, and advice for educational professionals (both for in-school use as well as for extracurricular settings) that can enable them to counter and prevent violent Islamism.
Our project entails staff training aimed at establishing a mid- to long-term rooting of general preventive approaches relating to Islam, racism, and Islamism in educational work. The training provides all the requisite know-how while simultaneously outlining methods for strengthening Muslim as well as non-Muslim youths in their social skills, sense of judgment, as well as their ability to act, especially when faced with cultural and religious differences. Guidance is given on how to empower Muslim youths to take an active role in schools and other institutions, which can help promote a more wholesome climate within the learning group and institution. Key to this is the counteracting of anti-Muslim resentment and reservations, prevention of potential experiences of alienation, and avoidance of disintegrative and violence-promoting factors. Our training also seeks to stimulate educators to reflect upon their own opinions regarding Islam, religiousness, and identity to promote a better understanding of students with Muslim backgrounds.
In order to guarantee a long-term effect, training explicitly addresses both teachers as well as staff involved in extra-curricular activities.
Additionally, the project also offers on-going guidance and support. The goal is to prepare and provide information appropriate to the given situation, the continued development of the approaches used, and to initiate sustainable project formats (for example, workshops, project days, working groups, and excursions). Based on the assumption that concrete demand for our services does exist, additional sponsors/carriers are to be integrated in the development of project formats.
In light of a significant increase in the demand for training and guidance in elementary schools and kindergartens, programmes aimed at supporting these institutions in handling questions about religiousness and identity development are currently being developed. It is important to note that the training is not limited to strategies for dealing with the phenomenon of violent Islamism. In addition, it is intended to strengthen (Muslim) children in their identity and religious self-image long before they become exposed to Salafist ideas.
The project is sponsored by the Berlin State Office for Equal Treatment and against Discrimination of the Senate Administration for Integration, Employment and Social Affairs in Berlin (funding period 1 October 2015 – 31 December 2019).