Muslim teachers in Berlin, the German capital, have been authorized to wear Islamic headscarves in the classroom after a court determined that the city’s religious neutrality law, which imposes a blanket ban on sectarian clothing and symbols in public schools, is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Muslim Brotherhood associated figures and organizations were instrumental in reversing the ban and are treating the decision as a major victory.
Berlin is one of eight German states with neutrality laws of this type. Berlin’s abandonment of this measure is likely now to lead to Islamist efforts to rescind parallel laws in the other states.
German political commentator, Anabel Schunke, who has followed the headscarf ban issue for many years, told FWI that the policy change, which marks the latest chapter of a decades long legal battle between Islamists and their opponents over headscarves, is “a symptom of the general incapability of German politicians to realize that criticizing the archaic rules of radical Islam has nothing to do with racism.” Headscarves, she said, “are not ‘just a piece of cloth’ but a symbol of political Islam.” She added that the pressure within the Muslim community to wear a headscarf “has been increasing for years” and “the more girls with headscarves in school, the greater the pressure on the others.” A teacher with a headscarf “will make the situation even worse.”
Berlin’s two-decade-old neutrality law, which was designed to combat the spread of political Islam in the public school system, has long been a target for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that — mirroring the U.S.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — have fought tooth and nail against headscarf bans.
Berlin’s Neutrality Act (Neutralitätsgesetz) was promulgated in January 2005 amid a raging nationwide debate over the growing presence of Islamist symbols — exemplified by the hijab and other female head coverings — in public sector institutions. The measure focuses on public schools because teachers in Germany are civil servants.
The neutrality law prohibits “teachers and other employees with a pedagogical mandate” from wearing “visible religious or ideological symbols that demonstrate affiliation to a specific religious or ideological community” including “conspicuous religious or ideological clothing” while on the job in public primary and secondary schools. This includes Islamic headscarves as well as Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps.
Ever since the law entered into force, Islamist groups, including some with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, have tried to nullify it through anti-“Islamophobia” campaigns, government lobbying, and strategic lawsuits.
One such legal action involved a Muslim woman who was fired from a teaching position in Berlin in 2017 because she refused to remove her headscarf in the classroom. In August 2020, Germany’s Federal Labor Court (Bundesarbeitsgericht) ruled in the woman’s favor. It declared that a blanket ban on wearing a Muslim headscarf on the job “violates the freedom of religion” that is protected by Article 4 of the German Constitution, known as the Basic Law (Grundgesetz). The court ordered Berlin to pay the woman more than 5,000 euros in compensation. Berlin appealed the decision.
In January 2023, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) upheld the lower court’s ruling by declining to review the case. The decision, which is final, was in line with a previous ruling by the same court in January 2015 which held that a blanket ban on headscarves for teachers in public schools in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia was unconstitutional. The judges declared that attempts to “privilege Western Christian educational and cultural values” violate the Basic Law.
On March 28, the Berlin Senate Department for Education (Senatsbildungsverwaltung) sent a circular to all public school principals in the German capital, stating that Berlin’s government will henceforth “move away from its previous literal application of the neutrality law.” It explained that it would abandon a blanket prohibition on religious clothing and symbols, which will only be banned from classrooms “in cases where there is a specific threat to school peace or if it endangers state neutrality.”
The demise of Berlin’s Neutrality Act is a major victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated organizations, which have long opposed the law. One of these groups is a Berlin-based Islamic association called Inssan (Arabic for “people”), which is tied to the Brotherhood and generously funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF).
Inssan operates from the premises of an Islamist group called Muslim Youth in Germany (Muslimische Jugend in Deutschland, MJD), a proselytizing organization dedicated to spreading fundamentalist Islam among Muslim and non-Muslim children. The property that houses Inssan was purchased by one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim Brotherhood operatives, the Egyptian-German Islamist Ibrahim El-Zayat.
Although MJD claims to be independent, an investigation by the German Parliament (Bundestag) revealed that it is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate, the Brussels-based Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO), an influential Islamist group that actively opposes European laws that promote secularism.
A key figure in the legal effort to defeat Berlin’s Neutrality Act is Turkish-German lawyer Zeynep Çetin, who was, before receiving unwanted media attention for her aggressive activism, a project coordinator for the so-called Network against Discrimination and Islamophobia (Netzwerks gegen Diskriminierung und Islamfeindlichkeit). The group is part of Inssan and is tied to the German Muslim Association (Deutsche Muslimische Gemeinschaft, DMG), formerly called the Islamic Community of Germany (Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland, IGD), which, according to German intelligence, is the central organization for Muslim Brotherhood followers in Germany.
Other Islamist groups involved in the campaign to overturn Berlin’s Neutrality Act included the Anti-Discrimination Network of Berlin (ADNB), which was founded by Inssan and the Turkish Federation in Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB), a group that, among other aims, seeks to repeal a longstanding rule that only German may be spoken in city schoolyards because it “disrespects” Muslim students. ADNB lawyer Maryam Haschemi Yekani litigated the lawsuits aimed at bringing Islamic headscarves into Berlin classrooms.
Inssan activists also exerted influence on the so-called Expert Commission on Anti-Muslim Racism (Expertenkommission zu antimuslimischem Rassismus), which was established by the Berlin Senate to investigate “Islamophobia” in the German capital. The commission’s final report criticized the neutrality law as “systematic and institutionalized discrimination against women with headscarves,” and branded it as an example of “institutional and structural anti-Muslim racism.”
Berlin’s public school system has become a battleground between Islamists and secularists due to mass migration and the staggering number of Muslim students, who comprise the majority in roughly half of the 120 secondary schools in the city. In some schools, more than 90 percent of students are Muslim. This has fueled concerns that Berlin schools are becoming hotbeds of Islamic radicalism and separatism.
Germany’s largest women’s rights organization, Terre des Femmes, denounced the reversal of Berlin’s Neutrality Act. In a statement it said that “from a Western point of view, we tend to view the headscarf from a non-political perspective,” but “in political Islam, which is not compatible with the basic values of our democracy, the headscarf manifests the unequal treatment of men and women.” It added that Muslim girls who do not wear a headscarf often “suffer religious bullying” and are sometimes “referred to as ‘sluts’ and ‘unclean whores,’” and that teachers wearing headscarves will “reinforce such stereotypes.”
German Islamism expert Zara Riffler wrote that the defeat of Berlin’s Neutrality Act “is a success for political Islam, which for years has fought it in the courts and lobbied against it in politics.” She described the law’s reversal as “a step backwards” for Berlin.
Anabel Schunke, the German political commentator, told FWI that Germany is losing the fight against Islamism. “If you ask me, it is already too late,” she said. “In many German schools (not only in big cities like Berlin) most of the students are migrants, most of them Muslims. Muslim kids are not integrating into the German culture, but rather, German kids are integrating into the Islamic culture.”
Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.