Islamic Religious Education in Contemporary Austrian Society: Muslim Teachers Dealing with Controversial Contemporary Topics
1. Introduction: Islamic Religious Education in Secular Public Schools
2. The Genesis of Islamic Religious Education in Austria
3. Review of Related Literature
- Defining controversial topics and issues: The literature provides various definitions. For instance, Stradling (1984) considers matters that generate conflicting explanations and solutions based on alternative value systems, and that deeply divide society, as controversial. Then again, according to Dearden (1981), “a matter is controversial if contrary views can be held on it without those views being contrary to reason” (p. 38). A more differentiated definition is provided by Crook and Truscott (2007), drawing on Dearden (1981): controversy arises from “insufficient facts to settle the issue, or disagreement on the relative value of known facts” (p. 130). Crook and Truscott’s definition also takes into account that human views, valuations and interpretations of facts can cause controversy. Further definitions and characterizations can be found, for instance, in the works of Bailey (1975), Gardner (1984) and Nicholls and Nelson (1992).
- Openly teaching a subject or a topic as controversial: Some scholars focus on the question of whether a subject or a topic should be taught “as controversial” or taught “normatively”. In this context, Hand (2008), drawing on Dearden (1981), defines “teaching a subject or topic as controversial” as the open teaching of differing views. Subsequently, Hand suggests that the decision regarding whether a subject is taught as controversial or normative should depend on epistemic (Dearden 1981), behavioral (Bailey 1975) and political (Hand 2007) criteria. That is to say, an issue should be taught openly as controversial when “two or more conflicting views on a matter enjoy the support of corroborating evidence or credible arguments”, or when “numbers of people are observed to disagree about statements and assertions made in connection with the issue” (Darden, quoted in Hand 2008, p. 217), or when “no answer to it is entailed by the public values of the liberal democratic state” (Hand 2007, p. 71; Hand 2008, pp. 214, 221). Hand’s approach has been criticized, among other reasons, for not recognizing religious arguments (Cooling 2012) and for being too narrow and not enough considering public-social dynamics sufficiently (Cooling 2012; Hess and McAvoy 2015).
- Teaching controversy: Then again, other scholars emphasize teaching “controversy”, understood as the training and development of civic tolerance towards contrary, competing points of view (Kohlberg 1971; Barton and McCully 2007). In this regard, Goldenson (1978) indicates that discussing controversial topics and issues would promote such controversy.
4. Methodological Framework
- Clarke’s finding that postmodern emphases such as “partialities, positionalities, complications, tenuousness, instabilities, irregularities, contradictions, heterogeneities, situatedness, and fragmentation—complexities” characterize knowledge and findings (Clarke 2005, p. xxiv), leaving positivistic social sciences behind and embracing the postmodern turn;
- the supplementation of Grounded Theory analyses by cartographic situation analysis—so-called “Mapping”;
- the expansion of social action with an ecological guiding metaphor of social worlds, arenas, negotiations and discourses as an alternative conceptual infrastructure;
- taking the complexity of postmodern life into account and developing systematic and flexible research design (Clarke 2005, pp. 291–94).
5.1. Stakeholders’ Different Expectations and Perceptions: Islam, a Controversial Religion in a Diverse Society?
This example shows that the stakeholders tended to favor their own perspectives and confront Muslim teachers with the request that they take a stand. Naz, for instance, was asked to take a stand on the perspective of her non-Muslim colleague. The issue of the headscarf or other clothing was brought up in other school contexts, such as gymnastics or swimming lessons. For instance, Hud (32 years old, male) reported that some schools asked for his help to solve the issue of swimming and Muslim clothing:And there was a teacher, for example, who said about the headscarf or general covering: "Yes, don’t you think this commandment [headscarf or covering] was only intended for that time? Because it was very hot there and it was a different climate and a different country. And you’re in another country now, it’s not that hot anymore and you are safer, you don’t need to protect yourself from anyone.”(Naz 107)6
In this narrative, Hud suggests that the solutions mentioned are not real solutions. Similar thoughts were also found in the narratives of other interviewees, where teachers complained about the lack of “real” solutions, or of permanent and commonly accepted ones. Although Islamic religious education has been offered since 1982/83, and Muslims have a long history in the country, the teachers’ reports suggest that there are no permanent, regulative common solutions in sight. Ela (43 years old, female) described this repetitive situation, where the same topics kept coming up again and, if solved, were only solved in the individual case for the time being, as follows:We had a problem with swimming lessons, where the school brought me on board, and then we found a common solution. The student is covered and does not want to take swimming lessons. The problem is that the school rules stipulate that she has to take part. […] Currently there is no real solution. They say: “There is this Islamic clothing or swimsuit.” That is the solution that we offered and the school even ordered one for her […]. And another solution, that was an internal solution, one I don’t want to reveal.(Hud 178)
Based on the situation examined, some of the interviewed teachers, such as Ela or Nuh, indicated that one of Muslim teachers’ tasks is to balance and bring Muslim traditions in line with non-Muslim traditions and the resulting expectations. Nuh (45 years old, male) described this balance, referring to the example of swimming and Muslim clothing, in the following narrative:It keeps coming and going again. But the main thing is that we take it seriously, accept it and sometimes not remain tacit, but instead have the courage to talk about it. It was already there, it will come up again, but I don’t take it personally.(Ela 102)
Further analysis of this theme brings the following issue to the surface: sometimes, requests from stakeholders like those above can be very taxing and demanding. In these cases, stakeholders asked not just for the assistance of Muslim teachers, but demanded and expected that Muslim teachers take the position of the stakeholder themselves. For instance, Naz related such an experience, where her principal demanded that she take his position regarding Muslim fasting during Ramadan, and write a letter to parents covering the principal’s position on the topic in her name:Often the problem is, for example, that the principals come to me and want from me for example, yes, the girls should be allowed to go swimming. But on the other hand, there is indeed a dress code, and balancing that is of course not so easy. It was also clear to me that we as Muslims, as convinced, practicing Muslims, have a worldview, and this worldview should also be feasible in Austria. In theory and practice it is, but it’s not always like that. I should also suggest solutions which serve both sides.(Nuh 22)
Naz certainly agreed with the principal’s statement that “children in primary school are not obliged to fast”, but nevertheless, she turned down her principal’s demand, because in her view this demand represents a prohibition of individual freedom of religion and conscience, and, at the same time, is a dictation to her. She set out her position as follows:For example, the principal wanted me to write a letter to parents, where it says: “Children in primary school are not obliged to fast. That’s why they shouldn’t fast.” I as a religion teacher should formulate it and then give it to the parents to sign.(Naz 95)
Such expectations and demands from non-Muslim stakeholders often appeared as unwelcome in the teachers’ narratives. Teachers often perceived such demands as a form of interference in Muslim internal affairs and a prohibition of legal rights, even if they are well intentioned and even if the teachers agreed with the core message of the expectation or demand.I said, “I certainly won’t do that. Because I can’t decide whether someone should fast now or not. That’s right, from an Islamic point of view children in primary school are not obliged, but if they want to then nobody can prohibit them from doing that.”(Naz 95)
Teachers, for instance Ela, saw such cases as a forced defensive position in which Muslims, especially Muslim teachers, had to justify and defend themselves and their religious traditions and beliefs. This perception is described by Ela as follows:Yes, if we take IS as an example, IS or terror, Al Qaeda, whatever. There are many teachers who speak to the students. Yes, consciously or subconsciously, I don’t want to judge either. And the students are then in a corner. Yes, they want to answer, they cannot answer. Yes, and then they come to us and ask us.(Hud 146)
Ela continued her story and also spoke about her feelings in connection with external projections on Muslims and being forced into a position of self-justification, which seemed to be unavoidable:I don’t know why, but we’re always on trial, where we are constantly questioned. About things around the world, especially what’s going on in Europe. And we try again to tell them of our innocence or to tell them of the true Islam.(Ela 106)
Even though these projections were not welcomed by Muslim teachers, and were sometimes overly taxing, they forced Muslims to process, examine and reflect on their own religious beliefs, views and traditions. They also drove people to rethink, process, discuss and reflect on the situation of Muslims all over the world.It always annoys me. That we have such a position, have always been answering questions about things [such as men and women in Arabic culture and various incidents where Muslims were involved] where we are not directly addressed and are not directly involved. But nevertheless, somehow, we have to take over and process and have to justify.(Ela 106)
5.2. Common Controversial Topics in the Context of Diversity
From the analysis of the interview data, this seems to be very problematic in terms of religious and inter-Muslim diversity, especially when students develop prejudices and attitudes that exclude other creeds and worldviews. This can lead to controversial discourses, to tensions and to the suppression of freedom of speech and of any kind of diversity. In the experience of several interviewees, students’ approaches to these topics and their conclusions depended, among other factors, on their social environment and contacts. Cem (42, male) explained this issue with the example of one of his students, who tended to reject inter-Islamic diversity and disagreement (ikhtilaf), as follows:In my experience, the students take it the way they want it, often not how I played it or said it to them, and therefore, we have to be careful.(Nuh 22)
In Cem’s and other teachers’ experience, such tendencies towards strong and radical prejudices, attitudes and behavior cannot be undone with one or two lessons, especially when students are influenced by external sources:Well, if he can’t tolerate disagreement within Islam, if he says: “Only my opinion is the right opinion”, or: “I know, and I don’t care about anybody else, and they are not legitimate Muslims.” Then there is a risk that such a student is quickly radicalized.(Cem 182)
In the teachers’ experience, students can get information and instructions from doubtful online sources (for instance, social media or various platforms and web pages) or from their personal environment, which can influence a student’s worldview and lead to radical tendencies and creeds. According to the interview data, this becomes visible in Islamic religious education as well as in other school subjects, especially when students take part in discussions or take a stand on controversial topics. In some cases, like the following case related by Naz, other subject teachers can approach Muslim teachers and share their concerns about the worrying attitudes of Muslim students:I try to address that in class, but sometimes we or I have no success with it. That is, when the students go outside of Islamic religious education to somewhere where they get this information, then we have no way to convince them in an hour or two hours.(Cem 186)
In addition to the problem of rejecting diversity and tending towards radicalism, there are common topics which can, according to the interviewed teachers, be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted because they are controversial in many ways and because there is no such thing as “one” Islamic position or view on them. For instance, Hud took the example of evolution and questioned current Muslim approaches to this topic:The Catholic religion teacher comes, sees me as the responsible person and asks: “Did you hear, he did this and that. It’s a big problem, that will not do, we have to discuss that.” […] Back then, they were ISIS problems. When students had made statements in this regard.(Naz 28–30)
Interviewed teachers traced the difficulty of controversial topics back to this lack of unity or to the current diversity of approaches, and lamented that there is no commonly accepted approach or solution, whether in wider society or within the Muslim community. In this context, teachers pointed out that theological Muslim approaches should not just include the Koran, but should also consider the reality of human experience. For instance, this point is illustrated in the following narrative from Hud regarding homosexuality:Issues like evolution, of course, are issues that I find a bit problematic to consider. Because we have no unity here. We have an answer from the Koran, of course, but we are faced with many issues. Yes, the multiplication of humans or humanity. Then there are now also scholars, so-called scholars or real scholars, who support evolution now.(Hud 140)
Here, Hud addressed many issues about homosexuality and controversial topics in general. Firstly, he suggested that there was a (Muslim) tendency to suppress and deny homosexuality, which in his eyes was not a feasible strategy. Secondly, he posed the question of what exactly the problem in this matter was. He suggested that homosexuality itself was not the problem, but that it generated problems. The analysis of the data, on the contrary, showed not that the topics generated problems, but that humans generate problems.Homosexuality, for example. Of course, you can look at it from the perspective of Islam and say, “Okay, that’s the way according to the Koran.” But we can no longer suppress it and say, “Okay, there’s no such thing.” Yes, it does exist. You also have to be able to explain it to the students. Yes, such problems, not problem-related issues but problem-generating issues, also need answers.(Hud 140)
5.3. Approaching Controversial Topics in Islamic Religious Education: Avoid or Make Them Suitable for Everyone?
At first glance, one might think that the interviewed teachers just preferred to be comfortable and did not like challenges, but the data supplies a more comprehensible explanation, namely that they were being self-protective and self-preserving. As there is no commonly accepted solution to the controversial topics and no supporting material, whether in the curriculum or in the school textbooks for Islamic religious education, teachers would have to prepare such topics completely by themselves and would have to take full responsibility for the self-prepared topic and the statements made. Several teachers reported that, in the case of controversial topics, self-prepared approaches, especially approaches based on traditional religious views (and language), could be very problematic. For instance, Hud gave a concrete example of a seemingly controversial and problematic statement made by another Muslim teacher:Sometimes, I don’t want to address topics that are difficult for me. If they [students] ask, I’ll go through it. But if I don’t completely know how to pass it on, then I skip it.(Ece 149)
Hud continued and connected this statement about women to accepting constitutional ideas and rules. He described these as a basic expectation of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, as follows:There was a teacher recently who made a statement about women, where he rated women as weak, weaker than men. Yes, such topics should preferably be avoided.(Hud 192)
The faith community expects from me this basic idea, basic rules, yes, that you recognize the Austrian constitution.(Hud 192)
Here, Hud took as an example the status of women in Islamic jurisprudence as witnesses, and subsequently the topic of gender equality. In his eyes, some Muslim statements and views regarding women’s rights could be easily misunderstood and seen as judgmental and contrary to Austrian and European constitutional law. In summary, the issue was not falling into haram/halal judgments.I’ve already given a few examples. I mean homosexuality, yes there is an Islamic perspective; nowadays there is a position there, but if I start to evaluate it, then I’m in another area again. I can even make myself punishable because I am making judgments about others, not about that but about people. Yes, and there you can easily slip into the wrong level. You can do that with any topic. I mean, we said the position of the woman, the witnesses. The moment I say: “The woman is weak”, according to someone. Then either I have to explain it in such a way that it fits everyone or I forgo it.(Hud 196)
Ece also suggested in her narrative here that this practice could promote maturity by allowing the students to choose, to make up their own minds and make their own decisions in matters of religion. If this is true, it could not be examined with the available research data, but previous studies could give helpful indications. For instance, the research on Muslim students’ motivations for opting out of Islamic religious education (Tuna 2014) indicates that some parents and students could reject this kind of approach, because they understood Islamic religious education as “religious nurture” (Grimmit 1981, p. 42) or an education “into religion” (Berglund 2015, p. 5), teaching and training an “Islamic” or “Muslim” faith, creed and tradition, which they assume to be monolithic.I say at least the opinions, but also say who represents what. Because some are from Atib,7then they say: “It is not the case with us.” Then I say: “Yes, you should choose and not take what is given to you.”(Ece 72)
6. Discussion of Findings
- Open communication as equals: Stakeholders’ and pupils’ approaches towards religion and religious topics—such as the headscarf, Muslim clothing, fasting, etc.—depend on their individual perceptions and views. This concludes in unsettled controversy, which in turn forces people to communicate. Therefore, Habermas’s disputed and criticized (see Hennig 2015; Bergdahl 2009) idea of “translation” could be a basically valid approach, as stakeholders and students are challenged but also encouraged to communicate their views on (controversial) issues; however, there is a need for an educational concept addressing the one-sided, demanding, bias-limited, offensive/defensive and informal character of the communication. Open communication as equals would be more fruitful, especially in matters of controversy and dialogue within society.
- Teaching controversy: An additional key finding of the study is that controversial topics that are a result of diversity, which in turn is a part of human nature, cannot be solved in the way that the interviewed teachers expect. They want commonly accepted, permanent and normative (so-called “real”) solutions, which appear to be impossible. The analysis indicates that the only workable solution may be to teach and train controversy understood as a peaceful acceptance of human differences and disagreement (or diversity). In this context, the task of the Muslim teacher regarding diversity and controversy is not to solve the controversy, nor to create unity, but to promote an understanding of diversity, disagreement and controversy as being a part of (Godly-formed) human nature. This approach would also prevent teachers and students from being judgmental of others. Such a concept follows Zekirija Sejdini and Martina Kraml in their joint education research project “Interreligious Education”. To them, living peacefully in diversity, and the controversy that can result from this, requires, first of all, an anthropological approach and an awareness of contingency, understood as an openness to possibility (Sejdini et al. 2020 [in press], p. 111ff.)
- Islamic religious education and controversy as part of a holistic education: The teachers’ reports support the conclusion that students could reject disagreement, diversity or controversy and become radicalized, when they receive one-sided, narrow information and views from doubtful sources. In this regard, the findings show that against the trend in Austrian and European political and social discourses, which holds Islamic religious education and Islamic religion teachers responsible for integration (or a lack thereof) and for the prevention of radicalization (Berglund 2015), Islamic religious education alone, whether in terms of teaching time or as a general concept, is not enough to prevent radicalization in any form. Rising radical tendencies in Austrian and European society, such as nationalism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, indicate that a controversy and pluralism capable of tolerant worldviews, attitudes and behavior cannot simply be taught and trained in one or two lessons or in one subject, but requires a holistic approach in all fields of education.
- Teaching controversy in Islamic religious education depends on the support and recognition of the Muslim community and broader society: In the analysis, it became clear that Muslim teachers prefer to avoid controversy in Islamic religious education in order to prevent risky misunderstandings and conflicts with the secular society (but also within the Muslim community). Teachers are led to this behavior by the following factors:
- the curriculum does not approach controversial issues (such as homosexuality or evolution), and there is a lack of teaching materials in general, and especially with regard to controversial topics (BGBL. II Nr. 234 2011; Shakir 2013). This means that teachers have to prepare controversial topics on their own and therefore have to take all the responsibility;
- the perception of Islam in society and the media, generally speaking, tends to be negative. Discourses on religious education more broadly, and especially when it comes to Islamic religious education, tend to be very controversial (Berglund 2015), and;
- there are hardly any clear statements or concepts from the Islamic religious community in Austria which could help teachers to plan, and to put these topics into a wider picture.
- Denominational but controversial? The study findings indicate that there is a deep issue regarding the different understanding and conceptualization of (Islamic) religious education within the Muslim community and, in general, society, which goes beyond the scope of this work—therefore, the contribution here can only scratch the surface of it. Teachers interviewed in the study reported and suggested that some topics, if not avoidable, should be taught in a way that suits everyone. This approach could match the concept of “teaching about” (Grimmit 1981; Berglund 2015), which in turn, corresponds to an open teaching “as controversial” (Hand 2008). At the same time, teachers in the study (such as Hud) tended to question and reject some of the Muslim approaches towards controversial issues such as homosexuality or evolution, and, in addition, they reported students’ rejection of inter-Muslim diversity. This kind of rejection, as well as former studies such as the study on the motivations of Muslim students opting out of Islamic religious education (Tuna 2014), indicate that teaching Islamic religious education openly as controversial is itself not undisputed in the Muslim community. In general, there is an ongoing academic (as well as a non-academic) dispute regarding what (Islamic) religious education is today, what its aim and purpose should be, and what the role of an (Islamic) religious education teacher is (Berglund 2015; Behr 2009; Niyozov and Memon 2011; Sahin 2013).
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The legal right to provide religious education in public schools is anchored in the Austrian constitution, Art. 17 (StGG. RGBL. Nr. 142 1867). The details of “denominational” religious education are regulated by the “religious education law” of 1949 (RelUG. BGBL. Nr. 190 1949). According to the law, denominational religious education is “provided, directed and directly supervised” by the respective religious community (§2 (1) RelUG. BGBL. Nr. 190 1949).
The recognition requirements are basically regulated by the “law of 29 May 1874 regarding requirements of the recognition of religious communities” (RGBL. Nr. 68 1874). Current requirements include, for instance, the need to have existed as a religious community in Austria for a period of at least 20 years (including 10 years in an organized form and at least 5 years as a state-registered religious community). In addition, the religious community must have at least 2 members per million (0.2 per cent) of the Austrian population after the last census (oesterreich.gv.at (2019)).
The coverage of Islamic Sunni and Shia schools was also added to the constitution of IRCA in 1988 (Heine 2005, p. 103).
While religious education is a mandatory school subject, the regulating religious education law allows students to opt out within the first five days of each school year, based on freedom of religion and conscience (§1 (2) RelUG. BGBL. Nr. 190 1949).
All quoted places and names are pseudonyms. Quotes are labeled at the end of the quote as follows: (pseudonym, paragraph number of the narrative).
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Tuna, M.H. Islamic Religious Education in Contemporary Austrian Society: Muslim Teachers Dealing with Controversial Contemporary Topics. Religions 2020, 11, 392. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080392
Tuna MH. Islamic Religious Education in Contemporary Austrian Society: Muslim Teachers Dealing with Controversial Contemporary Topics. Religions. 2020; 11(8):392. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080392Chicago/Turabian Style
Tuna, Mehmet H. 2020. "Islamic Religious Education in Contemporary Austrian Society: Muslim Teachers Dealing with Controversial Contemporary Topics" Religions 11, no. 8: 392. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080392