Criticism of religious beliefs is offensive

Radicalization Prevention Information Service

Götz Nordbruch

Dr. Götz Nordbruch is an Islamic and social scientist, co-founder and co-managing director of the ufuq.de association. Nordbruch worked as a research assistant at the Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur le Mondes Arabes et Musulmans (IREMAM) in Aix-en-Provence and at the Georg Eckert Institute - Leibniz Institute - for international textbook research in Braunschweig. From 2008-2011 he was Assistant Professor at the Center for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Odense in the South of Denmark.

Criticism of religion or demonstration of power?

After the murder of the French history teacher Samuel Paty, numerous voices publicly called for teachers to speak about the so-called Mohammed cartoons in class. The article takes a critical look at this demand and asks when and how it makes sense to use caricatures that are critical of religion in educational work.

Series: Dealing with attacks in school (symbol image) (& copy photo: Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash)

In October 2020, the French history teacher Samuel Paty was the victim of an Islamist murder attempt. In class he had spoken to his students about cartoons of Mohammed that had appeared in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He left it up to the young people whether they wanted to look at the pictures or not. After the murder, voices were raised in France calling for the Mohammed cartoons to be shown in class even more vehemently. The point is to demand freedom of expression and satire, especially against resistance. In Germany, too, there is a discussion as to whether the caricatures should be shown in class in order to encourage critical examination of religious values ​​and traditions.

However, not everything that is legally possible also makes sense from an educational point of view. On the legal level it is clear: Religious people have to live with the fact that their religious creeds are criticized, questioned or even made ridiculous in public. Criticism of religion played an important role in history in order to fight for human rights and democracy against religious institutions.

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The legal limits of criticism of religion are marked by the criminal offenses of insult and sedition. Even the so-called blasphemy paragraph §166 StGB does not protect the religious creed or the feelings of believers - but public peace, if it could be impaired by blasphemy. However, the vehemence with which the showing of the Mohammed caricatures is demanded as a pedagogical tool should give food for thought. Often it seems less about education and the promotion of democratic values ​​than about a show of power.

In educational work, criticism of religion is not an end in itself. And religious beliefs - for example that the depiction of the prophet from a religious perspective is not allowed - are free to everyone, even in school and in class. It is the task of educational institutions to initiate learning processes and to promote the development of pupils into "responsible citizens". Teachers have to shape these learning processes.

The Mohammed cartoons and the Beutelsbach consensus

For the question of whether caricatures critical of religion should also be used as material in lessons, the principles of the Beutelsbach Consensus (see the article on bpb.de) of political education offer an orientation:
  1. Controversy requirement:
  2. "What is controversial in science and politics must also appear controversial in class."

    The critical examination of religions plays an important role in politics, science and society and therefore of course also has a place in the classroom. It should be noted, however, that criticism of religion does not take place in a vacuum, but always reflects social power relations and historical experiences. It makes a difference whether criticism of religion is directed against the institution of the church and its handling of sexual violence against children or against the beliefs of an individual.

    The different contexts should also be taken into account, for example when it comes to criticizing Christianity or Judaism. Of course, religiously critical disputes with Judaism are also possible, but - especially in Germany - they run the risk of serving anti-Semitic resentments and awakening ("triggering") experiences of anti-Semitic hostility among Jews.

    A religious criticism of Islam is also charged: the critical examination of Islam as a religion cannot easily be separated from racist discourses about "the" Muslims. An example of this is the picture of the "little headscarf girl" drawn by the former SPD politician Thilo Sarrazin. His criticism of the headscarf as a supposed symbol of religious backwardness is interwoven with racist ideas about "the" Muslims.
  3. Overcoming prohibition:
  4. "It is not allowed to take the student by surprise - by whatever means - in the sense of desired opinions and thus prevent them from 'making an independent judgment'."

    Learning methods and materials must be designed in such a way that they allow students to make their own judgment and not overwhelm them. Against the background of the Islamist attacks and the racist instrumentalisation of the caricatures, the caricatures in the magazine Charlie Hebdo are so burdened in many ways that they almost inevitably appear "overwhelming". Showing the caricatures would be conceivable, for example, if it were explicitly about dealing with these political and religious instrumentalizations - that is, the "overwhelming" aspect of the caricatures itself became the subject of the lesson.

    Ultimately, it always depends on who brings which messages into the classroom and with what intention this happens: When a teacher actually wants to convey to her Muslim students by showing the Mohammed cartoons that "we" have freedom of expression, she acts it is not a pedagogical approach, but "an authoritarian attack" [1], as the French Middle East scholar Olivier Roy calls it. He describes this as an attempt "to force Muslims to look at the cartoons. As if to force them to eat pork. That has nothing to do with freedom of expression."
  5. Student orientation:
  6. "The pupil must be put in a position to analyze a political situation and his own interests, as well as to look for ways and means to influence the existing political situation in the interests of his interests."

    The aim of the lessons is to enable the pupils to deal with a question and to develop options for action against the background of their own interests and experiences that are important for their assessment of a situation (this includes, for example, experiences of racism, discrimination due to social situation, sexual orientation, etc.). Showing caricatures critical of religion should therefore serve the purpose of encouraging students to weigh their own experiences and interests against the perspectives of others and to develop their own, reflective attitude.

Sensible use of caricatures critical of religion

If you take these principles as a basis - and it is impossible for the teacher to want to hurt students or in the sense of a "They-have-to-finally-understand!" To overwhelm - it is actually quite clear: Showing caricatures critical of religion makes sense if they enable educational processes that are adapted to the learning group and that enable (self-critical) reflections on their own convictions and life plans against the background of their individual experiences.

In a heterogeneous learning group in Berlin-Spandau, other impulses would then make sense than in a Catholic high school or an upper school center in the Uckermark. Because when dealing with caricatures that are critical of religion, as in any other lesson, the methods must follow the learning goal and the learning group - and not the other way around. It is to be hoped that the young people will actually succeed in a reflective examination of their own convictions, but this cannot be enforced by showing the Mohammed cartoons.

At the beginning of such a learning process, however, there would be a step backwards in any case: Teachers should make sure for themselves with what aim they choose the cartoons as learning material: Is it about political education, personal development and strengthening the students' tolerance of ambiguity or about provocation and the Show of power?

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