BERLIN — This past week marked the beginning of a period of peace and quiet for Muslims around the world. It is Ramadan, a month dedicated to reflection, prayers, and fasting, where disputes are meant to be avoided wherever possible. But instead of harmony, conflicts around Ramadan itself have increasingly been coming to the fore in German schools. There is increasing discussion of health risks, especially for fasting children, of coercion and unfulfilled duties.

"Many students now take fasting very seriously," says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, President of the German Teachers' Association. At schools with a significant number of families from a Muslim background — and there are now many of them across Germany — how to react to observing students during the month of Ramadan has become a central topic that school administrators and teachers must confront.

In some cases, the Muslim parents are exerting strong pressure on school administrations not to schedule any examinations or field trips during this period. It becomes particularly difficult when the religious concerns of a few individual students restrict all students. "We are sort of asked to massage examinations for all students during a certain period of time. That's not possible," Meidinger says. "We're already constantly discussing whether schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves." The questions raised by the Muslim practice of fasting are, however, much more crucial for the practical role of education.

This year the problem is particularly serious. For these days not only mark the beginning of the Ramadan: After Pentecost, all pupils in Germany are faced with a last great wave of exams. High school students still have some written and almost all of their oral examinations ahead of them. It's simply not possible to put these exams several weeks back. For the fasting students, this is particularly difficult — especially for those who take the fasting commandment so seriously that they don't drink water during the day. "There are always students who simply pass out," Meidinger says.

There's growing peer pressure to fast.

The Association for Education and Upbringing (VBE) also fears the issues related to Ramadan. "Primary school children don't have to fast, and neither should they," says the association's chairman Udo Beckmann. Not eating any food for a long time and above all not drinking anything can harm your physical well-being. The students' performance and their ability to concentrate are also severely affected. And according to the VBE, more and more young people take the fasting commandment seriously.

Nowadays, even children in elementary school have begun fasting, even though Islamic sources say that young people are only obliged to observe the commandments from puberty onwards. But younger kids apparently want to emulate the older ones — fasting seems, somehow, cool. "Often the children fast because they want to impress their parents," explains Karin Jahn, who runs a primary school in the Berlin district of Wedding.

As it happens, the children have been sent to school with food and drink, but don't touch them. Although not all Muslim children fast at school, Jahn believes that there's growing peer pressure on them to do so. "If I have three children in a class who fast at the beginning (of Ramadan), there will soon be five and then ten."

Breaking fast in Germany — Photo: Fredrik Von Erichsen/DPA/ZUMA

Jahn too believes that children's health suffers from fasting, but she says her room for maneuver is limited. "How teachers deal with individual pupils, in this case, depends on their own intuition."

It's clear that politicians are uncertain about how to deal with the topic of Ramadan in schools. On the one hand, they try hard to preserve the religious freedom of Muslim children. After all, Christian also have their own fasting period, Lent, before Easter — though hardly any student still does it voluntarily. On the other hand, state authorities need to respond to the demands of schools, including the basic physical protection of children.

In the Berlin district of Neukölln, a twelve-point recommendation guide for Ramadan was given out to schools and parents a year ago. But in trying to compromise, the guide winds up sounding vague. Here's one example: "The age at which fasting should begin is not clearly defined. There are very different views among Islamic experts as to when fasting should begin," it reads. Elsewhere, it says: "There is no coercion in religion. A health hazard to the child or adolescent is not in the interest of Islam." What can a teacher do with that statement?

Priority should always be given to health and school performance.

The former mayor of Neukölln and now Federal Minister for Family Affairs Franziska Giffey (from the Socialist Party SPD) had initiated the work on this guide, in cooperation with Muslims — but she seemed disenchanted with the result. What came out was a "minimal consensus," she says. She also laments about the unwillingness of mosque leaders to take part in the debate.

Hermann Gröhe, the parliamentary representative for churches and religious communities for Angela Merkel's CDU party, demands a greater commitment from those concerned: "The Muslim associations should participate intensively in a public debate on the protection of children," Gröhe says. "I take the concerns expressed by teachers, but also by pediatricians, very seriously." For primary school children, in particular, priority should always be given to health and school performance. "Religious pressure must be avoided, as must the disparagement of religious commandments," Gröhe emphasizes that there should be no social pressure to start fasting from a very young age.

A look into the religious sources could relax the discussion over how to deal appropriately with fasting in the school's everyday life. "The Koran is clear about the duties and rights of fasting," says the Islamic theologian Serdar Kurnaz of the University of Hamburg. "When you find yourself in a situation where you cannot fast comfortably, you do not fast." This could apply, for example, to physical education classes — and especially to the upcoming end-of-year examinations.


See more from Culture / Society here