Arabic in Germany: The latest hot-button issue

The influx of Syrian refugees brought teaching Arabic to immigrant communities back into the spotlight

Teaching Arabic has been affected by the rise in Islamaphobia across Europe. In part 1 of a three-part series, Al Majalla looks at the experience of Arab immigrants in Germany.
Aliaa Abou Khaddour
Teaching Arabic has been affected by the rise in Islamaphobia across Europe. In part 1 of a three-part series, Al Majalla looks at the experience of Arab immigrants in Germany.

Arabic in Germany: The latest hot-button issue

Teaching Arabic to Arab youth living in Germany had fallen by the wayside in the country’s public education system since the late 1950s when immigration began.

However, the influx of Syrian refugees in the past ten years—now numbering around 1 million—has brought renewed attention to the stagnant issue.

Before this latest wave of migration, most Arab communities in Germany were relatively small and widely dispersed, primarily comprising Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese.

However, Germany also has a larger, more established, and densely populated Muslim community who emigrated from Turkey. It now exceeds 3 million people and dates back to the “guest worker” arrangements of the post-war years that helped rebuild the country.

The German government and broader society have felt relatively uneasy about Islamic education in mosques, associated organisations, and private schools, which blend religious teachings with secular subjects.

Until the 1990s, Islam, as practised by the Turkish community, was largely apolitical because of Turkey's rigid secularism associated with its nationalist Kemalist movement, named after the founder of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic

Changing times

But that changed with the emergence of the more Islamic-orientated "Justice and Development Party" in Turkey and seeped into the politics of the Turkish expatriate community abroad.

From around 2000 to today, there has been a noticeable shift in Germany's Turkish community, where politics and religion are more intertwined.

Despite its peaceful and non-violent nature, German society has increasingly grown suspicious of the group, viewing it as a foreign-backed project with ulterior motives.

Syrian refugees

Before Syrian refugees arrived in Germany, the dominant form of Arab Islam in Germany was heavily influenced by the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Moroccan Islamic practices.

This trend dates back to the late 1950s. It follows a crackdown on the Brotherhood in Egypt from the more secular Nasserist regime, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president.

Consequently, some of the Brotherhood’s members migrated or sought refuge in Europe, establishing branches of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation in countries including Germany, Austria, and Britain.

In Germany, Moroccan Islamists interacted with Egyptian Brotherhood members, who, over time, overlapped with the influential and widespread Turkish Islamist movement.

This has shaped how the Arabic language has been taught to the Muslim community in Germany. Society's suspicion of Islamic education has negatively influenced the teaching of Arabic with little regard to the diverse nationalities and languages of its Muslim population.

That has diverted attention from addressing wider linguistic challenges and the connection to their mother tongues.

The interaction of Moroccan, Egyptian and Turkish Islamists affected how Arabic was taught to the immigrant Muslim community in Germany.

Mind your language

While the expanding influence of Turkish Islam and its organisational strength compelled Germany to incorporate the Turkish language, alongside Russian, into the curriculum of its official schools, Arabic has not received the same level of attention.

This is partly due to the relatively smaller size of Arab communities, their limited organisational capacity and their lack of cohesion before the substantial influx of Syrian refugees.

The Federal German Constitution ensures the principle of freedom of worship and the practice of all religious rituals for individuals throughout the entirety of Germany's federal territory.

Turkish Islam is highly organised, with robust groups and active institutions. Since the 1980s, it has been able to build mosques in numerous German cities and provinces, creating hubs for religious instruction and Islamic outreach activities.

In turn, the German government intervened to regulate mosque activity and mitigate any associated disorder. In 1984, the "Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs" was set up, commonly abbreviated as DITIB.

It began in Cologne in the largest and most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 15 million of the total population of 82 million. It also has the highest immigrant population.

The DITIB expanded rapidly to comprise 930 associations and 900 mosques spread across all 16 German states. This growth surged after the year 2000, helped by funding from the AKP in Turkey, which also provided training for imams.

The DITIB operates under the direct oversight of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet. Many Germans believe it is directly affiliated with Erdoğan personally.

Building mosques

Between 2000 and 2015, the number of mosques constructed in Germany doubled, ranging from 3,000 small-scale ones to 230 larger buildings. The national authorities noticed inconsistent management of the mosques.

When the DTIB was established, it replaced competing and conflicting entities and associations with diverse religious orientations and doctrines in their Quran, Sharia, and Islamic education teachings.

Instruction often took place in Turkish rather than German and, to a limited extent, in Arabic, depending on the presence and involvement of certain community members in mosque activities.

Nonetheless, this dynamic frequently led to competition and disputes, as those responsible for educational affairs, alongside mosque imams, were predominantly Turkish.

Aliaa Abou Khaddour

Imam Made in Germany

Under the banner of "Regulating Islamic Affairs," state governments in Germany introduced programmes under the motto "Imam Made in Germany." These programmes trained imams using meticulously crafted curricula established by educational institutions.

The goal was to equip them to provide Islamic education in German public schools in the German language, to have direct oversight of the training of imams, and to implement Islamic education programmes.

Before Syrian refugees came, the issue of educating Arab immigrant children in their native language had faded into the background.

And when they arrived, Syrians were focused on adapting to their new lives, learning the German language, and engaging in vocational training. These typically took immigrants three to four years and were mandatory in order to obtain permanent residency and gain access to the job market.

Families with children enrolled them in German public schools, where Islamic education was taught in German. One class per week was offered for those interested.

According to German statistics, most Syrian refugees are young, with an average age of 24; 70% are male, 58% are single, and 31% are married. A significant portion—71%—have received secondary education. Additionally, 44% are fluent in English.

Over time, the percentage of German speakers among them has increased to 56%. Furthermore, 80% of Syrian refugees intend to remain permanently in Germany.

These numbers suggest that the Syrian community in Germany is predominantly made up of educated people who are prepared to assimilate into the new society and contribute to the workforce.

Al Majalla spoke to the Berlin-based Syrian writer Rasha Abbas, who said many Syrian writers and intellectuals have chosen not to prioritise learning German because they are proficient in English.

In Germany, English is regarded as a secondary but crucial language for effective communication—especially for refugees, because all communities widely speak it.

Before Syrian refugees came, the issue of teaching Arab immigrant children in their native language had faded into the background.

This meant teaching Syrian children their mother tongue was not prioritised. And since German schools did not teach Arabic, unlike the Turkish or Russian languages, Syrians looked elsewhere for education, turning to homeschooling and support from mosques and Islamic association centres.

There have been events to celebrate the cultural inheritance of languages, including International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated in February.

At one private school in Berlin, there was a massive push from Arab families for their children to learn Arabic, fearing they would lose their mother tongue language.

A Moroccan-born Arabic teacher explained the feeling as a "homesickness for their native countries and past memories."

Learning Arabic was important to foster family bonds, memorise the Quran, and practise religious rituals, he explained, adding that  "Arabic and Islam are intertwined."

This school is typical of many other institutions across German cities. Known as Nour Schools, they typically offer instruction in Arabic to students on weekends, filling a gap left by the absence of Arabic teaching in official German schools. Many of these institutions are affiliated with mosques.

Aliaa Abou Khaddour

The curriculum often includes one hour of Arabic language instruction and two hours dedicated to learning Islamic religious principles. Parents typically drop their children off at school and socialise nearby.

Good for integration

Researchers found that teaching immigrants their mother tongues actually helps with their integration process into society, contrary to what far-right groups purport. They say that teaching Arabic in schools is important for fostering cultural diversity.

An article published in the Arabic section of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle noted, "The Arabic language, once only heard in Islamic institutes, can now be heard on the streets of Germany and even in some workplaces."

Such cultural change has led to growing calls for teaching Arabic in public schools—not least from people of Arab and Syrian descent who have acquired German citizenship.

Initiatives to support moves in this direction include translating the German constitution into Arabic and distributing it to the refugee and immigrant communities.

Some newspapers now have Arabic sections, and there is a weekly television programme in Arabic called Welcome to Germany, which aims to familiarise immigrants and refugees with German society and its laws.

Read more: How has Merkel's warm welcome of Syrian refugees panned out?

Researchers found that teaching immigrants their mother tongues actually helps with their integration process into society, contrary to what far-right groups purport.

The TV show has stoked criticisms of some elements of German society who fear the next step is to have "Imams reciting the Quran and the daily call to prayer on German television."

A decision to incorporate Arabic on a street sign in Dusseldorf also stoked controversy. Right-wing and conservative commentators decried it as the "Arabisation of Germany". 

However, others have welcomed these developments, seeing them as enriching the diverse tapestry of cultures in Germany.

Decades-long debate

The debate over Islam and Muslims, including the teaching of the Arabic language, has been ongoing in Germany for decades.

When Turkish labourers began arriving in the 1960s in Karlsruhe—the second-largest city in the state of Baden—it took them nearly 30 years to set up the Al-Nour mosque.

In an interview with Al Majalla, a Lebanese man who studied in the city recalled the mosque's social and cultural development.

A woman wearing a headscarf holds up a poster reading "A Muslim protects lives and does not take them" as she takes part in a so-called "Ramadan Peace March" of Muslims and friends against terrorism.

He recounted how Egyptian, Sudanese, and Moroccan immigrants collaborated with Turks to establish it. The founders called it an "Islamic University," aiming to teach the Holy Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, and the Turkish and Arabic languages. It attracted around 500 students of different ages, including girls wearing the headscarf.

But disputes soon emerged between Turkish and Arab stakeholders overseeing the mosque, which regularly hosted over 3,000 worshippers during Friday prayers.

These tensions were what drove the government to launch the Imam Made in Germany project, which incorporated Islamic education in German schools.

German researcher Gordon Kremer says the two-year programme aims to institutionalise religious education in mosques by training imams.

Upon completion of the programme, the graduates receive certificates from recognised institutions that allow them to teach Islamic education in German public schools under the supervision of specialised educational and academic authorities.

The rise in conversions to Islam among native Germans has spooked some in the country who believe Christian dominance could be seriously threatened.

It also aims to promote liberal interpretations of the Muslim religion. While recognising the Quran's divine nature, he says its verses should not be taken literally and viewed as civil law.

Kremer advocates for Muslims to view Islam as a religion of peace and reject jihad, which is the Arabic word for struggle but has come to be associated with violent terrorist movements in the past few decades.

Arabic in public schools

Despite the growing unease in German society, an effort is underway to teach Arabic in public schools. Some have even started hiring Arabic language teachers who previously taught at clubs or private schools. 

"It is not easy to become a teacher. While the number of public schools offering Arabic instruction is gradually rising, it still has a long way to go," one Syrian teacher told Al Majalla.

He added, "The federal government is currently examining the issue and conducting preliminary tests before proceeding with the wider implementation of the initiative."

A volunteer stands in front of a sign reading "Welcome" in German, English, Farsi and Arabic during the inauguration of a new jobs counselling centre for refugees in Berlin on January 27, 2016.

Al Majalla visited the Al-Resala Mosque in Berlin and spoke with the imam, who said that Arabic and Islamic teachings are intertwined.

 "Teaching Arabic and Islam in the mosque protects young boys from being exposed to distorted knowledge about their religion on the internet," he explained.

Meanwhile, an imam in Kiel told Al Majalla that he has observed a noticeable rise in calls to counter Islam and Muslims in Germany.

Read more: Why the rise of the far right in Europe isn't so straightforward

He said that there was an increase in conversions to Islam among native Germans and a growing number of mosques whose attendance has grown far larger than many churches. A report he read recorded approximately 2,000 conversions to Islam a year.

He believes this is largely because of Islamic rituals that foster a sense of community, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, when people break their fast and pray Taraweeh prayers together.

This development has spooked some Germans who believe Christian dominance could be seriously threatened.


Next: Al Majalla looks at the experience of the Arab immigrant community in the Netherlands and the difficulties they face in holding onto their language.

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