Migrant Knowledge

Turkish Teachers, Migrant Knowledge, and ‘the Qurʾan School Problem’ in West Germany


A Miniseries on Youth, Migration, and Knowledge Transfer

With contributions by Simone Lässig, H. Glenn Penny, Elisabeth Engel, Brian Van Wyck, and Swen Steinberg.

Beginning in early 1976, West Germans learned through media reports of the existence in the country of what were referred to, somewhat misleadingly, as “Qurʾan schools.”1 These were extracurricular courses where Muslim children, mostly Turkish citizens at the time, learned the Arabic alphabet and the basics of Qurʾanic recitation. In successive waves of print, radio, and television coverage, lasting into the 1980s, West Germans were troubled and seemingly captivated by stories about Qurʾan schools. These were described as secretive institutions where children were taught using antiquated, barbaric teaching methods. Turkish children were reportedly subjected to “stress in the name of Allah” or even “beatings with clubs while learning surahs,” to quote two headlines from 1977.2 Stories such as these ensured that the “Qurʾan school problem” attracted attention across the West German political spectrum at all levels, from city governments to the Federal Cabinet.3

Qurʾan school discussions represented many West Germans’ first real exposure to Islam in the Federal Republic. Surprisingly, at least from our contemporary vantage point, the Islamic practices of immigrants from Turkey had attracted little sustained attention until this point. Because of the debate’s role in introducing West Germans to Islam in their midst, the “Qurʾan school problem” has played a role in numerous studies interested in German images of Islam and the association of immigrants from Turkey with Islam in popular consciousness. Less attention has been paid to the sources—of what were viewed by West Germans as reliable facts about Qurʾan schools—that informed these inchoate images and understandings of Islam. As I sought to understand how West Germans learned about Qurʾan schools, the history of knowledge, especially the history of migrant knowledge, has proven to be especially well equipped to help me consider this question. A focus on knowledge attuned me to the Turkish actors who provided West Germans with the ostensibly reliable information about Qurʾan schools that informed their prejudices and perceptions, highlighting the often-neglected role of Turkish “migrant experts.” Furthermore, paying attention to shifts in who was considered a reliable expert on these questions has allowed me to identify the new dimensions the “Qurʾan school problem” acquired from the 1970s into the 1980s, causing West Germans to neglect formerly reliable sources in search of new kinds of expertise, which Turkish migrants themselves could no longer provide.

Turkish Teachers as Qurʾan School Experts

In the 1970s, the most significant sources of knowledge about Qurʾan schools were teachers from Turkey working in West Germany. These teachers, who numbered more than 2,000 by the end of the 1970s, had trained in Turkey and were hired by West German schools to teach Turkish language, culture, and history to immigrant pupils.4 An educated, largely bilingual group, teachers from Turkey were often tasked with translating Turkish language, values, and orientations for German audiences in and outside of the school. Unsurprisingly then, reports that drove interest in Qurʾan schools were either authored by teachers themselves, or they relied heavily on teachers’ insights into what West Germans were assured were opaque, foreign spaces. Testimony from teachers, especially a 1978 open letter written by an association of teachers in North Rhine-Westphalia, was an inescapable feature of Qurʾan school media coverage and political discussions.5 Teachers’ authority and reliability as sources was such that even when Qurʾan school leaders reached out to the West German media, their objections to teachers’ portrayals of their methods and the content of their lessons gained little traction.6

In describing Qurʾan schools and explaining their prevalence and the harm they allegedly caused, teachers emphasized the social and political milieu from which they claimed these institutions originated. In their accounts, Islam was merely a cover for other, more salient forces. Some teachers presented Qurʾan schools as a product of rural backwardness, an anti-modern rearguard action of patriarchal social forces prevalent in Anatolian villages that had been transplanted to West Germany. Others suggested Qurʾan schools were used as “re-education camps” by nationalist Turkish political parties and their adherents abroad, with Islamic instruction a flimsy pretense for right-wing indoctrination. Without other sources to go on, West Germans treated these explanations as reliable throughout the 1970s.

The Munich imam and religious teacher Mustafa Şeker objected to treating teachers as experts on Islam in West Germany, protesting in 1979 that “Turkish teachers are not Muslims, and they do not know the teachings of Islam.”7 The polemical nature of this accusation aside, Şeker aptly identified a central aspect of teachers’ framing of the Qurʾan school issues. For teachers, Turkish Islam could be explained in terms of the culture of the Anatolian village or of Turkey’s political landscape. They saw Islam as taught in Qurʾan schools not as a religious matter but as a manifestation of political or cultural interests and identifications. The Qurʾan school problem was therefore one that required knowledge about Turkey or about the Turkish community in West Germany, which teachers could provide, not religious knowledge, which these teachers were arguably less equipped to offer. The contextualized knowledge they had was putatively proprietary because their insights into Qurʾan schools were derived in large part from who they were, that is, from their ascribed identities as Turks.

This path to claiming knowledge is one Simone Lässig has argued historians of knowledge must consider, not just formal expertise.8 At the same time, unlike Şeker and other imams and Islamic teachers, Turkish teachers were experienced at translating knowledge for West German audiences. Their status as “outsiders inside,” as Turkish citizens employed in schools by the West German states, positioned them as seemingly natural cultural translators and go-betweens offering what Peter Burke has called “displaced, transplanted, or translated knowledges.”9

'Re-Islamization' and Knowledge about Qurʾan Schools

Only a few short years after the Qurʾan school problem emerged, the validation and recognition Turkish teachers had won for their “foreign” knowledge was strikingly curtailed. This can be seen in a widely circulated 1981 report by the Lower Saxon Ministry of the Interior assessing the danger posed by Qurʾan schools.10 Citing teachers’ depictions, the Interior Ministry report accepted the reality of the conditions they described. On the other hand, teachers’ identification of the true forces behind Qurʾan schools—whether Anatolian village culture or right-wing Turkish politics—were roundly dismissed as politically motivated projections based more on ideology than information or insight. Qurʾan schools, the report contended, were primarily religious, “almost inescapably” to be seen as centers of the “Islamic restoration or revolution that has Iran as its heart at present.” Less a product of the Turkish political or sociocultural context, they were, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, part of a global “wave of re-Islamization.” Understanding Qurʾan schools therefore required not cultural or political knowledge about Turkey but knowledge about global Islam.

The Interior Ministry linked Qurʾan schools to so-called re-Islamization and to a perceived spike in protest activity and violence popularly attributed to Islamic groups in West Germany. By this reckoning, Qurʾan schools were no longer just sites where innocent foreign children were reportedly victimized. Instead, they posed a wider threat to social order, one that required regulation. It is not surprising therefore that agreements were struck with the Turkish government in the early 1980s to provide entry visas only to imams and religious teachers dispatched by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs. Nor is it surprising that these agreements referenced the Turkish government’s greater knowledge about, and experience with, vetting and supervising teachers in Qurʾan schools.11 When Qurʾan school teachers independent of the Turkish state sought legal redress against such agreements, West German courts continued to cite evidence from Turkish teachers on the harm Qurʾan schools caused. At the same time, these rulings supported the assumption that West Germany needed to rely on expertise on Islam, on “informed Turkish [state] authority” to determine who could safely be admitted to the Federal Republic.12 Turkish teachers, in other words, could be relied upon for information about a problem. When it came to knowledge on how to regulate an Islam increasingly constructed as a threat to social order, the Turkish state was a more natural authority.

Qurʾan Schools and Knowledge about Islam in West Germany

What can examining changing Qurʾan school discussions with an eye toward the history of knowledge offer historians that other approaches might not? For one, focusing on knowledge highlights how, in the eyes of official West Germany, teachers’ knowledge about Qurʾan schools traveled along the spectrum Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg identify between “enthusiastic acceptance of migrants’ knowledge to rejection or devaluation of foreign knowledge or of migrants’ claims to expertise.”13 In the 1980s, Turkish teachers were still widely considered to be reliable translators between German and Turkish values and cultures, at least in their capacities in schools. Islam, however, was less fully within their ken as it became understood as a separate field of knowledge. Teachers were knowledge actors who had, as Stephanie Zloch et al. put it, “been attributed status as experts in specific contexts while at the same time being regarded as laymen in others.”14 This is a story suited to the spatially inflected history of knowledge Christian Jacob proposes, one focusing on “the ways [knowledge] is rooted in specific places or areas.”15

Recapturing Turkish teachers’ formerly prominent interpretations of Qurʾan schools—and the vision of Islam represented within them—reflects what Suzanne Marchand considers a particular value of the history of knowledge in recovering lost or discredited knowledge or missed opportunities.16 As Simone Lässig has argued, looking at historical knowledge of this sort can allow historians to “draw conclusions about the societal ideas, values, driving forces, and practices that were influential in their time and space and that were ignored, repressed, and forgotten.”17 Even knowledge forgotten or lost can play an important, often unconscious role in orienting individual and collective action, in “[generating] specific epistemic dynamics . . . that enable or constrain various action,” as Andrea Westermann and Onur Erdur suggest.18 Focusing on Turkish teachers’ knowledge about Qurʾan schools, in other words, might help historians to recover knowledge out of step with contemporary popular German ideas about Islam and potentially to identify the underrecognized legacies of this knowledge. This can help historians of Islam in modern Germany to avoid falling prey to teleology and to restore contingency to a history that often lacks it.

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Brian Van Wyck is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is currently turning his dissertation, “Turkish Teachers and Imams and the Making of Turkish German Difference” (Michigan State University, 2019), into a book.
  1. Kur’an kursları (“Qurʾan courses”) is generally used in Turkish and better captures what were usually referred to in German as Koranschulen (“Qurʾan schools”). For simplicity’s sake I use the latter term. ↩︎
  2. “Stockschläge für türkische Kinder beim Lernen der Suren,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 1, 1977; “Stress im Namen Allahs,” Diese Woche, July 14, 1977. ↩︎
  3. For an overview of Qurʾan school discussions, see Karin Hunn, “Nächstes Jahr kehren wir zurück…” Die Geschichte der türkischen “Gastarbeiter” in der Bundesrepublik (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005), 432–46; Brian Van Wyck, “Turkish Teachers and Imams and the Making of Turkish German Difference,” (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 2019), 200–68. ↩︎
  4. On teachers, see Brian Van Wyck, “Guest Workers in the School? Turkish Teachers and the Production of Migrant Knowledge in West German Schools, 1971–1989,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 466–91. ↩︎
  5. Verband türkischer Lehrer to North Rhine-Westphalia Landesregierung, March 20, 1978. Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Abt. Hannover Ns. 400 2005/067 Nr. 26. ↩︎
  6. See the dismissive and strikingly Orientalist coverage of a press event put on by a group organizing Qurʾan classes in “Zugegeben, die Kinder verstehen den Inhalt nicht,” Frankfurter Rundschau, June 29, 1977. ↩︎
  7. Quoted in “Koranschulen in Deutschland: Feindbilder im Namen Allahs?” Münchner Merkur, April 19, 1979. ↩︎
  8. Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016), 51–52. ↩︎
  9. Peter Burke, Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge, 1500-2000 (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 2. ↩︎
  10. Niedersächsische Minister des Innern Abt. 4, Sonderinformation Nr. 9/81, Türkische Koranschulen in der Bundesrepublik: religiöse Institute oder extremistische Kaderschmiede? Versuch einer Analyse, July 20, 1981, Landesarchiv Berlin B Rep. 002, Nr. 17828. ↩︎
  11. For a more detailed treatment of these agreements, see Van Wyck, “Turkish Teachers and Imams,” 275–96. ↩︎
  12. One such ruling is summarized in “Bundesverwaltungsgericht Beschluss vom 8.11.1983 – BVerwG 1 AA 77.83,” Informationsbrief Ausländerrecht 6, no. 3 (March 1984): 71–72. ↩︎
  13. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” in “Knowledge and Migration,” ed. Lässig and Steinberg, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 322. ↩︎
  14. Stephanie Zloch, Lars Müller, and Simone Lässig, “Wissen in Bewegung. Migration und globale Verflechtungen in der Zeitgeschichte seit 1945: Einleitung,” in Wissen in Bewegung: Migration und globale Verflechtungen in der Zeitgeschichte seit 1945, eds. Zloch, Müller, and Lässig (Oldenbourg: de Gruyter, 2018): 1–35, here 26. ↩︎
  15. Christian Jacob, “Lieux de savoir: Places and Spaces in the History of Knowledge,” KNOW: A Journal for the Formation of Knowledge 1, no. 1 (2017): 92, https://doi.org/10.1086/692293. ↩︎
  16. Suzanne Marchand, “How Much Knowledge is Worth Knowing? An American Intellectual Historian’s Thoughts on the Geschichte des Wissens,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 42 (2019): 137–38. ↩︎
  17. Simone Lässig, “Kaleidoscope and Lens: Re-envisioning the Past through the History of Knowledge,” in The World of Children: Foreign Cultures in Nineteenth-Century German Education and Entertainment, eds. Lässig and Andreas Weiß (New York: Berghahn, 2020), 275. ↩︎
  18. Andrea Westermann and Onur Erdur, “Migrant Knowledge: Studying the Epistemic Dynamics that Govern the Thinking in and around Migration, Exile, and Displacement,” in “Histories of Migrant Knowledge: Transatlantic and Global Perspectives,” ed. Westermann and Erdur, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Supplement 15 (2020): 7. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Brian Van Wyck, "Turkish Teachers, Migrant Knowledge, and ‘the Qurʾan School Problem’ in West Germany," Migrant Knowledge, August 14, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/08/14/turkish-teachers/.