The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Up the Down Staircase (1967), Conrack (1974), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989), Music of the Heart (1999), The Ron Clark Story (2006), The History Boys (2006), Freedom Writers (2007). These and plenty of other movies over the decades have told more or less the same story: idealistic teacher accepts job at tough inner-city high school, struggles to get through to the kids (who have troubled home lives and are indifferent to education), experiences disillusionment and even comes close to quitting, but ultimately succeeds – if only, perhaps, with one or two of the students.
Most of these movies sell an inspiring message: if a teacher is determined enough, he or she can work small miracles even with the most challenging kids.
A movie based on Kulturkampf in the Classroom, an exposé written in German by Susanne Wiesinger with Jan Thies, would not be so inspiring.
Wiesinger was for many years a teacher in the public schools of Vienna, and her book’s title is aptly chosen. The word Kulturkampf was first coined to describe the cultural struggle in the 1870s between Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Empire, and Pope Pius IX over such issues as freedom of religion, civil marriage, separation of church and state, the primacy of reason, and the entire Enlightenment project. In the German-speaking countries today, as throughout much of the Western world, there is a new Kulturkampf. As indicated by Wiesinger’s subtitle – How Islam Is Changing Schools – the parties in this new Kulturkampf are Muslims and non-Muslims.
It is not an evenly matched fight. The number of Muslims in the German-speaking countries, and in the West generally, is constantly growing; the number of non-Muslims who are willing to speak up publicly about the ways in which Islam is eroding Western freedoms remains, alas, relatively small.
And judging by Wiesinger’s book – which appeared in 2018 and which I read in the recently published Norwegian translation – this would appear to be especially true of non-Muslims who work in the schools. Wiesinger begins her account by telling us that she was aware for a long time that her Muslim pupils didn’t live by quite the same values she did; but after a pair of jihadists gunned down twelve staffers of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris – an act that famously led millions of people around the world to post the words Je suis Charlie on their social media – Wiesinger realized that the gulf between her and those kids was far wider than she’d realized. For her pupils, she discovered to her shock and horror, the Charlie Hebdo terrorists were heroes.
“Those who insult the prophet deserve death,” they told her. “We Muslims must defend ourselves against the West. No one has the right to ridicule our prophet.”
Yes, it’s nothing new to you or to me. And it wasn’t really new to Wiesinger, either, although the chilling context put it a big step beyond the expressions of cold-hearted Islamic fervor she’d experienced before. And it made her realize that she couldn’t continue to keep quiet about this problem, which had only been growing worse over the years. “As a social democrat,” she confesses, “I was convinced for several years that integration, under any circumstances, both had to and would succeed.” That belief had now evaporated.
Why? Because over the years Wiesinger’s Muslim students (like their parents) had not gradually assimilated into the West, as European elites had confidently predicted, but instead had become increasingly “fundamentalist and radical” in their faith – and increasingly hostile to the West and its values. The only change had been on the part of teachers, especially female teachers: to keep the Muslim boys’ contempt for them to a minimum, they’d gotten into the habit of dressing demurely, of lying about their marital status, and of not exhibiting even a hint of affection for their male colleagues. So accustomed have teachers and administrators grown to practicing appeasement and accommodation in a multitude of ways, big and small, that Islam, as Wiesinger puts it, ultimately had gained “full control at our school.” Day by day, in short, all the little things had added up, until at last Wiesinger realized that their values had replaced her values.
This sorry state of affairs was the daily talk of the faculty lounge. But when Wiesinger, after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, decided it was time to speak out publicly, the colleagues with whom she’d swapped war stories abandoned her augenblicklich.
Again, it’s a familiar tale. It’s happened to a lot of people all over Western Europe. I’ve read it many times. Hell, I’ve written it many times. But it’s always useful to read this same old story one more time, told from the point of view of yet another person who, finally, has decided to speak out. Why useful? Because every new voice is further evidence that this stuff is happening everywhere; that, no, we’re not exaggerating or making it up, no matter what Muslims and their apologists on the left may say; and that things are getting steadily worse, not better – however much mainstream politicians, journalists, and academics may insist otherwise. Plus, there are always grimly interesting new details.
Furthermore, it’s useful to be reminded that, yes, even at this late date, unless you look for it, the enemy within can be invisible to the casual flâneur. In 1997-8, when I lived in New York, I made several trips to Amsterdam, and spent hours every day walking around the centrum, and thought it was the closest thing to paradise; then I moved there, and discovered the city’s sprawling Muslim enclaves. I experienced Muslim crime, and stared into the face of Muslim hate. Flash forward two decades: shortly before the pandemic, I visited Vienna twice and was thoroughly charmed. But even though I’ve written endlessly about Europe’s Islamic crisis, I saw no sign that the situation in Vienna’s schools was as bad as Wiesinger paints it.
But bad it apparently is. It’s unfortunate enough to be raised, as many kids are, in families that are indifferent to education. But these kids are raised in families that are actively opposed to Western-style education. They recognize that the goal of Austrian teachers is to help their children to think for themselves. These parents’ own goal, with exceedingly few exceptions, is the exact opposite – they want to raise their kids not to question their authority, the authority of the mosque, and above all the authority of the Koran.
Because of the deliberate lack of intellectual stimulation that these kids get at home, they’re amazingly ignorant and incurious. “These children often know absolutely nothing,” Wiesinger writes. Most of them “can scarcely speak German, have no real interest in learning anything at all, and have hardly any hobbies or interests.” Over the years, they increasingly “refuse to challenge sharia” and are quick to become “aggressive and threatening as soon as they come in contact with anything that seems to be in conflict with Islam.”
One result of this closemindedness is that teenagers, at once unable to handle the language level of books written for their age group or to deal with those books’ haram content (for example, stories about sixteen-year-old girls with boyfriends), have to be assigned books written for little kids. They balk at biology because the pictures of naked bodies are haram. If a Muslim kid says he wants to be a doctor and a teacher tells him he’ll need to study hard to achieve that ambition, he’ll shake his head and defiantly say: “I’ll be a Muslim doctor!” Because these kids really think that simply being Muslim – and thus a member of a superior order of beings – is more than enough to secure them an M.D. degree.
For teachers like Wiesinger, every new school year brings a roomful of kids with even worse German-language skills than the previous cohort. These days they can barely put together a coherent sentence. Non-Muslim teens move to Austria without any German, and within a couple of years they’re more fluent than classmates who were born there. Incredibly, most Muslim kids actually get worse at German starting around puberty, when family pressure to “be a good Muslim” intensifies: after all, speaking German fluently is a sign of being that dreaded thing: well-integrated. (Besides, if you live in a Muslim enclave of Vienna, you can get by just fine speaking Turkish.)
The barrier between these kids and any hope of a good education is, of course, their faith. And that faith, laments Wiesinger, “is an insurmountable wall that gets thicker and higher with every day that passes.” In the face of it, teachers like her are “powerless.” She tells us that she’s often mused: “They have won and we have lost.” But as she points out, “it’s the children who have lost.” (And so, I might add, have Austrian prosperity, social harmony, and freedom.) Meanwhile the teachers lose all hope. Wiesinger describes “exhausted and upset” teachers who drag themselves into the faculty lounge and say: “I give up. I can’t take any more. OK, the earth is flat, you’re welcome!”
Not only are they impossible to teach. The boys can be violent. Over the years, the violence has intensified. The boys act as if the school is their turf. Everybody else must live by their rules. Even when they’re little, they come to school with a knife in their pockets. Conflicts from their parents’ native countries erupt in the classroom: Turks vs. gypsies, Chechens vs. Afghans, and – worst of all – Turks vs. Kurds. Older Muslim boys extort money from younger non-Muslim boys. Some Muslim boys spit on, hit, and kick their female teachers, calling them “bitch” and “whore.” They go unpunished; the school psychologist assures the victims that it’s no big deal – that’s just how these kids express themselves.
As for the girls, over the years the age at which they start wearing hijab has dropped steadily. For more and more of them, hijab isn’t enough: instead, they wear outfits that cover every inch of skin. Whatever ensembles they choose, moreover, the moment they put them on they become quieter, shyer, sadder. Invariably, these girls claim that “modesty” is their choice. But they’ve chosen it not out of religious conviction but because otherwise they’ll get grief from their parents and be called “whore” by Muslim boys. The rare Muslim girl who isn’t forced by her parents to wear hijab will often be pressured to do so by classmates who threaten violence.
How to calm down a rowdy Muslim boy? Seat him next to a girl in hijab – because he has a respect for her that he doesn’t have for the infidel teacher. Wiesinger does admit that one time, her class got so out of control that she lost her temper and found herself telling her kids angrily that one day the government welfare payments would dry up – and then how would they support themselves? That did the trick: for once, they shut up, listened, and learned.
What happens when teachers dare to speak up about these problems? Unsurprisingly, administrators blame them, accusing them of “shutting foreign cultures out” and telling them to show more interest in Islam. Indeed, no matter what Muslim parents do to their kids – beat them, force them into marriages, even abuse them sexually – school bureaucrats’ standard response is to shrug passively, because there’s nothing to be done. At least the authorities used to remove Muslim kids from homes where they were being raped. No more, apparently. These days the main guideline for dealing with Muslim kids is simple: accept the reality in which they live. Which means approving, for example, of kids being shielded from math, science, history, literature, art, music – the whole ball of wax – on the grounds that it’s all haram. And when a twelve-year-old girl is forced to marry an elderly relative, smile and congratulate her.
As a teacher, Wiesinger wasn’t just at odds with her bosses. She was at war with the religious instructors at the mosques – at war for the minds of her Muslim students. While she was trying to teach these kids to think, the men at the mosques were telling them that all they needed to do was to pray, obey, and memorize the Koran. Meanwhile, the introduction of Muslim prayer rooms into many schools instantly made the schools themselves seem more like Islamic establishments than like public schools.
It needs to be emphasized that Wiesinger is writing about Vienna, where in many schools Muslim kids form the overwhelming majority, and hence pose an impossible challenge. Things aren’t quite so dire in the Austrian provinces, where Muslims are still a minority and thus tend to be more Westernized, more tractable, and more educable. (Here Wiesinger might well be describing the situation in Oslo vs. that in small-town Norway, where I live.) Alas, as the number of Muslims in the hinterlands grows, the power balance shifts. Girls put on hijabs. Boys grow aggressive.
No, none of this is new. In 2004 – nineteen years ago! – a gutsy education inspector named Jean-Pierre Obin submitted to France’s Minister of Education a comprehensive report about French schools that was so explosive that it was shelved for a year. I wrote about it at the time. The report made many of the same points that Wiesinger makes. It was damning. It told of math classes in which Muslim kids wouldn’t draw geometric forms that looked even remotely like the Christian cross and of history classes in which Muslim kids denied the Holocaust and refused to accept that there’d been other religions in the Middle East before Islam came along. Obin, too,told of teachers who systematically self-censored to avoid trouble.
Obin’s report caused much furor in the French media but was ultimately dismissed by the authorities and had little if anything in the way of lasting impact. Much the same thing happened in Austria when Wiesinger’s book came out. Five years later, there’s no sign of serious reform. Vienna’s schools continue to go down the tubes. And the Austrian provinces keep looking more and more like Vienna.