Vol. 3    Issue 11   16-31 October 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Muslim students with headscarves in France's

Catholic schools

Professor A. R. Momin

France has the largest number of Muslims living in Europe-estimated at over five million-who constitute nearly 10 per cent of the country's population. Islam is France's second largest religion after Roman Catholicism. More than 70% of French Muslims are of North African origin. The immigration of Muslims from the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia is a century-long phenomenon. Some 170,000 Algerians and 130,000 Moroccans were recruited to fight on the side of France in World War I. The North African immigrants played a significant role in the post-War reconstruction of French economy. The second and third generations of immigrants were born and raised in France and are French citizens by birth. Zinedine Zidane, the star performer of the French national team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, is of Algerian descent.

In recent years, the issue of immigration in many European countries has been surrounded by a great deal of controversy as well as racism and xenophobia. Far-right political parties, which have been gaining ground in several European countries since the 1990s, are in the forefront of the anti-immigration campaign. Jean-Marie Le Pen, France's well-known far-right leader, has consistently argued since 1972 that the country's woes are due to the large presence of immigrants and foreigners (most of whom, ironically, are French-born citizens). Le Pen gained second place in France's presidential election in 2002. The writings of Italy's Oriana Fallaci, whose virulent attacks on Arabs and Muslims are greatly admired in Europe's right-wing circles, enjoy considerable popularity in France. Her book The Rage and the Pride, an extremist tirade against what she describes as "Eurabia" or Muslim-infiltrated Europe, was on the best-selling list in France for several months.

Muslims as targets of racism and xenophobia

France swears by the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, but French society in reality is highly differentiated in terms of race, class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and positions are almost the exclusive preserve of the white, Catholic majority. By and large, Muslims have to bear the brunt of widespread discrimination and stigmatization and are excluded from mainstream society. Most of them live in high-rise public blocks-known as banlieues-which have become virtual ghettos, characterised by poverty, high rates of unemployment, crime and drug addiction. According to the Institut Montaigne, a French think-tank, the unemployment rate among French Muslims is three times the national average (about 8%) and in some housing colonies is as high as 40 per cent. Only one in five of the 28,300 residents of Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the major immigrant colonies on the outskirts of Paris, has a steady job.

Poverty, low levels of education, discrimination and high unemployment rates form part of a vicious circle of deprivation and exclusion. According to Taher Bin Jalloun, one of France's finest writers who is of Moroccan origin, only 4% of the children of immigrants get to university compared with 25% in the majority population. A French sociologist Jean-Francois Amadien has shown that applicants with Arab or Muslim surnames are five times less likely to receive positive responses for job applications from French employers than those with French names. Faced with this frustrating situation, many young Muslim men and women in the country-known as beurs--are forced to change their names or to conceal their addresses for fear that this might jeopardize their chances of getting a job.

Though Muslims constitute nearly 10 per cent of France's population, there is not a single Muslim member in the French parliament. Television anchors are almost exclusively white, as is much of the police force. Even the head of the official anti-discrimination agency is a white person.

In France as well as in many other European countries, the question of citizenship is inseparably bound up with assimilation into the culture of the majority population. This is illustrated by a recent case in the country. On July 11, 2008 a Moroccan woman's application for French citizenship was turned down on the grounds that her "radical" practice of Islam is incompatible with basic French values such as equality of the sexes. The said woman's only fault was that she wears the burqa or the Islamic veil, although she is married to a French national, has been living in Paris where her two children were born, and speaks good French. In 2005 her application for French nationality was rejected on grounds of "insufficient assimilation" into France. She appealed against the ruling, invoking the French constitutional right to religious freedom and saying that she had never sought to challenge the fundamental values of French society. But in July the Council of State, France's highest administrative body, rejected her appeal and upheld the earlier ruling (The Guardian, 12 July 2008).

Gay J. McDougall, a United Nations independent expert on minority issues, said in a statement on 4 October 2007 that "racism in France is alive, insidious and is clearly targeted at the 'visible' minorities of immigrant heritage, the majority of whom are French citizens……The constitutional promise of equality is a vision, but not the reality of modern France".

France's official policy is guided by the principle of laicite (the French version of secularism which posits a strict separation between church and state). France recognizes no ethnic or religious distinctions and believes that a melting pot would produce a homogeneous, secular society and culture. Since the 19th century, when immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, Spain and Portugal began arriving in France, it was expected that they would abandon their distinctive identities and assimilate into a homogeneous French society. This model of the melting pot worked quite well in absorbing European immigrants in the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, but has failed in the case of Arab, African and Asian immigrants who began arriving in large numbers in the post-War period. "Today integration is a total failure", says Jean-Francois Cope, mayor of Meaux, 54 kilometres south-east of Paris, which counts 29 different ethnic groups among its 50,000 residents.

Though secularism avowedly provides the edifice of France's state ideology, Christianity continues to play an influential role in the country. Churches and synagogues built before 1905 (the year in which the principle of laicite was officially adopted) are considered "cultural edifices" and their maintenance is subsidized by the state. Catholics, Protestants and Jews continue to own places of worship, religious schools and chapels in the army. There are thousands of Catholic and many Jewish schools which are funded by the state. When Pope John Paul died on 2 April 2005, official flags atop town halls and schools were at half-mast, Ministers queued up to attend mass at Notre Dame. The government invited all prefects to local memorial services. President Nicolas Sarkozy has occasionally spoken about France's Judaeo-Christian heritage.

The deep-seated anger and resentment nursed by the country's Muslim youth erupted in large-scale rioting in November 2005. Angered by the accidental death by electrocution of two Muslim youth who were being chased by the police, hordes of Muslims of North African origin came out on the streets, set fire to thousands of cars and shops and brought the country to a halt. In the course of the rioting and vandalism that engulfed Paris and scores of other French cities, some 10,000 cars were burned and 300 houses and schools were torched. The incident exposed the fragility of the French system and the hypocrisy of its republican values.

The headscarf row

The issue of the Islamic headscarf has evoked a great deal of controversy in many European countries, especially in France. In 1989, three Muslim girls wore headscarves to their public school in Creil in the north of Paris, which triggered a heated public debate. Some commentators argued that the incident reflected a clash between the identity of Muslim immigrants and French national identity, which is defined by laicite and the republican model of cultural assimilation. In their eyes, the controversy provided a confirmation of the fact that Islam was incompatible with the secular principles of French society.

The controversy resurfaced in 1994 when the centre-right French government of the time issued a circular to public schools forbidding the wearing of any "ostentatious" religious symbols, such as the Islamic headscarf, in public schools. It was argued that public schools in France represented the very embodiment of the national ideology of egalitarianism and secularism. The French education minister Francois Bayroun declared in the course of parliamentary debates on the headscarf that "French national identity is inseparable from its schools". In the same year some Muslim girls wearing headscarves were expelled from a public school.

In 2003, President Jacques Chirac appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, a former minister, to examine the question of religious symbols in public schools. The Stasi Commission suggested in its report "Laicite et Republique", submitted in 2004, that wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols, such as the Islamic headscarf, large-size Christian crosses and the Jewish yarmulke, should be banned in public schools. The report was accepted and implemented by the government and the wearing of the headscarf and other religious symbols was outlawed in public schools. However, the law does not apply to private schools and universities.

In order to clarify a likely misunderstanding that the recommendation for banning religious symbols in public schools was discriminatory in intent, the commission acknowledged the reality of the plural nature of French society and called for full respect for spiritual diversity, for adding instruction in the history and philosophy of religion to the educational curriculum, for the establishment of a national school for Islamic studies, for the creation of Muslim chaplaincies in hospitals and prisons, for providing alternatives to pork and fish on Fridays in school, prison and hospital cafeterias, and for the recognition of Yom Kippur and the Muslim Id as national holidays. However, the sole recommendation accepted and implemented by President Jacques Chirac was for a law prohibiting the wearing of signs of religious affiliation in pubic schools.

There were large-scale protests and demonstrations by Muslim women in France and other European countries as well as in the United States over the French ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools. The headscarf ban had repercussions in other European countries. Schools in Brussels dependent on the municipal network decided to disallow the registration of students wearing headscarves. In the Netherlands, some faculty members at Leiden University objected to the presence of two Muslim students wearing headscarves in class on the ground that face covering impeded interactive communication in the class room and made teachers and other students feel uncomfortable. They brought the matter to the dean of the faculty, who placed it before the University Board. The Board decided to prohibit face covering in the class room.

Legislation for banning the headscarf in public institutions has been proposed in Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Germany follows a fairly liberal policy in respect of headscarves. While there is no country-wide ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools and other public institutions, states have the freedom to decide their own policy in the matter. Six states in Germany have banned the wearing of headscarves in schools.

Catholic schools in France

The school occupies a central place in France's secular system where students are inculcated with the country's republican values. The majority of schools in France-over 80%--are state-run. However, about one-fifth of the country's schools are private, mostly Catholic and some Jewish. The government pays the salaries of teachers in private schools and a subsidy per student. There are 8,847 Catholic schools in the country. Fifteen of the top 20 schools in France are run by Catholic organisations. Catholic schools not only maintain good academic standards but also inculcate students with religious and moral values.

Christian churches in France have played a significant role in fostering closer ties between the majority Catholic population and Muslims. France was the first European country where an Office for Relations with Islam was set up by the Catholic church in 1973, which was followed a few years later by the establishment of a Church-Islam Commission by the Protestant churches. The Catholic church in France is opposed to the ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools. Unlike the public schools, Catholic students allow Muslim students to wear the Islamic headscarf. Many Catholic schools take Muslim feasts into account for fixing parent-teacher meetings. Some Catholic schools offer Arabic as an optional subject.

France's Catholic schools are very popular among Muslims. Muslim students form more than 10 per cent of the two million students in Catholic schools. In the ethnically mixed areas of Marseille more than half of the students are Muslim. Nearly 80% of students in Saint Mauront Catholic school in Marseille are Muslim. During the month of Ramadan, the school provides a special room for prayers to Muslim students. Catholic schools remain popular even in cities like Paris, Lyon and Lille where Islamic schools have sprung up in recent years.

Islamic schools in France

The ban on headscarves in public schools led French Muslims to explore alternative systems of education for their children. While most of them continued to send their children to Catholic schools, some decided to establish Islamic schools in the country where, in addition to the national syllabus, courses in Islamic culture and Arabic could be taught and where Muslim girls with headscarves could enrol without let or hindrance. The first Islamic school opened in the northern French city of Lille in 1994, spurred by the expulsion of 19 Muslim girls, who refused to take off their headscarves, from a state school in south Lille.

The second Islamic school, the Lycee Averroes (named after the celebrated 12th century Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd or Averroes) opened on one floor of the Lille mosque in 2003. This school is open to students of all faiths and welcomes girls with headscarves and those without them.

The third Islamic school, named after the 9th century Arab philosopher Yaqub al-Kindi, opened in the city of Lyon in March 2007. It is expected to eventually have 140 students, making it the largest Islamic school in the country. The school is expected to incur an annual expenditure of some 700,000 euros, which will come from private donations. It will teach, in addition to the national curriculum, courses on the Quran, Islamic law and the history of Islamic civilization.

A fourth Islamic school, Education et Savior school, opened in the southern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers in March 2008.

The biggest challenge facing Islamic schools in France is the paucity of funds. Private schools in the country become eligible for financial subsidy from the state after five years of operation. The Lycee Averroes, founded in 2003, will be the first Muslim school to receive funding from the state from next year. Tuition fee from students makes up only about 15% of the expenditure of such schools. Therefore, they have to depend on private donations to meet the deficit.

Islamic schools in France have to survive and function in an atmosphere which is suffused with prejudice and Islamophobia. A recent poll by the French newspaper Le Figaro showed that 76% of French people are opposed to the establishment of Islamic schools in the country, even though there are thousands of Catholic and Jewish schools. Meanwhile, Catholic schools continue to provide quality education as well as substantial religious and cultural freedom to tens of thousands of Muslim students in the country.

An oasis of harmonious coexistence

The Alsace-Moselle region in Strasbourg, France, which has a population of 2.9 million people, has intermittently been under German and French control in the past few centuries and was eventually returned to France after World War II. In 1905 France passed a major legislation stipulating a clear separation between church and state. Since Alsace-Moselle was under German occupation in 1905, the principle of laicite does not hold in the region and the local government has continued to involve itself in religious matters by providing subsidies for religious instruction in public schools. Unlike in the rest of the country, the local government offers financial help for the construction of places of worship and pays the salaries of the clergy.

In one part of Alsace-Moselle, Alsace-Lorraine, a third of the 15,000 inhabitants are Muslim. There is a good deal of understanding and harmony between Muslims and the Christian and Jewish communities. The heads of the four established religions-Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Judaism-signed a letter in 1998 supporting the construction of a new mosque, designed by an Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi, with some funds provided by the local government. The city council provided a large plot of riverside land for 50 years and agreed to bear 26% of the construction costs. However, with the defeat of the socialist government in Alsace-Moselle and the assumption of power by a centre-right government in 2001, things became difficult for the mosque project. The new mayor refused to allow the construction of a minaret and a study centre and auditorium. The construction finally started in 2007 but has now stalled for lack of funds and support from the government. However, the local Muslims, with the support of the Christian and Jewish communities, continue to press for the construction of the mosque complex.

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