From model school to supposed fundamentalist incubator. Yet the schools are still the place where one may hope to build ‘French Republican Islam’.
The Averroés, a private high school in Lille, knows no half measures. In 2013 the institution – attended by 600 mostly, but not exclusively, Muslim students – climbed the school performance rankings with a 100% final high school exam success rate. It was elected the best high school in France.
Prestigious high schools in upmarket Parisian neighbourhoods, suddenly had to take note of this outsider, whose accomplishments were upsetting the traditional hierarchies and essentially undermining the very principles of the secular and nondenominational republique.
According to Libération reporter Stéphanie Maurice, “The Maghreb community views the Averroés as a social ladder providing the kind of quality teaching that the public institutions can no longer provide”.
Today, with France still reeling from the terrorist attacks of early January, a scandal could end up fuelling suspicion and mistrust towards the largest Muslim community in Europe.
Once again, Averroés is in the thick of things. Established in 2003, the school has received state financing since 2008. Its curricula are drafted by the Ministry of Education – the Muslim Ethics class is optional – and teachers’ salaries come from public funds. The the income from tuition fees (an annual €950 to €1,250, though 61% of students receive bursaries) and donations from the community cover day-to-day operating costs. In order to build new premises, however, the school has secured aid from a Saudi bank and an NGO based in Qatar.
Soufiane Zitouni, a former philosophy teacher at Averroés who upon handing in her notice published a highly disputed list of grievances in Libération, accuses the school of being rife with widespread anti-Semitism. She claims it is for the most part tolerated or even fuelled by the teaching staff and the administration, and in particular by the school’s founder, Amar Lasfar, who is also the rector of the Al-Imane mosque in the south of Lille and president of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), which is considered to have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The anti-Semitism to which the former teacher (herself a moderate Muslim of the Sufi branch) was referring does not pertain to France’s best high school alone. Frédéric Fléchon, a member of the private school teacher’s union, also pointed out in Libération how anti-Semitism is a “phenomenon found in broad swaths of the younger population, who tend to associate the horrors committed by the Israeli army with the Israeli state’s claim that it is essentially a Jewish state”.
The crux of the matter, however, lies elsewhere and could bring grist to the mill for those who, such as a writer of the secular weekly Marianne, fear a devious strategy to “secure cultural predominance by the fundamentalist and ideological form of Islam propounded by Tariq Ramadan, an Oxford University lecturer, who is currently acting as a bridgehead for this movement in Europe”.
The government is at present engaged in reassessing the volatile issue of Islam in France in order to provide the Muslim community with a representative organisation capable of actively interacting with all other institutions. Previous attempts, such as the 2003 creation of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, have proven ineffective and are gradually being phased out.
If this channel for open dialogue sees the light, it would scuttle the reasons that up to now have led the French Muslim communities to seek the intervention of foreign states, such as the petromonarchies in the Gulf, Algeria and Egypt in order to access funds for building mosques, hiring imams and opening schools.
“I want to overcome the obstacles that still stand against the creation of a true French path towards Islam. There have been many lengthy delays but gradually things are beginning to take shape. Larger mosques and more dignified sites of worship are being built. The resolve and the resources required for the development of Islam must be sourced here in France”, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls during a 3 March visit to the Grand Mosque of Strasbourg.
Mosques are the most tangible aspect of Islam taking root in France and Europe, a process that many support while others openly fear. The other pillar for creating a ‘republican Islam’ is schools. This is where the widespread disillusionment among the younger generations can and must be intercepted and the radicalisation of the more extreme fringes of Salafi Islam can be positively addressed. The process is by no means an easy one, and there are legal constraints as well. Secularism, the very cornerstone of France, produced a law in 1905 that quite clearly separated church and state.
Today, those who point the finger at Muslim high schools and denounce the dangers of a stealthy invasion of Islamic fundamentalism are often the very ones who stand up in defence of a dogmatic yet two-sided form of secularism that in some cases verges on Islamophobia.
There is one fact that illuminates the broader context. The majority of the (few) private Muslim schools were established in France following the introduction of the burqa ban law of 2004 that, in the name of a secular approach to education, forbid the use of religious symbols on public premises.
The founder of the Averroés high school, Amar Lasfar, for example, had the idea of opening a school after accepting 17 girls into the Lille-South mosque who were set on wearing the veil and had therefore been banned from public schools. The law, which strove to reassert the primacy of the principle of equality by introducing a ban, has led to a number of female students leaving the system, banished from public schools because of how they choose to profess their faith.
Private school figures in France offer an enlightening perspective. They show how these private institutions. They often have a greater impact than private institutions in other European countries that are considered less strenuous in their defence of secularist principles.
According to a Ministry of Education review, there are 8,733 private schools across France. The vast majority (approximately 95%) are Catholic followed by several hundred secular schools and around 130 Jewish schools. The Muslim private schools that have signed an association agreement with the state are still just two.
The opening of new schools should be on the agenda to help bridge the existing gap and prevent the effective discrimination of the five million or so French Muslims.