France - report

Muslims learn the secular ropes as church-state debate rages

Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

As France’s ruling party launches a controversial debate on religion and the state, the organiser of a ground-breaking course that teaches Muslims about France’s secular tradition fears for its future.


Since 2008 Muslim leaders have been studying secularism as part of a one-year government-sponsored diploma at the Catholic Institute of Paris. The programme is considered a success, but for how much longer?

Radio report - Muslims study French secularism

Saturday afternoon at the Catholic Institute of Paris and a group of French Muslims aged between 22 and 65-years-old, are following a class on laïcité (secularism) led by sociologist Olivier Bobineau.

Imams, prison and army chaplains, but also Muslim heads of religious and cultural groups come from all over France each Friday and Saturday to follow a course on “Religions, secularism and inter-culturality”.

Eighty-three have graduated since the diploma (DU) was set up in 2008 at the request of the Ministry of the Interior.

The aim is to train what director Olivier Bobineau calls “organic intellectuals”, a Muslim elite that will have legitimacy in the eyes of both their own community, French officialdom and the general public.

Muslims are at a disadvantage compared to other religious groups who have a much longer history in France, he says.

“Priests, vicars, rabbis have an average of eight years training, many have French diplomas. Sometimes at the same round table, we’d see Muslim speakers who didn’t know the rules, the codes, sitting next to other religious leaders who knew them by heart.”

The two-semester course is taught by 17 academics, including sociologists, lawyers and historians. They learn about human rights, French law and different religions. But there is no religious instruction whatsoever.

Imad, a young imam from the Union of Moroccans in Châlons-en-Champagne, west of Paris, came over from Rabat in March 2009. All his religious education had been in Arabic.

“We learn about, mediation, secularism, French law,” he explains in hesitant but correct French, “to be open towards other religions. So it has a lot to do with integration.”

For d’Abdoulaye Leye, a religious administrator and President of the Mourides collective in France, a branch of Islam originating in Senegal, the course is helping him learn the necessary skills to help his community prosper.

Like all Muslim groups, the Mourides lack places of worship.

“The Islam phobic discourse accuses us of squatting the street, but we can’t do otherwise,” explains Leye. “That’s why we’re fighting to get construction permits and to have more funding.”

That means dealing, indeed battling, with French authorities.

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“I’m learning how French law works, and getting the rhetoric and knowledge to help me negotiate with the Prefet, the mayor, even government ministers. It’s also helping me engage with other faiths,” says Leye.

Not all participants are religious leaders. The diploma also attracts Muslims from community-based cultural organisations, often based in the high-immigrant outskirts of France’s cities.

Bahran el-Fakhar is the dynamic 31-year-old president of the human rights association Esseyma, based in Val d’Oise, east of Paris. He says the course is giving him the tools to help his members, mainly young French males, to understand what the French call “vivre ensemble” or living alongside different cultures.

“I try to explain that France has a violent history, violent conflict between religion and politics, and that explains the difficulties of French people to understand and accept our religion,” he says.

Speaking on behalf of the group, el-Fakhar adds that the course is giving them all the tools to promote the spirit of living together, in particular via learning the different conceptions of secularism.

While many French people think of secularism as the limiting of religion to the private sphere, they’ve learned that this is not laid out in the 1905 law marking the separation of church and state.

“Article 1 of the law recalls that freedom of conscience is assured by the state,” providing there is no disruption to public order, says el-Fakhar.

Instruction relating to rights is crucial, allowing them to “understand that secularism and Islam are compatible”, he adds.

The course arms students to go out and mediate in cases where there are cultural clashes, Bobineau says.

“They should have the law at hand as it were, and be able to say ‘hang on, your conception of secularism is that religion is a private affair, but in fact it’s about freedom of conscience’. Our students have a very good understanding of secularism, contrary to many of the people they have to deal with.”

Students then learn how to apply the law through courses in mediation skills given by Estelle Augain. Her classes include role-play where imams take the role of non-Muslims. The aim is to help them feel how some Muslim practices are seen by French secular society.

“I try to teach them how to be mediators, and that means being neutral. For them it’s difficult because they are religious. But I try to make them think about that … to see if they can reach a compromise ... because we have to live together.” 

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Despite the challenges, the course has been widely judged a success. Since it began in 2008, 83 Muslims have been trained in secularism and intercultural mediation.

But for Course Director Olivier Bobineau, it’s now under threat. After the debate on national identity and the forthcoming ban on the full face veil, the debate on secularism is “one too many”, he says.

“We have fewer and fewer students because they’re saying ‘what’s the point of learning secularism, to do mediation work, why come and get training in the laws, rules and values of the republic because in any case the republic is stigmatising us, treating us as scapegoats?’.”

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