Muslim school opens in secular France

Challenge for govt to stay out of religion while

meeting demands of Muslim community,4386,212093,00.html

LILLE (France) - The headmistress stood at the front

of the room on the first day of school and told her 10

10th-graders to write legibly, refrain from idle

chatter and avoid crazy stunts that could cause


But this was no ordinary school opening. The students

are taking part in a historic, if uneasy, educational

experiment: the opening of Lycee Averroes, the first

Muslim high school in France.

The goal of the school, which began its first term

this month, is to provide Muslims with an alternative

to public school education, like those that French

Catholics, Protestants and Jews have long enjoyed.

The challenge for France is to preserve the country's

secular identity as codified under a century-old law,

meet the demands of its second-largest religious

community and discourage religious and ethnic

separatism all at the same time.

The six boys in the class were dressed in unremarkable

casual clothing. 

But the four girls had covered their hair and necks

with well-secured scarves, a practice normally banned

in public schools.

They hid the shape of their bodies under dark-coloured

knee-length coats and pants.

Ms Sylvie Taleb, 43, the headmistress, her hair and

neck swathed in a pale scarf trimmed in pearls, is

also a pioneer of sorts. 

A French-born convert to Islam and an expert on

Flaubert, she assumed the new post after teaching

French at a local Catholic school for 17 years. She

had never worn a scarf earlier.



THE Lycee Averroes high school in Lille, named after a

12th-century Spanish-Arabian philosopher, consists of

three unadorned classrooms and a science laboratory -

so far unequipped - on the third floor of Al-Imane


Students have access to the mosque's library and

prayer hall, and eventually the school will serve

lunches that conform to Islamic dietary rules. Tuition

is US$1,100 (S$1,900) a year.

The school and mosque officials emphasised that the

school would uphold the strict French rule on

'secular' teaching and follow the national curriculum.

Courses in Arabic, Islamic culture and history will be

offered as electives.

Quranic studies will be taught for only one hour a

week. A female physical education teacher will conduct

co-educational gym classes. 

There is no requirement that the students be Muslim -

though all of them now are - or that the girls go to

school veiled.

The idea for the school dates back to 1994, when the

mosque began educating 19 Muslim girls after they were

expelled from public school for refusing to remove

their scarves. 

As an act of defiance against the state, the mosque

set up its own unofficial high school, asked for

volunteer teachers from the community and helped the

girls to finish their education.

The problem was, and is, that no clear regulation on

veiling in public schools has ever existed. It has

been left to the discretion of individual schools to

decide, and most ban the scarves. -- New York Times 



No social issue is more pressing for France's

centre-right government than the integration of the

country's Muslims into the fabric of French society.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has warned that

France might have to pass a law imposing secular rule,

and President Jacques Chirac has formed a commission

to make recommendations on the issue of the nation's

secular identity by the end of the year.

The creation of Muslim schools financed and monitored

by the state - like other private religious schools in

France - is intended to provide Muslim youth with the

same core education that celebrates the republic's

values as do public schools. 

But there are concerns that it could contribute to the

isolation and even radicalisation of Muslim students

as well.

'The problem is not that there are Muslim high

schools, it is that there are fundamentalist groups on

the edges,' said Ms Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a

specialist on French secularism and a member of the


'They recruit among the most intelligent students, the

ones with the best grades,' she added.

She said any Muslim school had to be monitored

carefully to ensure that there is no corporal

punishment, which she said is allowed in certain

Quranic schools; that freedom of conscience is

respected; and that there is no 'denunciation or even

censorship' of subjects for religious reasons.

Private religious schools in the country must conform

to strict rules, including the use of the same core

curriculum, safety regulations and qualifications for

teachers and administrators as any public school.

They are allowed to teach religious subjects only as

electives. Prayer must be optional.

If they meet those requirements, they are eligible for

state aid after five years.

French officials have expressed anxiety that the Lille

mosque is affiliated with the powerful Union of

Islamic Organisations in France.

That group preaches a strict conservative

interpretation of Islam that emphasises personal

purification and grassroots proselytising, especially

among poor Muslim youth, and aims at having an impact

on every aspect of a Muslim's life.

It has encouraged its daughters to test the limits of

restrictions on scarves in school by partly covering

their heads with bandanas or ribbons.

'The Lycee Averroes is not a religious school,' said

Mr Amar Lasfar, the director of the Al-Imane Mosque

where the school is located.

'It's a general education high school, except that it

exists in a Muslim culture and with a Muslim

sensibility. I don't see any risk of deviance or of

community isolation.'

He called the opening of the school 'a great day for

secularism' and 'a great day for Islam in France'. --

New York Times 


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