France: A Pro-Church Law Helps a Mosque
STRASBOURG, France — The Alsace-Moselle region is the great French exception. Having been variously French and German in the last few centuries — annexed, presumably for the last time, by Hitler’s Germany before returning to France after World War II — Alsace-Moselle still has a German feel, with rounded edges.
While France is a model for the centralized state, Alsace-Moselle is different, especially on the question of politics and religion. Because the region was German in 1905, when France passed major legislation separating church and state — a policy known as laicite, usually translated as secularism — the local government continues to involve itself in the established religions, providing a wide variety of subsidies and even religious education in the public schools.
Extraordinarily for secular France, here the state not only helps to finance the construction of places of worship but also approves the appointments of clergy members and even pays their salaries.
But not for Islam. Muslims are now the second largest religious group in this region of 2.9 million people, and there is considerable debate about whether and how to extend to Islam the support given to other religions. The questions vary from Muslim education in the public schools to the size of a new mosque partially built along the banks of the Ill River, and even whether the mosque should be allowed to have a minaret.
Some believe that in the odd historical exception of Alsace, the heart of the area once known as Alsace-Lorraine, there may be lessons for how to better integrate Muslims into France, the country in Europe with the largest number of both Muslims and Jews.
“Muslims today represent the second religion of France, as well as of Alsace-Moselle,” said Francois Grosdidier, a center-right legislator and mayor of Woippy, a town in the region where a third of the 15,000 inhabitants are Muslim. “I don’t think the current situation can last in our country; it’s not sustainable,” he said. “The exclusion of the Muslims encourages them to build their mosques in basements and to seek foreign support.”
Fouad Douai, who is in charge of trying to build Strasbourg’s Grand Mosque, said Muslims here wanted the same rights as the other main religions — especially Islamic religious education in the schools and the chance to establish a theological faculty to train clerics, all in the context of a democratic, secular France.
“There’s great hypocrisy in French politics,” Mr. Douai said. “People don’t name things as they are. Every time they see a swarthy skin or a Muslim name, you’re oppressed.”
Still, he said, Alsace “is a model for interreligious dialogue, which is much stronger here than in the rest of France,” noting that the heads of the four established religions — Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Judaism — signed a 1998 letter supporting the construction of the new mosque, which is getting some public funds, unlike the case in the rest of France.
For French Muslims, a Catholic education
MARSEILLE: The bright cafeteria of Saint Mauront Catholic school is conspicuously quiet: It is Ramadan and 80 percent of the students are Muslim. When the lunch bell rings, girls and boys stream out past the crucifixes and the large wooden cross in the corridor, heading for Muslim midday prayer.
“There is respect for our religion here,” said Nadia Oualane, 14, her hair covered by a black headscarf.
France has only four Muslim schools. So the 8,847 Roman Catholic schools have become a refuge for Muslims seeking what an overburdened, secularist public sector often lacks: spirituality, an environment in which good manners count alongside mathematics and higher academic standards.
There are no national statistics, but Muslim and Catholic educators estimate that Muslim students now form more than 10 percent of the two million students in Catholic schools. In ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Marseille and the industrial north, the share can be more than half.
The quiet migration to fee-paying Catholic schools highlights how hard it has become for state schools, long France’s tool for integration, to keep their promise of equal opportunity – irrespective of color, creed or zip code.
Traditionally, the republican school, born of the French Revolution, was the breeding ground for citizens. The shift from these schools is another indication of the challenge facing the strict form of secularism known as “laïcité.”
After centuries of religious wars and squabbles between the nascent republic and a meddlesome clergy, a 1905 law granted religious freedom in predominantly Roman Catholic France but also withdrew financial support and formal recognition from all faiths. Religious education and symbols were banned from public schools.
As France has become home to five million Muslims, Western Europe’s largest such community, new fault lines have emerged. In 2004, a ban on the headscarf in state schools prompted an outcry and a debate about loosening interpretations of the 1905 law.
“Laïcité has become the state’s religion and the republican school is its temple,” said Imam Soheib Bencheikh, a former grand mufti in Marseille and founder of its Higher Institute of Islamic Studies. Bencheikh’s oldest daughter attends Catholic school.
“It’s ironic, but today the Catholic church is more tolerant of, and knowledgeable about, Islam than the French state,” he said.
For some, economics argue for Catholic schools, which tend to be smaller than public ones and much cheaper than private schools in other countries.
In return for teaching the national curriculum and being open to students of all faiths, the government pays teachers’ salaries and a subsidy per student. Annual cost for parents averages €1,400, or about $2,000, for junior high and €1,800 for high school, according to the Catholic teaching authority.
In France’s highly centralized education system, the national curriculum mandates no religious instruction beyond general examination of religious tenets and faiths as it occurs in history lessons. Religious instruction, such as Catholic catechism, is strictly voluntary.
Catholic schools are free to allow girls to wear a headscarf. Many impose the state ban, but several, like Saint Mauront, tolerate a discreet version.