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 accidents.
But this was no ordinary school opening. The students are taking part in a historic if uneasy educational experiment: the opening of Lycée Averroès, the first Muslim high school in France.
The goal of the school 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 French public schools. They hid the shape of their bodies under dark-colored knee-length coats and pants.
Sylvie Taleb, 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 never wore a scarf on the job before.
“Children, students, you have answered our calls!” the 43-year-old Taleb exclaimed in her first words of welcome, adding, “May God help us and guide us in this enterprise.”
No social issue is more pressing for France’s center-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 concerning the French 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 radicalization 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 Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a specialist on French secularism and a member of the commission. “They recruit among the most intelligent students, the ones with the best grades.”
She said Muslim schools would have to be monitored carefully to ensure that there was no corporal punishment, which she said is allowed in certain Koranic schools, that freedom of conscience was respected and that there was no “denunciation or even censorship” of subjects for religious reasons. The 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 Mosque, a nondescript brick building in a working-class neighborhood of Lille.
Students have access to the mosque’s library and cavernous prayer hall, and eventually the school will serve lunches that conform to Islamic dietary rules. Tuition is $1,100 a year.
The idea for the school dates back to 1994, when the mosque began educating 19 Muslim high school 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 finish their education.
The problem was, and is, that no clear regulation on veiling in public schools has ever existed.
The issue has been left to the discretion of individual schools to decide, and most ban the scarves.
One student at Averroès, a 16-year-old of Moroccan origin who wore a lavender scarf and identified herself only as Samira, said the head scarf issue was the reason she had changed schools
“I wore my veil on the way to school only until I got to the gates,” she said. “Now I don’t have to take it off. Now I can be myself without anyone stopping me. The fact that I can wear my veil makes a difference. And it’s part of my personality.”
Complicating matters is that a private religious school in France is an odd construction. Almost all of the country’s 9,000 private schools, a vast majority of them Catholic, are not financed independently but receive about 80 percent of their money from the state.
About 20 percent of the country’s student population is currently enrolled in private religious schools.
The schools 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 – although very privately – that the Lille mosque is affiliated with the powerful Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which preaches a strict conservative interpretation of Islam. The group is said to derive its inspiration from the banned fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, which calls for the imposition of Islamic rule via Islamic law and political action.
The French organization has encouraged its daughters to test the limits of restrictions on scarves in school by partly covering their heads with bandannas or ribbons.
Indeed, Makhlouf Mameche, the associate head of the school and a history and geography teacher, said the veiling of girls at school could be a first step toward persuading the state to loosen its overall bias against head coverings.
“Veils are not an obstacle to integration,” he said. “Accept them. That’s what true democracy is.”
At Averroès, school and mosque officials emphasized 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. Koranic studies will be taught for only one hour a week. A female physical education teacher will conduct coeducational 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 Lycée Averroès is not a religious school,” said Amar Lasfar, the director of the mosque, who also runs a travel agency that arranges trips to North Africa and pilgrimages to Mecca. “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.”