LILLE, France (AP) Only a dozen students six boys and six girls showed up at the mosque where France’s first Muslim high school began holding classes on Tuesday.
Despite the small enrollment, school officials said they expect big things from the 10th graders at the private Averroes Lycee an experiment aimed at reconciling the nation’s deep commitment to secularism with the demands of its second-largest religious group.
“The number of students is not significant, but the Averroes Lycee is a symbol,” said the school’s deputy director, Makhlouf Mameche. “I think this high school will serve as a laboratory. Everyone is waiting for the results.”
The high school, located on the third floor of Lille’s Al-Imane mosque in a gritty neighborhood of the northern city, follows France’s national education program. But the curriculum also includes courses in Islamic culture and Arabic language and emphasizes creating a Muslim atmosphere, officials said.
The girls said they chose to attend the Averroes Lycee simply to be able to wear their traditional Muslim headscarves, forbidden in most public schools.
“It’s part of my personality,” said 16-year-old Samira of the violet scarf wrapped closely to her forehead. She, like all the other girls, refused to give her full name. “That I can keep my own personality … is a big benefit,” she said. “At the other (public) school, I took my scarf off at the door.”
Even the school’s principal, Sylvie Taleb, a former French teacher in a Catholic school, wore an elegant white chiffon scarf solid with small pearls on opening day.
“Perhaps you are writing a new page in the history of France without being aware,” she told the students. “You are our ambassadors.”
The Muslim headscarf has roiled the French Republic on and off for some 15 years, provoking teachers’ strikes, feeding rancor and casting suspicion of Muslim militancy on some women who cover their heads.
France, taking in immigrants from its former North African colonies, has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, estimated at 5 million, and Islam is the nation’s second religion, after Roman Catholicism. There are hundreds of private Catholic schools, but the first Muslim school, a junior high school in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, was established only two years ago.
The headscarf debate was infused with new passion last spring when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy reminded a Muslim gathering that women must have their heads uncovered in national identity photos. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin warned that a law could be passed “if necessary” to impose secularism, a mainstay of modern-day France.
The debate is so furious that President Jacques Chirac has formed a commission to examine the problem, with a report due at the end of the year.
The wearing of religious symbols has been charged with emotion since the 19th century, when advocates of a secular school system free from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church won a bitter fight, clinched by a 1905 law separating church and state.
Now, many French fear that principle is endangered by the country’s increasingly assertive Muslim community.
The high school is said to be funded only by donations, even though the mosque is owned by the Islamic League of the Nord region, a member of a weighty fundamentalist group, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France reportedly close to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The students, paying a tuition of just over $1000 a year, have been given three classrooms and a science laboratory and use of the cavernous prayer room downstairs.
Mosque Rector Amar Lasfar said the new school will inculcate students with “an Islam that respects the values of the republic.”