France to overhaul secularism teaching to help stop radicalisation

Jan 24, 2016

Photo credit: Remy Gabalda/AFP

By Angelique Chrisafis

The French principle of secularism has been twisted by politicians and so often wrongly used to attack Islam that schoolchildren have been left baffled, the French education minister has warned.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told the Guardian that after last year’s devastating jihadi attacks in Paris, France was overhauling the teaching of secularism and civic values as part of the country’s drive against terrorism and radicalisation.

“We have to reappropriate the concept of laïcité [secularism] so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded. Secularism is not something against them; it protects them,” she said.

Since last January’s attacks on the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket, when 17 people were killed, and November’s attacks that killed 130, French schools have taken centre-ground in the nation’s soul-searching on how young French men could take up guns against their fellow citizens.

Much of the soul-searching has been painful. There were more than 200 incidents of disruption in schools during the minute’s silence after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that published the Muhammed cartoons. In turn, the government launched an action plan against inequality and what the prime minister called France’s “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”. Since then, more than 800 children have been flagged up by schools over potential radicalisation.

In an interview with the Guardian as she travelled to London to look at how UK schools tackle social inequalities and to discuss digital education, Vallaud-Belkacem said the principle of secularism was central to the anti-radicalisation struggle in France.

France is a secular republic built on a clear separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. The state remains neutral in terms of religion but must safeguard everyone’s freedom to practise their own faith. In 2004, France banned girls from wearing Islamic headscarves in state schools – along with banning all other religious symbols such as crosses or turbans – arguing schools must be free of all religion.

But Vallaud-Belkacem said France was overhauling how it teaches secularism because the concept had been twisted by rightwing politicians in recent years.

She said: “Laïcité is about saying we’re in a country where individuals can have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they choose and the public powers must be neutral towards them. That’s why in schools, we ask pupils not to wear distinctive religious symbols, because schools should be indifferent to beliefs and everyone must be treated equally. But there had been a growing sense of incomprehension among pupils over what this meant, with some pupils feeling it was an aggressive attack on who they were.”

She added: “If a big number of young pupils felt secularism was an attack on them, it was because the term had been misused and deformed in the public debate for years by the extreme-right and the right as an attack on Islam. The term had often been misused to point out how Muslims were different to others, and that is clearly problematic.”

She said: “So we really wanted to work on that concept of secularism and specially train teachers on it.”


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6 comments on “France to overhaul secularism teaching to help stop radicalisation

  • Self-defeating? Perhaps, by declaring the religious identification, in general, as “black market” widens a schism and propagates more strident, intransigent people? Does it foment tribalism faster than it foments unity toward the goal of learning our vast knowledge?



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  • They should include the question as to whether there are any gods, to be radicalized by. A bit hard to be radicalized if you’ve had the seeds of doubt sown as to the very existence of any god.



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  • Teach evolution starting in 5th grade or lower. Teach science by giving laboratory classes. Teach the students to think. Teach a lot of math. Make science and math mandatory for all students..



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  • @OP -She added: “If a big number of young pupils felt secularism was an attack on them, it was because the term had been misused and deformed in the public debate for years by the extreme-right and the right as an attack on Islam. The term had often been misused to point out how Muslims were different to others, and that is clearly problematic.”

    A secularist system is not determined on the basis of “how fundamentalists feel”. It is based on equality, respect for objective education, and scientific evidence.

    Any Muslims asserting the priority of Sharia law over state law, ARE different.

    She said: “So we really wanted to work on that concept of secularism and specially train teachers on it.”

    Permitting accommodationists to redefine secularism, is just religious jiggery pokery! Any training of teachers needs to be objective and certainly not a branch of “political correctness”!



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  • This is a bit too late. The West attacked Afghanistan and Iraq illegally and improperly. They killed and tortured millions. The west have to expect some retribution for these war crimes. I suspect an apology with reparations will go further than trying to convince middle easterners they have no bone to pick with the west.

    Middle easterners hold grudges for generations.

    Hosea 8:7 “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind”



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