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Debates over French identity—and how its secular foundations interact with a growing Muslim population that, by some estimates, makes up 8 percent of the population (the French census doesn’t classify by race or religion)—have long played out in French schools. In 2004, a law banning religious symbols in public schools passed with 93 percent approval in parliament. Although the law applies to all religions, it was largely seen to target Muslims and has consistently been referred to as the “headscarf ban” since its passage.
But religious “neutrality” is a tenuous recipe for social harmony, particularly in France, where Christian holidays are observed and nuns seem to get far less attention for their wardrobe than do burkini-clad beach-goers—not to mention the concrete inequalities Muslims face, particularly in access to the job market. Anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked following Charlie Hebdo and have continued apace since, particularly following the subsequent terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. If Muslim students, by virtue of their religious and ethnic identity, don’t feel French in their lives outside of the classroom, a reinforcement of so-called Republican values in schools will only deepen that sentiment of marginalization.
In refusing to profess solidarity with Charlie, then, Muslim students were in part rebelling against the imposed neutrality laïcité entails. Yet faced with signs of discontent among French Muslims, the government concluded that more secularism, not less, would be the solution. “We have to re-appropriate the concept of laïcité so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded,” French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said in a speech on January 22, 2015, as she announced 11 measures aimed to reinforce Republican values in schools. In a televised address, Vallaud-Belkacem, who herself is of Moroccan origin, denounced in earnest the politicization of laïcité, stressing its role as a force of unification rather than division.
Accordingly, the measures aimed to deepen the instruction and comprehension of—and adherence to—the principles of laïcité. If successful, Vallud-Belkacem said, the initiative could transform students into citizens, allowing them to transcend individual differences to become part of a collective and unified France. That implies that the students who rejected Charlie were, by virtue of their dissent, failing to properly exercise citizenship. Worse, according to some political observers, their questioning of the French values espoused by Charlie Hebdo veered on complicity with terrorism; the edict was aimed primarily at schools in heavily Muslim suburbs, increasingly seen as a potential source for recruits for radical movements.
But the majority of French nationals who have been tempted by groups like ISIS aren’t religious—or at least they don’t start out that way. Even if their families are Muslim, they’re overwhelmingly non-practicing; 70 percent of European jihadis have come from atheist, Catholic, or non-practicing Muslim families. In a 2015 interview, Dounia Bouzar, the director of a French NGO established in 2014 to combat radicalization, told me that the “jihadis radicalizing youths hardly talk about Islam at all ... Islam is just the final polish” and added that “the majority of youths radicalized in France have never set foot in a mosque, and others have never seen Muslims.” But the politics of laïcité preclude a frank classroom discussion about Islam, making it more likely for extremism to be confused with authenticity and doing little to dispel the stereotypes about Muslims that feed Islamophobia.