France's first Muslim school raises hopes - and concern

The state-funded Lycée Averroés, opened in September, allows headscarves in school.

Each year, the start of school in France coincides with reports of Muslim girls kicked out of school for wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

This year was no exception. In the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, two sisters who insist on covering their heads and necks were expelled from a public high school because of a policy prohibiting obvious displays of religious affinity.

But the Muslim community has responded with an alternative. Spurred by a similar expulsion of 19 Muslim women from a state school in south Lille in 1994, the first Muslim high school in France opened its doors in September. And it is reenergizing a debate about the status of religion in a secular state.

For the center-right government of President Jacques Chirac, the school is an experiment aimed at meeting the demands of France's second biggest religion, after Roman Catholicism, while preserving the state's secular identity and containing the threat of fundamentalism.

The goal of the Lycée Averroés, named after a 12th-century Spanish Arabian philosopher, is to offer Muslim youths an alternative to state education, something Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have enjoyed for many years.

The creation of a Muslim school financed by the state like other private religious schools, will help to integrate France's 5 million Muslims, say supporters. But there is concern, even among Muslims, that it could isolate and radicalize Muslim students.

"We [France] are a democracy and they [Muslims] have the right to open a school, like anybody else," says Jacqueline Costa- Lascoux, an expert on French secularism and a member of a state commission studying the issue. "But democracy is weak in the face of fundamentalism."

The authorization of the school follows the election of the French Council for the Muslims in April this year, an initiative by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to "give the country's Muslims a voice." Protestant and Jewish groups have had similar councils for 100 years.

Mr. Sarkozy also reinvigorated debate about the hijab this year when he insisted that Muslim women appear uncovered in national identity photographs.

President Chirac subsequently appointed the state commission to recommend by the end of the year whether a law to impose secularism is necessary.

The controversy is not limited to France. A recent constitutional court judgment in Germany, which has a smaller Muslim community of mainly Turkish immigrants, ruled that a Muslim teacher was unfairly dismissed for refusing to remove her headscarf at work.

Situated on the third floor of the Al Imane Mosque, the French school is in the heart of a largely Muslim area that has been the scene of violent clashes between Muslims and police in the past.

"We want Muslim youths to feel at ease. They should realize it's possible to be French and Muslim. The one doesn't exclude the other," says Makhlouf Mameche, the deputy director of the new school in South-Lille.

The 14 pupils - 8 boys and 6 girls - who have enrolled so far will follow France's national education program, but have the option to take courses in Islamic culture and Arabic language. "We are not a religious school. We are open to everyone - girls, boys, Muslims, non-Muslims," he says.

"The school is a laboratory which will lead to the creation of other secondary Muslim schools in the future," he says, adding that he has had inquiries from other Muslim leaders keen to start schools elsewhere in France.

Donors will cover the school's running costs per annum for the next five years, after which it would be eligible for state funding. Pupils pay tuition fees of about $1,170 per year.

Mameche denies the school has "foreign support," a sensitive issue in France because some mosques financed from abroad are suspected of spreading radical Islam. The Al Imane Mosque is reportedly owned by the Islamic League of the North, a member of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, which is said to be close to Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Ms. Costa-Laxcoux says there is a "significant" presence of fundamentalist Muslim groups in France, who have made "hostile declarations" against the state.

But, she says, the government has to "play the game of democracy" and can step in only when "unacceptable practices" come to light. "We have to wait and see."

Fears of fundamentalism are not limited to the state. The Muslim community is "suspicious" of the school, says Aissa Boukanoun, an Algerian-born expert on Islam at the University of Lille.

"This type of school is a way of saying: 'We don't want to integrate.'" he says. But he says a private school could offer a "refuge" for Muslims who are discriminated against in public schools.

One local shop owner sees a need for a Muslim school.

"But it's too early. French society is not yet ready for it," he says. "It makes no sense to impose a school on the community - it will only be a handicap for our children in the future, because they will be educated in one world, which is completely different from the world outside," he says.

Mameche is adamant that the school will unite rather than divide the community in the long term.

"It's normal that there are doubts, we are the first. We still have to prove ourselves, but there is no reason why we won't."

Last of three parts. The first two ran Oct. 10 and Oct. 14.

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