Abdelkader Arbi’s office is fairly typical for an employee of the French military, with its spacious desk, ceiling-high French flag planted in one corner, and a portrait of President François Hollande affixed to the wall.
But from time to time, it serves an unorthodox purpose for a room in a state-run building: when the Army prayer room is unavailable, it becomes a makeshift mosque for soldiers who don’t have a place to pray.
“Obviously, soldiers need to learn to live together, but sometimes it’s just not convenient or practical for them to pray,” says Mr. Arbi, the French military's first ever Muslim chaplain, who is celebrating his 11th year in the position. Soldiers often live up to six in a dormitory or work in an open space during the day, which can be a challenge for practicing Muslims trying to observe the required five daily prayers. “They come to pray here so they don’t bother anyone.”
In a country that struggles with fears of radicalization and the perception that its definition of secularism is synonymous with Islamophobia, the military offers a model for embracing religious freedom without completely banishing it in the public sphere.
While it is theoretically illegal for a chaplain to preside over a public school or office building, church and state are still entwined in the military. And in recent years, the government has worked to make sure religious freedoms are extended to the growing number of young Muslims joining the Army.
“These soldiers simply want to do their jobs while fully respecting their religion,” says Arbi. “They finally feel like they’re being treated equally. After all, everyone here is fighting for the same cause – France.”
Allowing soldiers to pray on military grounds wouldn’t necessarily be shocking, except that this is France – a country that prides itself on its strict secularism laws, or laicité.
France has fought hard to uphold laicité, including through bans on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools since 2004 and the burqa in public places since 2010.
But a clause within a 1905 law to separate church and state makes a provision for people in public prisons, hospitals, and boarding schools – anywhere where an individual does not have free access to traditional religious facilities. In these cases, the government must provide access to a state-appointed chaplain.
The 1905 law parallels a similar one from 1880 that provides the same rights to members of the French Army. There are currently 38 Muslim chaplains in the military, along with the more than 200 chaplains from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths.
“Religion can’t be practiced in many places in France, but for those who don’t have all their rights, religion is a way to give them this liberty back,” says Valentine Zuber, a professor of religious studies at the Paris-based Practical School of Advanced Studies (EPHE).
But this hasn't always applied to everyone. While Christian and Jewish soldiers could frequent the on-site prayer halls and chaplains, Muslim soldiers were largely excluded from religious life, even 100 years after religious freedom provisions allowed for military chaplains.
Practicing Muslims felt compelled to hide their daily prayers before Arbi arrived at the Vincennes military fort on the outskirts of Paris in 2005, and had little recourse when faced with racist jokes, insults, or feelings of exclusion.
Growing Muslim contingent
But that sort of behavior is untenable today due to the Army’s growing Muslim contingent, which represents around 10 to 20 percent of France’s military population. The push for Muslim chaplains finally came in 2004, when a study that looked at second-generation immigrants in the Army showed widespread and primarily religious discrimination.
Samir, a soldier in the south of France and second-generation Moroccan (identifying details have been changed to protect his anonymity), was a practicing Muslim when he first entered the Army in 2005. While his religious practice now extends only to abstaining from eating pork, Samir says he has seen the difference between life with and without religious freedoms.
“Ten years ago, Muslims simply didn’t practice their religion on the base,” says Samir. “The officers didn’t want to see it.”
And while racism and religious discrimination still exists within the ranks – Samir says he recently heard a young officer berating a Muslim soldier for praying in his room – attitudes towards North African and black soldiers is improving. “This new generation of soldiers is very diverse and things are changing for the better, even if that evolution is taking place very slowly.”
Since Muslim chaplains have arrived on the base, soldiers are allowed to pray in their rooms, consult with chaplains when necessary, and choose halal food packs during overseas missions. Some chaplains help organize annual trips to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. But otherwise, the country’s laicité laws are applied in a similar fashion to that of public spaces – no outward religious symbolism is allowed.
“We can’t express anything apparent about our religion,” says Samir. “No chains, no beards – we have to remain neutral. The only place we can pray is in the military chapel or our bedroom.”
A middle of the road approach
Maintaining a balance between overt and private religious practice and a middle-of-the-road approach to providing support – chaplains do not have the right to proselytize – could be what keeps the military’s version of secularism functioning. Unlike in public office buildings or schools, where laicité debates have created deep tensions, the practice of religion in the military generally remains clear of suspicion or scandal.
Hovering between the public and private, the military allows for individuals to practice their religion as long as it does not disturb public order – the original definition of laicité.
“The military seems to be the place where neutrality and freedom are the most respected in France,” says Zuber.
And because the state funds military chaplains, in a country where the government is prohibited from financing religious institutions or employees, the religion itself is given a certain presence and credibility, she adds.
“Our current system of laicité doesn’t allow us to apply similar rules anywhere else,” Zuber says, “but maybe if the role of chaplains were better understood, it would change people’s mentalities. For now, there is no political willingness to do so.”
Keeping any radicalization at bay?
The moderate approach could also be seen as an attempt to keep radicalization at bay. While France has had problems with radicalization in its prisons, instances within the military remain uncommon. Still, Arbi says that even if he has rarely seen a soldier exhibiting signs of radicalized thoughts, it is his role to remain vigilant, especially since terrorist attacks traumatized France in January and November of last year.
“Anyone can go off the rails, but this isn’t a Muslim problem,” says Arbi. When Mohammed Merah went on a shooting spree in Toulouse in 2012, two of the three soldiers killed were Muslim. “These are French soldiers and even though it might be difficult to remember, Islam is not a ‘foreign’ religion. The relationship between Islam and France has a huge history.”
As France continues to debate the balance between promoting secularism and discouraging Islamophobia, Arbi says that the opportunity for Muslims in the military to practice freely is insurance against Muslim resentment festering into radicalism. The best way to approach things, he says, is like parenting – treating each person equally is fundamental.
“Our job is to make war,” says Arbi. “But if soldiers don’t feel equal among themselves, that war can turn inward.”