In a classroom of the Catholic University of Paris, overlooking the dome of a 17th century church, three Muslim women from Algeria are poring over the origins of the word “secularism”.
It is through weekly meetings in this unlikely setting and others that France – a strictly secular state with a Christian majority – hopes to train the nearly 2,000 imams and would-be Muslim chaplains, like these women, spreading the word to some 5 million Muslims, its largest minority.
Encouraging them towards a more moderate “French” Islam is an old idea that has again surfaced in the wake of the Paris attacks by Islamist militants that killed 17 people in January.
To combat radicalisation, the Socialist government of Francois Hollande hopes to try to guide the way Islam is taught – a tricky proposal in a country in which secularism is a cherished tradition and one in which Muslim issues, from the head scarf to halal food, are often controversial.
“It’s an effort towards moderate Islam,” said Kamel Kabtane, rector of Lyon’s Grand Mosque, which hosts such a programme. “You can’t deliver the same message here as in Kabul or Mali.”
But complicating the task is the undefined nature of what a “French” Islam could be, given the myriad interpretations of Islam and cultures making up the fabric of Muslims in France.
Under the plan, courses on “Multiculturalism, Secularism and Religion” such as that taught at the Catholic University of Paris (ICP) and the University of Strasbourg will double from six to 12 throughout France.
They will eventually become compulsory for the country’s 200-odd Muslim chaplains, who work in hospitals, prisons and the army, with the state partly paying for it.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited the Grand Mosque in Strasbourg this month, saying he wanted to attack “everything that holds back a French Islam”.
“We need French chaplains and imams, French-speaking, who learn French, who love France. And who adhere to its values. And also French financing,” Valls said, underlining that the government would not step into theological questions.
LAW AND CUSTOMS
A French focus is key, given that only 25-30 percent of practicing imams in France are French nationals, with hundreds of others dispatched on assignments by Turkey, Algeria and Morocco, according to a government study published in July.
Many do not speak French and have no knowledge of French law or customs, obstacles that the training is geared to address.
About 200 people from all faiths, not just Muslims, have already participated in the government-sponsored programme that dates from 2008. Some 1,800 imams are practising in France in the approximately 2,500 mosques or prayer rooms.
“There is no miracle cure (to radicalisation),” said ICP rector Philippe Bordeyne. “But the long-term work is to train religious leaders so they’re more at ease in society … capable of combating prejudices, helping to fight radicalisation.”
The fact that Islam has no central authority as Catholicism does with the pope, together with the traditional reluctance of French officials to deal with religious matters, has led to rival versions of the faith by different imams.
Previous attempts to encourage a moderate Islam in France have been unsuccessful. In 2003, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, created the French Muslim Council to help address issues such as imam training, mosque building and regulating halal slaughter. But the council has proved ineffective due to divisions between rival mosque networks.
“Everyone does his own Islam his own way,” the head of the council arm in Brittany, Mohamed Zaidouni, told parliament this month. Zaidouni called for a central theological unit, possibly within the council, to develop a theology adapted to France.
The government is expected to submit proposals by mid-June on how to overhaul the council to make it more effective.
Educators, such as sociologist and former ICP teacher Olivier Bobineau, question whether a university setting with its French-language requirement is the right forum to reach imams, many of whom work in poor suburbs inhabited by immigrants.
“Instead of making imams come, maybe we should go to them, to the heart of the mosques, to be welcomed and work with them.”