French try teaching Arabic to prevent radicalisation

67% of parents of Muslim or Arab backgrounds want to see their children study classical Arabic.
Wednesday 26/12/2018
A teacher writes on a board during a class of Arabic language for young children at the Institut Lissane private school on the outskirts of Paris. (AFP)
A teacher writes on a board during a class of Arabic language for young children at the Institut Lissane private school on the outskirts of Paris. (AFP)

TUNIS - In the ethnically mixed Paris suburb of Kremlin-Bicetre, children sit quietly at their desks while outside their classmates frolic in the autumn sunshine.

"Ayna yaskunu Adel?" ("Where does Adel live?") teacher Hanan asks the children, pointing to a textbook drawing of a boy and girl in a village with a school and a mosque. Hands shoot up and a little girl replies that he lives behind the "madrassa" (“school”).

This is Lissane, one of a growing number of private language schools where children and grandchildren of North African immigrants learn classical Arabic after schools close on Wednesday afternoons and the weekend.

While Hanan's students, aged 7-10, study interrogative pronouns in one of seven classrooms housed in a former office building, 4-year-olds next door sing a nursery rhyme about the parts of the body.

So far, so normal, with the notable difference that female teachers wear the Muslim headscarf, a garment banned, along with other religious symbols, in state schools.

It is not so much the headscarves as the "Islamic sciences," or religion lessons, conducted at Lissane and many other private Arabic language schools that have drawn scrutiny in a country that has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim minority, at an estimated 5 million, the largest in Europe.

Lissane's co-founder Abdelghani Sebata, a 37-year-old Algerian law graduate, said the religious component of the course, which includes learning verses of the Quran, is "very light."

"We leave the religious side to the families," he said.

However, at many mosques that also teach children to read and write the Arabic used in official communications, literature and media across the Arab world, as well as in the Quran, Islam is the main focus.

A report on radicalisation in September by the Institut Montaigne, a respected liberal French think-tank, warned that Arabic classes had become "the best way for Islamists to attract young people into their mosques and (private) schools."

The report by the Institut Montaigne stated that 67% of parents of Muslim or Arab backgrounds want to see their children study classical Arabic. “The Republican school should be able to overcome this deficit in order to transmit the culture of their parents to those who did not receive it,” Institut Montaigne Senior Fellow Hakim El Karoui wrote, “as well as a historical perspective on Islam, and the tools [children] will need to question and probe their sense of belonging and their plural identity.”

Karoui said public schools were the best place for the professional teaching of Arabic. Otherwise, it is mosques and their unpredictable potential to serve as venues for radicalisation especially when it comes to young vulnerable Muslims. “There is a demand for Arabic that is very strong in French society and this demand is practically only served by mosques and mosques have made it a kind of major element of their attractiveness,” he said.

“I regret that this opportunist and biased report fell into the easy amalgam between Islam and Islamism, deliberately forgetting the Muslim community of France,” said Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris.

Seeing the merit of Karoui's recommendations, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, one of centrist President Emmanuel Macron's most combative ministers, announced plans to take back control.

Arguing that classical Arabic should be treated like other "great languages," such as Russian and Chinese, he vowed to develop its teaching in state schools to combat "the drift towards self-ghettoisation" in private institutions.

His proposal drew a furious reaction from right-wingers who view the use of Arabic by North African immigrants with hostility, seeing it as evidence of a failure to integrate.

Luc Ferry, education minister under former centre-right President Jacques Chirac, questioned whether the government was bent on "fighting Islamism or bringing it into public education," suggesting that by giving Arabic more prominence it was doing the latter.

The far right is not delighted with the notion of Arabic being taught at schools, which it sees as an impediment to the assimilation of French children of North African origin. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said: “Of course, there is a great culture called Arab culture but here we are in France and what I want is that we learn French culture.”

"We're in a logic of submission," fumed Louis Aliot, a lawmaker from the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front) party, echoing the title of a novel by controversial author Michel Houellebecq, "Submission," which imagines a France ruled by Islamists.

Karoui, the author of the Institut Montaigne report, which revived a long-running debate about France's insistence that immigrants ditch their ethnic identities on arrival and embrace “Frenchness,” said he was "not at all" surprised by the reaction on the right.

"Everything to do with Arabs drives them a bit mad," said Karoui, a Tunisian-born geography scholar and former government adviser.

He pointed to the increasing scarcity of schools offering Arabic, France's second-most spoken language and one used by more than 430 million people worldwide, as evidence of their reluctance to teach a subject associated with "problematic" immigrants.

Only 567 primary French schoolchildren studied Arabic last year, one-third of the number who took Chinese as their mandatory second language. Most chose English. In secondary school, 11,200 pupils studied Arabic, which is offered in a handful of schools in each city, mostly elite city-centre colleges.

With demand far outstripping supply, parents have turned to mosques, religious associations and private schools such as Lissane, which together attract some 80,000 students, a government estimate cited by the Institut Montaigne stated.

Ines Kridaine, a 35-year-old Tunisian living in France for the past 13 years, enrolled her daughter Ikram in classes at Lissane at the age of 4. Five years later Ikram can understand her Tunisian relatives, follow Arabic news channels and read the Quran. However, Ines Kridaine, who wears a headscarf and a loose abaya robe, said she wishes Arabic was taught during class time.

"It should be treated like any other language," she said.

Outside the natural environment of the North African and Arab communities of France, the advocates of Arabic language teaching see it made accessible to all children of France.   “I am obviously not talking of teaching Arabic only to young Muslim children or kids with North African origins,” Karoui says. “It must be a language for all, as is Chinese or Russian, today.”

Writing in Le Monde newspaper in September, the head of the prestigious Arab World Institute in Paris, former Socialist minister Jack Lang, defended Arabic as the language of "Arab Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, bloggers, social media, young people, writers, poets, artists, singers, hip-hoppers, scientists, researchers, journalists, companies and innovators."

It's a view shared by Jerome Gercet, principal of an international secondary school in the south-eastern city of Grenoble that must turn away applicants for its Arabic section each year.

After graduation, most of his students study political science, medicine, business, engineering, arts or administration.

That's proof, he says, that Arabic is "a subject of excellence."

(With Agence France-Presse)