What Islam does (or doesn't) at school

Far from the usual sensationalist remarks, a field survey carried out in the suburbs of Lyon studies the attitude of school staff towards Islam, as well as the expectations of Muslim parents of students, some of whom are more rigid than their years.

It would be an understatement to note that the relationship between the educational institution and Islam arouses passions in France. Since the first scarf affair in 1989, they experienced media and political exposure that was as sustained as it was regularly relaunched. Such a situation ended up constituting Islam as a problem public which should be managed and resolved.

This also gave rise to a sensationalist production, revealing a infiltration Islamic of the French school. However, how is the meeting of the educational system and generations of Muslims, some of them more rigid than their parents, concretely articulated in working-class neighborhoods??

Islam and recognition

This is the question that Samia Langar addresses in a work based on a thesis in educational sciences, defended in 2018. As she herself emphasizes (p. 217), the completion of the doctorate, then the book, was doubly limited by the attacks. of 2015 and the assassination of Samuel Paty in 2020.

To clear up a subject that is, to say the least, conflicting, the author chooses an original and interdisciplinary approach. It links ethnographic investigation in secondary education establishments in Vnissieux, in the Lyon metropolitan area, and a philosophical approach inspired by the work of Axel Honneth on recognition. His fieldwork is based on interviews with educational staff and, another welcome originality of his work, with parents of Muslim students of Algerian origin (this voluntary restriction is explained on p. 19).

The first stage of the work aims to understand a major turning point of the last forty years within Islam in France, more particularly in the Lyon metropolitan area. How can we explain that the universalist claim of March for equality of 1983 (famous by the media, in a very innocent way, in March of the Arabs) gave way to a demand for recognition through the privileged means of Islam? Why has the school become the receptacle of the tensions that this change gives rise to??

several times (notably p. 49-62), the author relies on the rare existing data on students of Muslim culture, which comes from the survey TEO (Trajectories and Origins) or the work of Nathalie Kakpo and Gilles Kepel.

The return of religion

For her interviews, Samia Langar called on four school heads (p. 71-117), five teachers and one CPE (p. 119-154) as well as eight parents, including two relatives (p. 155-215). Educational staff, whatever their status, express their responses and feelings according to a threefold register.

The first is the reminder of the position of a public service agent. This translates into attachment to a republican and universalist culture welcoming all students, whatever their origin or relationship to the spiritual. The second is a classist type reading. This favors the very degraded socio-economic context of the territory, as well as the low social diversity (the question of ethnic diversity remaining implicit). From this perspective, religion is, according to a famous formula by Karl Marx, a aurole in the valley of tears of the precariousness and marginalization of the working classes.

However, a third register is present among the educational staff interviewed, culturalizing the relationship of populations and in particular, students of Islamic culture to the educational institution. This is increased by the high visibility of the belief in the territory of Vnissieux (modesty claims towards the body, external signs of religiosity, importance of festivals and religious rhythms).

In such a context, school leaders and teachers oscillate between apparent tolerance, fatalism and destabilization in the face of the return of religion. The students' outfits and practices crystallize this contradictory perception, sometimes implicitly leading to what Graldine Bozec and Françoise Lorcerie describe asethnicization of the relationship educational staff their minority students.

Contrary to popular belief

The survey of the parents is probably the most unexpected part of the investigation carried out by Samia Langar. On the one hand, the point of view of parents of Muslim students is rarely studied, at least in relation to students or young people of Muslim culture. On the other hand, his work questions many stereotypes on the subject, around three axes.

The first is that of religious heritage. The parents interviewed are Muslims who could be described as born again, who came to a demanding faith as adults and who criticize the less fervent practice of their own parents. This leads to a demanding and sometimes conservative family model.

The second issue is that of ambivalence towards the educational institution. These parents themselves felt a form of failure through an orientation suffered, particularly among mothers, which is read as discriminatory. This explains an ambivalent attitude towards the educational institution, already highlighted in other studies (TEO, Marco Oberti). If these parents expect a lot, they call into question the egalitarian claim. The quality of local school provision, with segregated schools and the high instability of teams, is severely felt.

This led some of the parents surveyed to try private school (Catholic and, in only one case, Muslim). This choice, presented as educationalis nevertheless not devoid of an underlying cultural preference (order, work, discipline), or even religious (a school where beliefs are lived more freely and visibly).

The third issue is that of the relationship to lacity. Muslim parents, contrary to the catastrophist discourse on the subject, appear to be very firm regarding the application of the secular principle. They are attached to a clear distinction between school learning and religious education. However, there is consensus on one point in the comments of the parents interviewed. This concerns the perception of the law of March 15, 2004 prohibiting conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. This is considered to be above all a law anti-scarfwhich would have substantially degraded the situation and legitimacy of veiled women (and mothers).

A short, clear and pleasantly written work, Samia Langar's book reveals great nuance. He misuses many preconceived ideas, as Inspector General Benot Falaize points out in his introduction. This is not the least of its qualities, in a context where factual or distanced speeches with regard to Islam, in French society, are not necessarily the most audible.