Across Europe’s schools, push for national values is infringing religious freedoms



The ongoing debate on radicalisation and schools in both the UK and France is missing an important point: we are still not agreed on exactly what religious radicalism is.

The fact that the British secretary of state for education asked a former head of counter terrorism to investigate the Trojan Horse “Islamist” plot at a number of schools in Birmingham shows a confusion that is spreading all over Europe: the idea that religious radicalism leads automatically to political radicalisation, and thereby terrorism.

And this is followed by another assumption – that to prevent terrorism we should promote a liberal conception of religion, or force religious people to accept the liberal values of a secular society. This, of course, is highly debatable. Could a religion be liberal and endorse, more or less willingly, liberal values? How should tolerance work – by imposing common values, or by recognising the right to have different values?

Trojan Horse plot unthinkable in France

When it comes to faith and schools, the French educational system is very different from the British one. Most French schools are strictly secular government schools (with 82% of the total of pupils), and most of the so-called “private schools” are also closely monitored by the ministry of education. Only private faith schools have a real autonomy, and most of them are Jewish. There are fewer than ten Muslim faith schools in France.

There have been reports concerning public schools in France such as the 2004 “Rapport Obin” which highlighted unauthorised religious activities such as prayers, and refusal to assist to some school activities on religious grounds such as swimming or sex education. There were also reports of absences from school canteens during the fast of Ramadan, and interventions during classes contesting some points made by the teacher on issues such as evolution, the Holocaust and Palestine. But the ministry of education considered such incidents as isolated cases and did not investigate further.

These attitudes come from individual pupils, and are not connected with any kind of “plot” such as the alleged one in Birmingham to take control of the schools. This would be impossible in France given the weak power of the “school board” and the strong control of the state. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that schoolteachers are confronted with growing demands from their pupils to take into considerations religious beliefs and norms.

Across Europe, the debate about conservative religion and radicalisation is not just about Islam. Evangelical and ultra-orthodox Jewish schools also claim to promote conservative values. These values could have been in line with the dominant social values some 60 years ago (rejection of homosexuality, support for gender segregation, refusal of sexual education), but are seen now as intolerant or backward.

The issue is not that the dominant European culture has became secular – a trend that began long before the 20th century – but that it has turned far more tolerant since the 1960s, including among the conservative rights, at least in Northern Europe. Despite some new approaches (such as Vatican II within the Catholic church), the religious revival that has spread since the 1970s, coupled with the arrival of new forms of religiosity, such as charismatic Christianity among both protestants and Catholics, has led to a more fundamentalist approach in all religions.

All this has meant that the shrinking of religious practices in mainstream society turned remaining faith communities into more “radical” minorities, who feel threatened and besieged, if not harassed, by the dominant secular culture.

It should be no surprise that these growing tensions spread to the schooling system. Many parents do see a contradiction between their values and the values taught in school. In the US, this has led to the widespread takeup of home schooling, which had been a trademark of “progressive” parents 50 years ago, by conservative Christian families.

Where radicalism is not bred

But does religious conservatism automatically lead to political radicalisation? Most of the research across Europe and the USA on young Western jihadists shows that they are rarely part of a local Muslim faith community. A typical pattern of articles written to explain their trajectories shows the journalists being told by the stunned jihadist’s entourage that nobody had any hint about his religious radicalisation – except maybe in the last months preceding the action.

The relatively high percentage of converts among terrorists indicates that radicalisation is not the consequence of a pervasive, long-term religious indoctrination in the midst of a local Muslim community, but is the result of an individual and sudden decision to go for action.

Conversely, many so-called religious fundamentalists are perfectly quietist in political terms. Think of the Egyptian Salafis, who vocally advocate the implementation of sharia, but supported the anti-Islamism military take-over in their own country. Most ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, such as the Lubavitch, are far from being radical Zionist militants. Like the Salafis, they just want to create a local environment where they can live by their own rules and values.

When a common identity impedes freedom

So rather than obsessing over the dubious notion of a terrorist threat in schools, the debate should be on the limits of religious freedom. If ensuring mutual toleration between a secularist majority and minority faith communities is a very legitimate goal, should this imply the imposition of “common values”, tolerance excepted?

Concepts like “British values” or “French values” refer to a common “identity”– the populist’s favourite big word. But the idea that a society is supposed to share a common set of values (aside from loyalty to the nation) is quite new.

This dubious call for a common “identity” (instead of citizenship or nationality) looks more like a denial of a deeper crisis: European culture has drastically changed in the last 50 years, not because of immigration, but because of an in-depth secularisation. The call for identity is just a way to patch up pieces of an imaginary national culture that corresponds neither to history nor to the “great culture” of literature and arts.

Freedom of religion is a core part of the modern political values that made Europe what it is, after centuries of intolerance. It implies the recognition of diversity and pluralism. This has nothing to do with “multiculturalism”, because what is at stake here are precisely religious demands not cultural traditions.