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French Muslim leaders pan ‘secularism charter’, warn of ‘stigma’ boost

French Muslim leaders pan ‘secularism charter’, warn of ‘stigma’ boost
Leaders of France's 6 million Muslims have been discouraged by the new ‘secularism charter’ designed to toughen rules banning religion from schools. Critics say it’s unsuitable for modern-day France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.

From now on, the ‘Charter for Secularity in School’, which starts out by declaring that France "respects all faiths" and that the state is neutral in regard to them, is to be displayed in every state-funded school across the country in order to "be seen" and respected.

The 15-point statement highlights key principals of secularism, such as freedom of conscience and separation of religion and state, in a bid to ease tensions between Muslims and non-religious students.

The French Muslim community did not welcome the ‘secularism charter’, which many of them viewed as part of a bigger campaign promoting religious hatred, and an assault on Islamic values and traditions.

The chairman of the French Muslim Council believes that the charter is full of "allusions" to Islam, highly likely to boost “stigma”.

"Ninety percent of Muslims are going to have the feeling they are being targeted by this charter, while in 99 percent of cases they cause no trouble to secularism," Dalil Boubakeur told AFP. "Why go back to the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools?" he wondered. "There’s also a call for gender equality..."

Boubakeur is sure that the text will eventually prove to be "counterproductive."

But according to the Socialist government's education minister, Vincent Peillon, the charter is merely an attempt to “get everyone together” to share common values and to promote better understanding of the principles, which go back to anti-clericalism of the French revolution, and the country's 1905 law enforcing a strict separation of church and state.

Veiled pupils attend a lesson in a classroom on May 11, 2011 at the Alif private muslim school in the French southwestern city of Toulouse.(AFP Photo / Eric Cabanis)

“Secularism is a fight not against some, but for all; for those who gather together, and must bring everyone else together,” Peillon stated on Monday.

"For example, there are people who believe that secularism is mostly about banning things. Secularism is what allows us to coexist freely together," explained the minister, who is also planning to introduce a course of secular morality lessons in 2015.

Many Muslims fear that stricter laws at schools and universities would only deepen the gap between religions, and step up acts of racism and hatred against them.

In her response to the charter, President of the National Front Marine Le Pen said she regrets that "no real measure has been announced to fight effectively against the advances of communalism."

"Secularism is no longer [something] to write about, it’s to be done", because of "disturbing development of communalism and political and religious demands," she added in a statement, as quoted by Le Monde.

According to the charter, absence of religion from schools actually gives students an opportunity to shape their personality and exercise free will in an environment exempt from political and religious pressure. It basically means that French teachers cannot reveal their religious beliefs during lessons, nor are pupils allowed to highlight their faiths.

In 2004, France passed a law banning schoolchildren from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as Muslim headscarves or Sikh turbans, but the law excluded universities. Now the High Council of Integration (HCI) wants to see the same rules applied to universities. In August, the research institute founded by the French government recommended prohibiting students from wearing religious symbols, such as Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippah (yarmulke) skullcaps and Muslim headscarves.

Pupils attend a lesson in a classroom on May 11, 2011 at the Alif private muslim school in the French southwestern city of Toulouse.(AFP Photo / Eric Cabanis)

Earlier this year, a 15-year-old Muslim girl was expelled from school in France for wearing a headband and long skirt, a combination deemed “too religious” by her college disciplinary board. The girl’s family took the case to the Administrative Court, which ruled the schoolgirl should be reintegrated. France’s Council of State then reversed the court’s decision, and the college expelled Sirine Ben Yahiaten for good. Her parents are now suing the school for racial discrimination.

The controversial legislation has also outraged France's 30,000 Sikhs, whose males are required by religion to cover their hair from an early age. In 2005, a French court supported a school's decision to expel three Sikh boys, aged 15 to 18, for wearing turbans - symbols of Sikh identity - to school, as they made them "immediately recognizable as Sikhs." Since then, a number of Sikh teenagers living in France have been pushed to give up school.