Carine Azzopardi “For many young people, secularism is perceived as a war against religion”!

On 11 September 2001, journalist Carine Azzopardi was covering the attacks in New York, where she happened to be. On 13 November 2015, her partner and father of their children, music journalist Guillaume Barreau-Decherf, 43, was murdered at the Bataclan. In her book “Ces petits renoncements qui tuent” (Plon), Carine Azzopardi gives the – anonymous – testimony of a French teacher, confronted on a daily basis with the vindictive Islamism of some of his pupils. He refuses to give up and remains hopeful.

Interview By Cédric gouverneur

 The anonymous teacher – whom you call “Laurent” – explains that his students perceive secularism as a weapon against them.

Carine Azzopardi: Secularism is often confused with atheism, and many believe that it is a war against religion. But it is not at all that. Atheism, for these high school students, is not even considered as a possibility. Twenty years ago in the West Bank, I met Palestinians who didn’t understand that I could be an atheist: in their eyes it was inconceivable. Now, among some French high school students, we observe the same phenomenon. This is why they see secularism as a “war against religions”, and the 2004 law on the wearing of the headscarf as being directed “against them”: they do not understand that secularism allows people to believe as well as not to believe, that it authorises freedom of conscience and protects religious minorities.

Your witness says that explaining can defuse tensions.

There is indeed a lack of knowledge of the rules of application of secularism by secondary school students, but also more widely by educational staff and society. I myself did not know them all! For example, during school outings, accompanying mothers have every right to be veiled, as they are not pupils (in 2019 in Dijon, during the visit of a class to the Regional Council of Burgundy-Franche Comté, an elected member of the NR had asked an accompanying mother to leave). Laurent took the initiative to read the school’s internal rules at the beginning of the year. And immediately, he says, the questions came flooding in. Talking calms them down. The last place where you can still unlock minds is the school! The ultimate place for “living together”. We must therefore give ourselves every opportunity to break down these barriers.

Teachers are on the front line when it comes to Islamism. The desire to “not make waves” means that they are often isolated in the event of an incident…

It’s very diverse, depending on the institution. It all depends on the teams. In fact, there is a lack of a clear and strong line on these issues: what to do in the event of an incident? There is no collective in front of it.

You recall that as early as 2004, the Obin report warned against Islamism in schools, but that it was buried. How can you explain this?

The politicians did not understand the Islamist phenomenon. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, had thought of organising the Islam of France with the Muslim Brotherhood… The first to warn against the Islamists were the rare atheists in the Muslim world: considered as “apostates”, threatened, they had seen their country fall apart in a few years. The law separating Church and State dates from 1905: in the meantime, the de-Christianisation of French society has made us forget about religion. When I was a student, André Malraux’s famous quote, “the 21st century will be religious or it will not be”, seemed laughable to me. The resurgence of religion – perhaps in the vacuum left by consumerism – is therefore difficult to grasp for our secularised society. The most retrograde have seized on this need for spirituality, and their ideology is multiplied by social networks. The convert Anne-Diana Clain (sister of jihadists Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain) says that fundamentalism provided “simple answers” to her family’s questions. It’s like a sectarian drift. Except that the followers of other sects do not sometimes blow themselves up.

From the left, Laurent shares his dismay at the attitude of the teachers’ unions and a certain “decolonial” left towards Islamism. He says that in the union leaflets after the attacks, the term “Islamism” is never written.

Their fear is that naming Islamism will “increase Islamophobia and the extreme right”. After an attack, a friend even dared to tell me: “The problem now is going to be Islamophobia!” Note that this word “Islamophobia” was widely used in 1979 by the Iranian Ayatollahs to undermine any criticism of their regime… Why this denial? Why is it so difficult to name Islamism? There is a cognitive dissonance. We obviously don’t want to talk like the far right, so we censor ourselves. As a civil party in the 13 November trial, I wrote an article* in Libération because I was fed up with the fact that Islamism was not mentioned during the hearings, that the word was never uttered! The judge asked the defendants about the “conditions of their radicalisation”, and they replied that they were not radicals, that they were just applying Sharia law, and that this was normal, even when it consisted in throwing homosexuals from the top of buildings in Raqqa. Denying Islamism does not help either the victims or society.

In your introduction to the teacher’s testimony, you explain that although religion does not always lead to violence, it facilitates the return of obscurantism, in which this violence is rooted.

With Laurent, we wanted to link these phenomena together: obscurantism, Islamism, the attacks, the permeability of these minds to outside ideas that bounce around in classrooms. During the trial, obscurantism oozed from every sentence uttered by the condemned. In France, the last place where one can fight against this obscurantism is the lycée. It is the last place where people live together for an age group. However, the number of hours of French has fallen since the 1970s: a pupil in seconde today has had as many hours of teaching as a pupil in 4th in 1975! We therefore need “hard” work: asceticism, effort, rigour, so that knowledge can be transmitted. This is not happening, on the contrary! The reduction in hours continues. I come from a working-class background. Life is made up of decisive encounters: I had a French teacher in 1st who made me want to study. I doubt that, if I were in school nowadays, I would have the same path. 

The teacher details the dizzying level of ignorance of some high school students: They deny evolution, dinosaurs, astronomy? This leaves one breathless.

Several other teachers have confirmed similar anecdotes to me: some of the most astounding statements made by their pupils. Unfortunately, this return to religion is neither isolated nor specific to Islamism: in the United States, evangelists have opened a creationist museum.

Laurent seems quite alone, between the self-censorship of his colleagues, the complacency of some and the resignation of others…

It is the great solitude of the last hussars of the Republic. But during the training sessions on secular issues organised over the past few months, Laurent realised that many teachers are in his situation, that they constitute a silent majority.

Despite the difficulties, Laurent still believes in his profession: he recalls these testimonies of recognition from former students, which motivates him to persevere.

Yes, sometimes school is the only hand that will help you. Some students told him how much they loved La Fontaine’s fables. Knowledge passes, knowledge can pass. Provided there is no condescension: one inspector told Laurent that his pupils were “good at rapping”… Provided, too, that there is no victimisation: confined to the status of perpetual victim (of slavery, of colonialism…) you convince yourself that failure can only be the result of the “systemic racism” that you suffer. But this victimisation is not a service to them, especially as it is part of the Islamists’ argument package.