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France Pushes Secularism Training at Mosques After Terror Attacks

FILE - A child is seen near members of the Muslim community attending midday prayers at Strasbourg Grand Mosque in Strasbourg, France, on the first day of Ramadan.
FILE - A child is seen near members of the Muslim community attending midday prayers at Strasbourg Grand Mosque in Strasbourg, France, on the first day of Ramadan.

January's terrorist attacks in Paris and the hundreds of French joining jihadi groups overseas are lending new urgency to government efforts in France to shape a tolerant, western-oriented Islam that reflects the country's secular values.

Central to this goal is a new push for programs in secularism and civics for imams and other key Muslim figures. But can they really make a difference in fighting the rise of home-grown, radical Islam?

A religion class at the Catholic University of Lyon. The lecture is on the Bible, though the dozen or so students jotting down notes are not aspiring priests. One is a woman wearing a headscarf.

Seeking tolerance

A man sports the beard of a devout Muslim. Still others are non-Muslims - civil servants working for the local government. Together, they are on the front lines of a national drive for greater religious tolerance, and to shape a moderate "Islam a la Francaise."

This class is part of a university-level training program run jointly by two Lyon universities and the city's main mosque. It includes classes on law, religion and how French principles of secularism are applied to daily life.

Students visit churches, mosques and synagogues to learn more about France's main faiths. At the end of the 24-week program, they get certificates in the 'Understanding of Secularity." Since it was launched just over two years ago, the program has already trained several dozen imams, Muslim chaplains and teachers, along with many non-Muslim civil servants.

Michel Younes, who oversees the training program at the Catholic University, said that by bringing Muslim leaders and civil servants together, the program aims to overcome differences in a society where public displays of religiosity are almost considered taboo.

Deep divisions

France always has had an uneasy relationship with Islam, the country's second biggest religion. Issues like wearing headscarves in public schools - now banned in France - along with halal butchering practices and Muslim burial grounds have deepened misunderstandings and divisions.

It does not help that many imams in France are foreigners. Few French Muslims are interested in taking a job so badly paid and sometimes not paid at all.

So the imams come from North Africa and Turkey, countries which cover their salaries and sometimes finance the construction of the French mosques from which they preach. Some can not speak French. Many only have a sketchy idea of French society and laws.

Hacene Taibi, who heads the Islamic studies program at Lyon's main mosque, said these imported imams do not fit the needs of Muslims here today.

Taibi said many Muslims in France are second- and third-generation immigrants. They do not understand the Arabic preachings of the foreign imams. The clerics come from another culture, he said, and sometimes French mosque goers will not accept them. So the imams enroll in language classes - and the civics training program in Lyon that the mosque helps organize.

Language hurdles

Fifty-seven-year-old Zaya Laimene, who attended prayers at the mosque one recent afternoon, is a case in point. She only began learning Arabic a few years ago. It is the language her Algerian parents spoke, but never taught her.

She said the mosque's Tunisian-born imam now says the prayers in French, as well as Arabic. It allows her to understand them. It also helps because Muslims like herself consult with imams on all kinds of family issues.

But the secularism classes have another goal; to help counter the rise of home-grown radical Islam. Over the past two years, hundreds of French have joined Islamist fighters in the Middle East.

French Islamists have also staged attacks at home - most recently in January, when three men gunned down 17 people in Paris. To be sure, only a tiny percentage of the country's 5 million-strong Muslim community are extremists. A number of extremists are in fact recent converts, who learned about Islam on the Internet.

Today, the Socialist government wants to shape the way Islam is taught here, to ensure a moderate version is spread that aligns with French values. Across the country, there are now half-a-dozen civics courses like the one in Lyon.

Authorities want to double that number. They want to enroll hundreds of imams in these programs, and make them mandatory for chaplains working in prisons or the military.

At the bible class, student Karim Ghanemi said he has enjoyed learning about Christianity and Judaism - religions he knew very little about. Ghanemi is vice-president of a religious association managing a small mosque in Lyon.

Ghanemi said the program also has taught him that French laws on secularism are surprisingly open. Practices he thought were forbidden - like circumcision - are in fact tolerated, although female circumcision is not. This understanding can help fight extremism, he said, by countering the sense among some Muslims that they're oppressed in France.

The Catholic University's Younes agrees. Many Muslims who take the course now view French secularism in a more positive light. Rather than just presenting obstacles, he said, it guarantees a place for religious expression.

Of course, Younes said, it is not enough to battle radical Islam. But the training can help foster diversity and debate within mosques. It helps Muslim leaders confront radical views on the Internet by spreading another, more tolerant message of Islam. And as more and more Muslim leaders take the classes, that message will spread.

Questions of effectiveness

Some question, though, whether the secularism courses - or the imams who take them - can really make a difference.

Tareq Oubrou is rector and imam of the main mosque of Bordeaux. He has written and spoken extensively about Islam in France.

Oubrou said that in many mosques, imams speak out against violence. He said their prevention work has helped dismantle thousands of 'ticking bombs' - or radical attacks. But he said most would-be jihadists stay away mosques. They are hoodlums who do not even say their prayers regularly. Imams can not fix a problem that society - not religion - has created.

Criminology expert Alain Bauer said any action by the government in fighting extremism, however, is important - including pushing civics classes - even if the payback is limited.

"A government needs to fight with any tools it has because public opinion… will never forgive it for not trying to save [these] children - or the parents who are the first to discover their kids have left with a small post-it on the fridge saying, 'I'm going to Jihad and I'm happy and I love you.' Because that's what's happening at the moment."

If nothing else, the secularism courses are building bonds. At the Bible class, Laurent Jacquelin, a senior official for the regional prefecture, says the training has opened his eyes to another slice of French society.

He said the civil servants and the Muslims clerics discuss ideas and share meals. It is a chance to strengthen what brings them together, and not what sets them apart.