One expert’s plan to stop radicalization in France: Start teaching Arabic in schools

A recent report has set off .a debate about the place of Arabic in French public schools.
A recent report has set off .a debate about the place of Arabic in French public schools.
Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
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France has tried several controversial tactics to stop the rise of Islamism in the country, thus far with little success. Now, a former French government official has a novel suggestion: To prevent young people from becoming radicalized, start teaching Arabic in public schools.

Arabic language classes have declined in France over the past couple decades, even as the country’s Arab and Muslim population has increased. In a new report, Hakim El Karoui, a renowned expert on Islam and the Arab world who served in the cabinet of former president Jacques Chirac, makes the case that if public schools fail to offer Arabic lessons, young Muslims may seek out language classes at mosques, where the language will inevitably be tied with religious studies. The risk of radicalization is therefore higher in a mosque than at a secular public school, he says in the report, published by the liberal French think tank Institut Montaigne.

The government seems to agree with El Karoui’s assessment. The minister of education said in a recent interview (link in French) about the report that Arabic was a “very important” language that needs to be “developed” and given more “prestige” in the mainstream educational community. But critics say that tracing a direct link between Arabic and fundamentalist Islam is both dangerous and misleading, and will do little to stop the spread of Salafi ideology in France (link in French).

Arabic education in France

In France today, according to the Ministry of Education (link in French), only about 0.1% of primary school kids, or 567 students, learn Arabic. In middle and high school, only 11,200 students study Arabic, or 0.2% of students.

El Karoui says that several factors explain this decline, including the French government’s policy of attempting to assimilate Arab immigrants into French society and resistance to “communautarisme,” or the regrouping of people who share a same language, culture, or religion. Schools often consider Arabic to be less “prestigious” than other languages like Russian or Chinese, and cuts in public education funding have led to many schools to pare back or eliminate their Arabic language programs. That said, learning a second language is mandatory in primary school, and more than 90% of French middle and high schoolers learn English (link in French).

But the demand for education in Arabic has only increased. As of mid-2016, there were 5.7 million Muslims in France, or 8.8% of the country’s population. A large majority of these are young people between the ages of 15 and 25, who also happen to be the group most vulnerable to radicalization, according to El Karoui (pdf).

In 2016, in one of the largest surveys of French Muslims (pdf) ever conducted, El Karoui and his team at the Institut Montaigne showed that 67% of Muslim or Arab parents want to see their children study classical Arabic, and 56% would like classical Arabic to be taught in public school. “The Republican school should be able to overcome this deficit in order to transmit the culture of their parents to those who did not receive it,” El Karoui writes, “as well as a historical perspective on Islam, and the tools [children] will need to question and probe their sense of belonging and their plural identity.”

Currently, the majority of students who learn Arabic in public schools do so through ELCO classes, which were created in 1975 to allow foreign children to learn the language of their native country. Countries that chose to participate in the program—Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Croatia, and Spain—selected teachers and paid for them to come to France for four years and teach their language and culture to student, who voluntarily chose to take part in these classes outside of scheduled school hours. The Ministry of Education says that more than 58,000 kids learn Arabic through ELCO programs today.

Teaching Arabic to stop radicalization

El Karoui’s proposal has gotten plenty of criticism from all sides. “I regret that this opportunist and biased report fell into the easy amalgam between Islam and Islamism, deliberately forgetting the Muslim community of France,” said Dalil Boubakeur (link in French), the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris. Razika Adnani, a philosopher and expert on Islam, suggested (link in French) that there’s no reason to believe that Arabic lessons would have impact on radicalization.

The report was also criticized by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing politician and Eurosceptic who said in a radio interview (link in French) that he was “totally hostile to the Arabization of France and the Islamization of the country.” Far-right leader Marine Le Pen (link in French), said: “Of course, there is a great culture called Arab culture, but here, we are in France, and what I want is that we learn French culture.”

El Karoui, however, insists that this is the best option. “There is a demand for Arabic that is very strong in French society, and this demand is practically only served by mosques … and mosques have made it a kind of major element of their attractiveness,” El Karoui told Quartz. “By not opening Arabic classes in middle and high school for students who want to learn Arabic, we’re sending them to mosques.”

To those who say his recommendation risks equating Islamic culture with Islamism, El Karoui says: “We wrote 600 pages to explain that Islamism was not Islam. … So, not only is there no amalgam, but it’s the other way around.” And to critics like Adnani, who say that teaching Arabic in public schools won’t be enough to stop the rise of Islamism, he responds: “Of course it’s not enough.”

El Karoui believes that teaching Arabic is only one tool among others, at a time when the French government doesn’t seem to have a lot of options at its disposal. “It is a school’s vocation to allow citizens to enlighten themselves, to learn, to criticize a certain number of texts and dogma, etc. So, [this proposal is about] access to knowledge,” he explains.

There are other arguments in favor of investing in Arabic education that don’t center on its utility as a tool against Islamism. France has deep ties and a shared history with the Arab world (link in French), and non-Muslim or non-Arab students would also benefit from learning the language, culture, and history of Arab civilization. “I am obviously not talking of teaching Arabic only to young Muslim children or kids with North African origins,” El Karoui says. “It must be a language for all, as is Chinese or Russian, today.”

He is not alone in this assertion. In 2014, Pierre-Louis Reymond, a professor of literature at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon, and Joseph Dichy, a professor of Arabic at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, wrote an editorial in French daily Le Monde (link in French) calling for more Arabic teachers in primary education, citing the importance of cultural cooperation agreements with countries in northern Africa.

Those agreements with the Maghreb region typically seek to promote the “Francophonie,” the professors write, referring to the organization of countries that use French in their linguistic exchanges. “In the absence of a policy of reciprocity, the future of these cultural and linguistic exchanges risks being compromised sooner or later, with important economic consequences.”