French Public Schooling: How Much ‘Neutral Space’ Does It Offer to Children from Different Faiths?

The killing of Samuel Patty, a Paris school teacher by a fanatic youth over offensive cartoons on prophet Muhammad and subsequent spats between French and Islamic leaders put the French public secular schooling ethos under the scanner. Does it teach the children about religio-cultural diversity in France and how to be open-minded and friendly despite differences? Do they learn the distinction between free and hate speech?

Let us consider the latest spate of religious hate-crimes in France. Samuel Patty, a middle-aged French teacher of history and geography at a school in Paris suburb was brutally killed by a young Chechen Muslim refugee for showing the inflamatory cartoons on Prophet Muhammad to his students in classroom. These are the same cartoons which French toon-mag Charlie Hebdo had carried in 2015 triggering a terror attack in its Paris office that killed a dozen staffers.

The heinous hate-crime of the Chechen boy (from Muslim-dominated Chechenia region in Russia that had witnessed brutal war between Vladimir Putin’s increasingly Orthdox Christian, ultranationalist, imperial state and seperatist Muslim groups) and the medieval mindset of those who are lionising him must be condemned. But surely, Patty was aware that the emotive and divisive issue had continued to be a live wire. More so because of the trial for the carnage which is going on in Paris making it a part of mainstream media and social media discourse in the country.

Hebdo editor then and French president Emanuel Macron now denied the Muslim charge that Islam and its prophet was singled out in the name of Freedom of Speech and Expression. Both Macron and his predecessors insisted on the status of public schools as ‘neutral space’ as tender hearts and minds are to be protected from the contagions of elders’ prejudices against each other. The Cross, Hijab, Kippa, turban and other markers of community identities and dress code that disrupt the children’s togetherness was prohibited on the same ground.

What Patty was teaching?

The slain teacher had reportedly asked his Muslim students to leave the classroom considering their religious sensitivity. But it is not clear from French media reports whether he had done so before showing the cartoons to the class. Nevertheless, some questions pop up in our mind.

Was he referring to these controversial cartoons for illustrative and pedagogic purposes only? Did he take care to put forward the points- counterpoints in an academic manner in the context of ongoing debates over the freedom of speech and expression in French society? Did he teach the tender minds to know the differences between Free Speech and Hate Speech?  He was supposed to do so in the light of the professed goal of French schooling.

Was he simply defending Hebdo artist’s freedom of expression,i.e. right to mock Muhammad?  Did he extend the same right to question, criticize and mock all spiritual authorities including Christ, for that matter, the God of Bible? Had he shown Hebdo caricatures of Pope and other Catholic authorities to the students to underline the secular liberal right to criticise religions even blasphemy but without any malice to the French Muslims?

Did he initiate any critical appraisal of all the received wisdom over the freedom of speech and other ideals of French Revolution and Enlightenment, particularly in the light of subsequent disjunctions of the country’s polity to those ideals at home and abroad?  In the course of his earlier lectures, did he encourage the young minds to get glimpses of the country’s blood-drenched medieval history as the cradle for Crusaders against Muslim control of Jerusalem? Had he revisited the hysterical mob violence sponsored by the state-church jointly against Christian heretics and Jewish minority?

Did he enlighten they on the legacy of the anti-semitism and other varieties of racism in Nazi-occupied France and free France even today to appreciate the present need to oppose all forms of hate crimes? Did he inspire to revisit equally gory modern French colonial history from Algeria-Tunisia to Syria-Lebanon, Mali to Vietnam, let alone its neo-colonial legacies? Was he widening the mental horizon of the young minds on the diversity of the past and present French citizenry and larger world? Was he motivating them to look for out of box creative ideas to unify people of all creeds and colors in a composite nationhood and humanity in the light of ongoing controversies?

Enterprising teachers always try to enliven their classroom lessons with examples from everyday life and the contemporary world.  But they also know the skill to avoid imposition of a partisan position even while making their personal preference clear. Did Patty try it or the school authorities encouraged him to do so?

france french free speech hate speech secular liberal islam cartoons
Demonstrators hold placards reading “I am a teacher” during a demonstration in Paris in support of freedom of speech and to pay tribute to a French history teacher who was beheaded near Paris after discussing caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class I Courtesy: AP

Patty and French liberal values

The answer to these questions may reveal the murdered teacher’s mindset too, glimpses of which may be gathered from the social media acrimonies that he joined before his killing. A parent of a Muslim student had complained against him to the school authorities. It later snowballed into to a larger public row involving some Muslim clerics and local non-Muslim politicians.

Had he been alive, Patty as an individual with his right to express strong likes and dislikes would not have needed to reply to our queries on his approach to history and teaching. But his posthumous personification of quintessential French values by the country’s president has put him under public scrutiny as an exemplifier of secular liberal, French values including freedom of speech/expression, conscience and free quest for knowledge that should govern the public school ethos. We will come to Laicite; the French version of secularism, Macron’s rhetoric and realpolitik hypocrisy over it later.

For now, more pertinent is the question of how to nurture the young minds with an open-minded approach to national and global history which won’t be barred either by selective amnesia or political correctness. Consider the experiences of some other school teachers who shared them during some French TV debates after Patty’s murder. One of them faced irate students who refused to believe in the existence of other people’s God or gods apart from the God of Bible. Another faced anonymous threats from a parent to be denounced as a denier of the Holocaust simply for asking to join a debate on French Resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Is the French pedagogical training for public school teachers liberal enough?  Does it make distinctions between systematic indoctrination of students in conformity to the state policies, however well-meaning they may be and inculcation of an inquisitive and uninhibited mindset open to informed choice? Totalitarian, theocratic, majoritarian states would insist for the first. But liberal democratic France is expected to vouch for the second.

But how open-minded and inclusive is French and rest of Western liberalism, past and present? Prohibition on any religious interference in state institutions and politics is a welcome and pertinent principle in the light of history and current world. But does its school curriculum include basic knowledge on the tenets of different societies, their religions and cultures across the world, without any comparative validation or rejection but as an objective part of past and present human existence?

Agree, the proposition which has been tried elsewhere is not problem-free at all. But how does the French secular state want to ensure that children from different social-cultural backgrounds in its schools mix more intimately and learn to respect their certain differences and sensitivities? How to protect their minds from being easily poisoned by divisive prejudices and politics outside the ‘neutral zone’?

Agree that the multiculturalist schooling elsewhere is not a panacea for hate-crimes. But the Macronian image of tender minds as a ‘Blank Page’ is deliberately deceptive as it is more vulnerable to both majoritarian and minoritarian spin masters as the unfortunate Patty episode has underlined.

Biswajit Roy

is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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