By Marwan Muhammad
IOL Correspondent in France
School was a battleground where some students had to fight against racial and religious discrimination.
Being the first Muslims to ever enter the local school was not an easy thing for a lot of children of the first generation of Arab and sub-Saharan immigrants in France. The majority of them were — and still are — living in the suburbs, where the schools had somehow to adapt to what they called "children with cultural specificity," referring to those children who do not eat pork at the canteen, who fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and who are absent during the `Eids (Islamic public celebrations). These religious moments in the Muslim life were construed more as ethnic or cultural than as faith-related.
Other children were living in areas (in main cities, central areas, or in the countryside) where there was no Muslim community, and they had to face misunderstandings and growing hostility all by themselves. How can you explain why you cannot eat pork when you are only 4 years old? How can an 11-year-old girl explain why she cannot go to the swimming pool with the boys in her class?
For some individuals of this generation, school was a battleground where they had to fight against racial and religious discrimination. Meanwhile, their hardworking parents persistently asked them to succeed in their studies and to strive for a better tomorrow for their families and religious community. Who can undertake the burden of such responsibilities? How can these children remain proud of their religious and cultural heritage when the whole society in which they live seems to disregard them?
The disinformation system was well-designed. School programs proudly teach the story of the "courageous" Charles Martel, who allegedly stopped the Muslims in a glorious victory over the "threatening barbarians" near Poitiers. On the other hand, France's role in slavery and colonization is minimized in history school books. Also, the myth of the civilized French nation, everlasting and ever-resisting, starting from the Gauls who fought Caesar's army to the "resistants" of World War II, is progressively built in children's minds, with apparently no other source of information available to them.
The image of the good French who brought civilization to North and sub-Saharan Africa through colonization is an important theme in the disinformation system. The image of the parents of Muslim children is therefore reduced to that of less-qualified workers who lead an outdated way of life, as opposed to that of the civilized and modern society offered by France.
At the age of 14 or 15, a lot of these young Muslims have been deliberately directed to industrial- or construction-qualification programs, even if they had the requested grades to continue in the science or economic syllabi, as if they were meant to live the same way their parents have lived and to be kept in a low social status, in a society in which the job and economic status mainly determine the amount of respect and esteem an individual is entitled to receive. Through these decisive moments when they have been denied the right to be like the other children, a growing and legitimate feeling of exclusion germinated in their hearts, with a hostile attitude toward the French society in some cases.
Without exaggerating the role social status plays in building identities, one has to keep in mind what this generation of youth has been through, so as to understand the French context of today, including the general feeling of hopelessness in the suburban youths and the riots that have shaken France in late 2005.
Marwan Muhammad is a French Muslim of Egyptian and Algerian origin. He works as an engineer in financial mathematics. He studied in an Islamic institute in Paris, the Centre of Studies and Research on Islam (CERSI), and is currently a student at the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance (IIBI) in London. He can be reached at Euro_Muslims@iolteam.com.