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In France, lessons in secularism to confront radical Islam

The French government wants to send imams to classes in secularism and religious freedom as a measure to prevent home-grown extremism. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Lyon on a program that is paving the way.

Sunlight slants across a classroom at the Catholic University of Lyon, where the Bible dominates a recent lecture.

The subject may seem unsurprising in this ancient city that was once a bastion of French Catholicism. But the dozen or so people jotting down notes are not theology students. One young woman wears a headscarf. A man sports the beard of a devout Muslim. Still others are non-Muslim civil servants working for the local government.

All are enrolled in a program on secularism and religious freedom that is jointly run by two Lyon universities and the city's Grand Mosque. They're the unlikely foot soldiers of a national campaign for greater religious tolerance and to help shape a moderate, Western-oriented "Islam a la Francaise."

The drive has taken on new urgency since January's terrorist attacks in Paris and the departure of hundreds of French youths to join jihadist movements in the Middle East. The Socialist government has responded with a raft of new measures to fight home-grown extremism. Among them: plans to enroll hundreds of imams and other key Muslim figures in civics training programs - and to make them mandatory for chaplains working in prisons and the military.

But Lyon's program has broader ambitions, as it reaches out to include government officials in the training.

"If things are going to change, they need to change in all directions," says Michel Younes, co-director of the initiative at Lyon's Catholic University. "That means not only training imams about secularity, but also civil servants - because the subject of religion in public spaces has almost become a taboo."

"Living together has to be more than an idea," he adds. "It's being able to be together, think together, exchange ideas together."

Imported imams

France has always had an uneasy relationship with Islam, the country's second biggest religion. Clashes over issues like wearing headscarves in public schools - now banned - to Halal butchering practices and religious burial grounds have deepened divisions and misunderstandings between the state and the five million-strong Muslim community.

Michel Younes

Younes says civil servants should also get training in secularity

It doesn't help that many imams are foreigners; few French Muslims are interested in a job so poorly paid. So the clerics are imported from North Africa and Turkey, countries which often finance their salaries and even the construction of the French mosques they preach from. Many only have a sketchy idea of the country's laws and customs. Some cannot even speak French.

"These imported imams are not efficient," says Hacene Taibi, who heads the Muslim teaching institute at Lyon's Great Mosque and helps run the civics training. The mosque's own imam, who is Tunisian, now says prayers in both Arabic and French.

"Sometimes the faithful here won't even accept imams who don't preach in French," Taibi says. "This training program helps them understand how this country functions."

The 24-week program includes classes on law, religion and how French principles of secularity are applied to daily life. The students visit churches, mosques and synagogues. At the end of the training, they receive certificates in the "Understanding of Secularity." Since it began in 2012, it has trained dozens of imams and other key Muslim figures.

They include Quranic teachers like Baian, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. "I was asked to take this program so I could speak to others about secularism," she says. "Here in France, we have to all live together."

Reaching the right people?

Karim Ghanemi, vice president of a local mosque association, said he was surprised to learn that laws governing secularism also granted space for religious expression - a realization that could help counter the pull of radical Islam. "Muslims here feel oppressed, when in fact freedom to worship exists," he says. "It helps remove prejudice and misunderstanding."

French authorities are not just worried about cultural misunderstandings. The number of mosques controlled by fundamentalist Salafist preachers has doubled from 44 to 89 over the past four years, according to a recent article in "Le Figaro" newspaper, which cites government statistics. France has also expelled a number of radical imams over the years.

But Muslim leaders argue that the majority of imams and other influential figures are working in exactly the opposite direction."Go to Friday prayers, everyone speaks out against extremism," says Taibi, of the Lyon mosque. "We do the same work with our teaching programs in the mosque."

Prayers at a Lyon mosque

France's imams don't necessarily speak the country's language

Whether they can influence a new generation of French, who are becoming radicalized through the Internet, is a matter of debate. And it ultimately raises questions about the limits of the civics training.

"These people are very far from the mosque," says Tareq Oubrou, rector of the Bordeaux mosque, referring to the new Islamists. "They don't have beards, they don't wear hijabs, they don't even do their five prayers regularly. They're just delinquents. You can't expect imams to resolve problems created by society."

More diversity, more debate

But other observers believe any action by the government is better than none at all.

"Because public opinion will never forgive it for not trying to save these children," said criminologist Alain Bauer. "Nor will the parents who find their kids have left 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."

Younes of the Catholic University acknowledges the limits of the training in fighting extremism. "But we have to start somewhere," he said. "As more Muslims are trained, they can spread another message. That's what's important - to introduce diversity and debate. Without that, we can't confront radicalism on the Net."

Still, the Lyon program appears to be meeting another key objective. At the Bible class, student Laurent Jacquelin, a senior official for the regional prefecture, described shared meals and conversations with his Muslim classmates. "It's a chance to strengthen what brings us together, our mutual humanity," he says. "And that helps build mutual respect."

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