In the French army, Muslims find a tolerance that is elusive elsewhere
DEIR KIFA, Lebanon – Gathered in a small mosque at a French military base in southern Lebanon, six soldiers in uniform stood with their heads bowed as their imam led them in prayer beside a white wall with paintings framed in Quranic verses.
After praying together on a recent Friday, French soldiers – five men and one woman – resumed their duties at the base, where they had recently celebrated Ramadan, sometimes breaking their fast with Christians. Back in France, where Islam and its place in society form the fault lines of an increasingly fractured nation, practicing their religion has never been easier, they said.
“The tolerance that we find in the armies, we do not find it outside,” explains Deputy Master Anouar, 31, who enlisted 10 years ago and who, in accordance with military rules French, could only be identified by his first name. .
Over the past two decades, as the Muslim population of France sought a greater role in the nation, officials have often attempted to restrict Islam’s public presence under an increasingly strict interpretation of French secularism, known as secularism.
But a major institution has gone in the opposite direction: the military.
The armed forces have carved out a niche for Islam at the height of France’s most established religions – by conforming to a more liberal interpretation of secularism. Imams became chaplains in 2005. Mosques have been built on bases in France and around the world, notably in Deir Kifa, where some 700 French soldiers are helping a United Nations force keep the peace in southern Lebanon. Halal rations are available. Muslim holidays are recognized. Working hours are adjusted to allow Muslim soldiers to attend Friday prayers.
The military is one of the institutions that has best integrated Muslims, military officials and outside experts said, adding that it can serve as a model for the rest of France. Some have drawn parallels with the United States military, which was ahead of the rest of American society in integrating black Americans.
In a country where religious expression in government bodies is prohibited – and where public manifestations of Islam are often described as threats to the unity of France, especially after a series of Islamist attacks since 2015 – the Islam’s undisputed place in the military can be difficult to understand. .
“My father, when I told him there was a Muslim chaplain, didn’t believe me,” said Corporal Lyllia, 22, who attended the Friday prayer wearing a veil.
“He asked me three times if I was sure,” she added. “He thought that a chaplain was necessarily Catholic or Protestant.
Sergeant Azhar, 29, said he grew up facing discrimination as a Muslim and had difficulty practicing his religion when working in a restaurant before joining the military. In the military, he said, he could practice his religion without being suspected. Forced to live together, French people of all origins know each other better than in the rest of society, he said.
“In an army, you have all religions, all colors, all origins,” he said. “This therefore allows for an open-mindedness that cannot be found in civilian life.
At the heart of the problem is secularism, which separates Church and State, and which has long served as the basis of the French political system. Inscribed in a law of 1905, secularism guarantees the equality of all faiths.
But over the years, as Islam became the second religion in France after Roman Catholicism, secularism has increasingly been interpreted as guaranteeing the absence of religion in the public space – to such an extent that the subject of personal faith is taboo in the country.
Philippe Portier, eminent historian of secularism, declared that there was a tendency in France “to tone down religion in all spheres of social encounter”, especially as officials advocate a stricter interpretation of secularism to fight against Islamism.
In contrast, the military increasingly sees religion as essential to its own management, he said.
“Diversity is accepted because diversity will become the basis of cohesion,” he said, adding that, contrary to what many French institutions think, the underlying logic in the military was that “There can be no cohesion if, at the same time, you do not compromise with the beliefs of individuals.
Military officials have said they have been immune to the politicization of secularism that is occurring in the rest of society.
“The right approach is to consider secularism as a principle and not as an ideology,” said Jean-Jacques, the Muslim chaplain of Deir Kifa. When it becomes an ideology, he added, it “inevitably creates inequalities.”
Reverend Carmine, the base Protestant chaplain, said the military is proof that secularism works as long as it is not manipulated. “Why is there so much talk of secularism in recent years in France? he said. “It is often to create problems.
A French Defense Ministry 2019 report on secularism in the military concluded that freedom of religious expression does not compromise social cohesion or the performance of the military. Unlike the way secularism has been practiced elsewhere in society, the report promotes “peaceful secularism” which can “continue to adapt to the social realities of the country”.
“The liberal model of secularism embodied in the military is intelligence secularism, fine-tuning secularism,” said Eric Germain, the ministry’s military ethics and religious affairs adviser, who oversaw the report.
Mr Germain said the military has been loyal to the 1905 law, which states that to safeguard freedom of worship, chaplaincy services are legitimate in certain enclosed public places, such as prisons, hospitals and facilities. military. The state has a moral responsibility to provide professional religious support to its military, he added.
The integration of Muslims into the army reflected France’s long and complicated relationship with the Islamic world.
Muslim men from the French colonial empire served as soldiers as early as the 1840s, said Elyamine Settoul, specialist in Muslims and French soldiers at the Conservatoire National Supérieur des Arts et Métiers in Paris. At the turn of the last century, there were intermittent attempts to meet the religious needs of Muslim soldiers, including the appointment of a Muslim chaplain, but for only three years, Mr Settoul said. After World War II, the independence movement in the French colonies, coupled with a general distrust of Islam, put efforts on the back burner.
The issue could no longer be ignored in the 1990s, when the end of compulsory military service was announced in 1996 and the army began huge recruitment efforts in lower-income neighborhoods. The children of Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies have become overrepresented, and now Muslims are estimated to make up 15 to 20 percent of the troops, or two to three times the Muslim share of the total French population.
The unequal treatment of Muslim cohorts has fueled “a discourse of victimization in the ranks” and a recourse to identity politics, said Mr. Settoul. The lack of alternatives to pork meals, banned in Islam, created “tensions and divisions” and even led to fights, he said.
Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains had officially served in the French army since the 1880s. But a century later, there were still no Muslim chaplains to meet the needs of frontline soldiers, who often had to turn to Catholic chaplains.
A 1990 report commissioned by the Defense Ministry stressed the risks of internal divisions unless the military accords equal treatment to its Muslim soldiers.
Despite what Mr Settoul described as a lingering suspicion of Islam, the military incorporated Muslim chaplains in 2005 – around the same time that other parts of French society did the opposite, banning the Muslim veil and other religious symbols in public schools. It started a process of integrating Muslims before “the rest of society,” said Mr. Settoul.
In 2019, there were 36 imams on active duty, or about 17% of all chaplains. There were also 125 Catholic priests, 34 Protestant pastors and 14 rabbis.
The Friday Prayer Soldiers, aged 20 to 40, were all children of immigrants. They grew up listening to their parents or grandparents talk about praying in makeshift premises before mosques were built in their cities. Some had mothers or other female relatives who were always suspicious because they wore veils.
Sergeant Mohamed, 41, enlisted two decades ago, a few years before the first Muslim chaplains. He recalled how it had become easier to fully practice one’s religion in the military. While Muslim soldiers were given large rooms to gather and pray, they now had access to mosques.
In the army, Staff Sgt. Mohamed said he could take a day off with pay for Eid al-Fitr, with the celebration marking the end of Ramadan.
“My father worked for 35 years and each boss deducted eight hours of work,” he said, adding that his father, who immigrated from Algeria four decades ago, never imagined that his children could practice their religion in the military. “In 40 years, there has been incredible progress after all.”
Perhaps more than anything, the integration of Islam amounted to a recognition of his place in the military, Sgt. Mohamed said.
“The soldier’s fuel is recognition,” he said. “And when there is recognition of our faith, it is as if you are filling our tanks.”
Norimitsu Onishi reported in Deir Kifa, Lebanon and Paris, and Constant Meheut from Paris.