After the Conflans-Sainte-Honorine attack, Iannis Roder, professor of history at Saint-Denis, calls for a general awareness.
You have been warning for several years about the rise in attacks on secularism in schools. Was this drama predictable?
Yes of course it was predictable! After the journalists, the police, it is now the teachers who are affected. All these professionals, who are the guarantors of our freedoms, who ensure the transmission of the values of our society, are on the front line. There is obviously a link between all these attacks. The link is the hatred that these assassins, these radical Islamists, have for the values of the Republic. These values which form our foundation, which make us live together in a democratic, pluralist system, respectful of differences. We live in a country where there is this freedom to express yourself freely, where you can choose to believe, not to believe, to change your religion. All of this is unbearable in the eyes of radical Islamists.
Have some teachers downplayed the danger in recent years?
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I have no embarrassment to say that, yes, some did not want to see what was going on. Some considered that one should not stigmatize, that one should not make hasty generalizations when this was not the case. Last week, the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, gathered at La Sorbonne the coordinators of the academic secularism-values teams of the Republic. Came, among others, to speak the university professor Bernard Rougier and the former inspector general Jean-Pierre Obin who both alerted to the growing influence of Islamists. Beyond the figures put forward on attacks against secularism, there has been a lot of talk about this radical Islamism. However, certain blogs or online newspapers have stepped up to mock this meeting, to say that all this was just wind, that we were exaggerating, that we were using the figures to promote “hard” secularism. For me the word secularism cannot be accompanied by any adjective. We must defend secularism, period. I am very angry because it has been going on for 20 years! 20 years that we have been told that we are exaggerating. There we are all still under the influence of the emotion but I am afraid that, within a few weeks, the “yes but” will not return.
Do teachers tend to censor themselves? Should you avoid addressing certain program themes?
It is very difficult to assess in the field. But, as part of the training I provide at the Shoah Memorial, colleagues told me they needed intellectual and educational tools because they were in difficulty in their classes. Some have to face students who challenge their teachings, who make anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist statements, or who deny certain historical facts such as the Armenian genocide … This does not necessarily mean that these teachers are self-censoring. This means that it is very complicated, tiring, and that it requires immense energy. Maybe after a while, indeed, some will end up saying to themselves “that I am not going to do it” or “that I will do it differently”. After Friday’s drama, it is obvious that we risk, consciously or unconsciously, self-censorship. When it comes to teaching the issue of freedom of expression, using religious cartoons, we will all have in mind the tragic death of this professor.
We know that relations between teachers and parents of students have become more complicated in recent years. Is this drama indicative of this degradation?
I think rather that it shows that our fellow citizens have not understood, not understood what the school of the Republic is. There is a problem of perception of what we do in class, of the teacher’s missions. The school is there to open up students to the world, to everything they don’t necessarily find at home. It is there to take them out of any determinism, whether cultural, social or religious. School is a place of Republican breathing. So, indeed, when a family thinks that it has the absolute and unsurpassable truth, and that the school says something else, that poses problems. Some recent polls do show this shift. According to a survey carried out by Ifop and the Jean-Jaurès foundation, 18% of French Muslims questioned do not express any condemnation of the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks. The figure climbs to 26% among young people . To the question “Do you put your religious convictions before the values of the Republic?”, 40% of French Muslims answer yes. For those under 25, the rate is 74%.
Several measures have been taken in recent years by the National Education … However, the situation is far from improving. What is the priority today?
It is not all a matter of National Education, we need a real general awareness and mobilization of the whole of society. This must undoubtedly involve questions of law and public safety. When I see that a rally is planned this Sunday, October 18, it leaves me more than skeptical. In France, we are the champions of this type of gathering. So what, frankly, what’s the point? Did the rally of January 11, 2015 cause real awareness? Certainly not. You still have these same people today who minimize, if not deny, the dangers of radical Islamism, who spread ultra-simplistic thought patterns in the press. It will take a lot of political will to go against that. But I am not losing hope, I am a fighter at heart. Even if I don’t want to leave my life there …