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Monday, July 26, 2021

In France’s military, Muslims find a tolerance that is elusive elsewhere

A law aimed at the Muslim veil in 2004 banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, and prompted years of anguished debates over France’s treatment of its Muslim population, Europe’s largest.


June 27, 2021 11:14:05 am
Jean-Jacques, the Muslim chaplain at a mosque on a French Army base in southern Lebanon, conducting Friday Prayer, June 18, 2021. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

For the past two decades, as France’s Muslim population has sought a greater role in the nation, officials have often tried to restrict Islam’s public presence under an increasingly strict interpretation of French secularism, known as laicite.

A law aimed at the Muslim veil in 2004 banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, and prompted years of anguished debates over France’s treatment of its Muslim population, Europe’s largest. A new law against Islamism by President Emmanuel Macron is expected to strengthen government control over existing mosques and make it harder to build new ones.

But one major institution has gone in the opposite direction: the military.

The armed forces have carved out a place for Islam equal to France’s more established faiths — by hewing to a more liberal interpretation of laicite. Imams became chaplains in 2005. Mosques have been built on bases in France and across the world, including in Deir Kifa, Lebanon, where about 700 French soldiers help a United Nations force keep peace in the southern part of the country. Halal rations are on offer. Muslim holidays are recognized. Work schedules are adjusted to allow Muslim soldiers to attend Friday Prayer.

The military is one of the institutions that has most successfully integrated Muslims, military officials and outside experts said, adding that it can serve as a model for the rest of France.

Sgt. Azhar, 29, said he grew up facing discrimination as a Muslim and difficulty practicing his religion when he worked in a restaurant before joining the military. In the army, he said, he could practice his religion without being held in suspicion. Forced to live together, French people of all backgrounds know more of one another than in the rest of society, he said.

“In an army, you have all religions, all colors, all origins,” he said. “So that allows for an open-mindedness you don’t find in civilian life.”

At the heart of the matter is laicite, which separates church and state, and has long served as the bedrock of France’s political system. Enshrined in a 1905 law, laicite guarantees the equality of all faiths.

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