France’s army embraces its Muslim soldiers

France’s army embraces its Muslim soldiers

Globe&Mail — Susan Sachs

Adamantly secular country now offers halal meals, prayer rooms and private trips to Mecca for the hajj

Muslims in France’s army who go on
the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will not have to travel on private
commercial flights or bunk with ordinary civilians. In a break from
tradition, the Defence Ministry will provide a plane to fly them to
Saudi Arabia and organize their stay.

For any western government to arrange a hajj
trip would be unusual. It is especially so here, in a country so
protective of its secularism that it regulates what Muslim girls can
wear in school and is considering a blanket ban on the face-covering
Islamic niqab

But for Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, a spit-and-polish gendarmerie captain
who put together the final pieces for the pilgrimage last week, it is
one step toward making Islam as “banal” in France as any other religion.

“The army is always in advance of society,” said Capt. Bouharb, one
of the 30 Muslim chaplains recently recruited by the armed forces. “And
it is anaesthetized from all the social questions and debate outside.”

While religion and state remain firmly separated in the rest of
French society, the military has started accommodating its Muslim
personnel in ways that would be unthinkable outside the barracks.

It now provides halal meals and, where possible, prayer rooms. Last
week, the Muslim chaplaincy published the first edition of a new
magazine, splashed with photos of mosques, recipes for meals to break
the Ramadan fast and an article that would not raise an eyebrow in any
French magazine. Its subject: How do you say “I love you?”

“What is really interesting is that while completely respecting
France’s secular spirit, we are nevertheless not very far from
Anglo-Saxon vision,” Capt. Bouharb said. “To have a photo of a mosque
in a magazine from the secular public service – that’s new.”

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at
between five and seven million people, or about 7 to 10 per cent of the
French population.

Statistics are not available because, officially, the state does not
collect data according to ethnicity, religion or race. But the ratio of
Muslims in the military, including the national police or gendarmerie,
mirrors that in the population as a whole, according to Capt. Bouharb
and other officials.

Minorities are still clustered almost exclusively in the lower
ranks. But Muslims have served in the army since France’s days as a
colonial power 150 years ago and, until mandatory conscription was
ended in 1996, they were drafted as soldiers like other young French

Yet Islam in the military was not on an equal footing with other
faiths. The Defence Ministry created a Muslim chaplaincy only in 2005,
long after it had established Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices.

“Soldiers I’ve interviewed say it was hard to be Muslim in the armed
forces until a few years ago,” said Elyamine Settoul, a doctoral
student at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris who has
surveyed minorities in the military.

“There were no accommodations for Ramadan,” he added. “If the meals
contained pork they weren’t offered an alternative. It created
tensions. But they say it’s much better now.”

Much of the credit for the changes is given to the corps of Muslim
chaplains, who also serve as prayer leaders or imams. While they have
been integrated into all branches of the military, they have also been
enrolled in a special course in French-style secularism.

Last year the army sent two of its Muslim chaplains to a
government-sponsored class on citizenship and secular values for imams,
the first of its kind, and another six will attend the course this fall.

The course was taught at the private Catholic Institute of Paris
because no public university was willing to wade into the
state-religion divide. Some French Muslim leaders also criticized it as
an inappropriate attempt by the state to take on the training of imams.

“What I knew about secularism going in was what everybody knows,”
said Capt. Bouharb, 32, who was one of the first graduates. “What I
learned was its history, all the political debate at the beginning of
the 20th century and its legal basis.”

He also said the course left him better prepared to explain France
to its own Muslim citizens, like those who come to him complaining that
their daughters cannot wear head scarves in school or that their town
refuses to set aside women’s hours in the public pool.

“Even if our parents were not born in France, it’s our country,”
said Capt. Bouharb, whose parents immigrated to France from Tunisia in
the 1970s. “We were born here, grew up here and were educated here. We
have to accept that public institutions apply the principle of

There were misgivings even among Muslims in the military when the chaplaincy was first set up.

Only one in five imams in France speaks French as their first
language. On average they are older than 50 and had their religious
training in the Middle East or Turkey.