Teaching l’Arabe

Arabic classes grounded in a framework of French republican values should become instituted in the French public education system with a prerequisite for all future teachers to undergo a government-sponsored training program.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Katherine Lwin

Twelve people were killed in an Islamist terrorist attack in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo—a satirical newspaper—on January 7, 2015. Provocative and secular, the newspaper has a long history of mocking Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions, and it has often been legally targeted for its published subject matter. In response to the attack, France intensified security and, among other measures, instituted new classes dedicated to civic education. Focusing on the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the classes also emphasize secularism, teaching French students the values of community and republicanism.

The four main objectives of these classes include Sensitivity (acting in accordance with others’ feelings), Social Responsibility (learning how to become more active in society), Rules and Rights (understanding the French government’s legal framework and how to follow it), and Critical Thinking (the ability to make informed choices). Their intentions are emblematic of the entire French curriculum, which is grounded in moral responsibility and willingness to dedicate oneself to one’s society. However, an announcement from the French Education Ministry last year has generated debate over what secularization of education should comprise of and how it should be defined; the Ministry announced that it would be instituting Arabic classes in the public education system. Many see Arabic, the most commonly spoken foreign language in France, as a widely useful language and believe that making it available for primary school students would bring students countless future opportunities. Currently, the majority of the large French Muslim minority sends their children to institutions outside of school, such as mosques or other academic institutions, to learn Arabic; if the availability of Arabic in public education increased, it would be convenient for them and encourage their children to learn Arabic, a way of connecting future generations to their cultural roots.

Yet an array of skeptical counter-arguments have delayed this plan from becoming concrete. Those on France’s political right see the Ministry's move as a form of "Islamization," as Arabic has historically been taught alongside the Qur’an, in contrast to France’s prioritization of secular education over the past two centuries. Others also remain reluctant on the grounds that France has prided itself in shaping a French national identity that overrides ethnic heritage and ancestry. In these critics’ view, Arabic classes would divert students from being able to form a French identity. Some also criticize the true nature of the Ministry’s intentions in the proposal, questioning whether they prioritize the proposal’s educational aspects or the political aspects. Though education is political, the French education system is still a system used for educating French students. This means its educational benefits should still be prioritized over the political, as in the end, the proposal is for educating students.

Though only a small step in bridging the gap between France’s Muslim minority and the rest of the country, implementing mainstream Arabic classes is key to bringing depth into students’ perspectives toward society and republican values. While the Ministry’s proposal leaves the secularity of the education system intact, the government should first work with Arabic teachers from a variety of distinct teaching programs like the Lissaine School, a specialized language school, private schools that currently teach Arabic, and foreign countries’ public schools that offer Arabic. A diversity of viewpoints on how to establish an Arabic program is essential to developing the groundwork for a secular model of how Arabic should be taught throughout France and ensuring that students receive the best quality education. Morocco especially is an example of a country in which Arabic and French are taught side by side, and this could be a useful starting point for preventing any possibility of one language having dominance over the other. This prevents Arabic from overriding the process of shaping French national identity and provides direction to the process of this reform.

The government should also fund and require participation in a training program for prospective teachers to teach Arabic contextualized through a framework of French republican values. The government’s first priority, however, is to establish a clear standard for what defines “republican values” and what makes them uniquely French, as arbitrary definitions of civic virtue in education limit and undermine its value. Instead of resulting in Islamization, this will increase secularity of French education, as placing rational and precise limits on the definitions of civic virtue and republican values is necessary to maximize prevention of extremism or inadequacy.

Not making Arabic available to all will continue to exacerbate communautarisme, or dividing a nation into groups, such as into the Muslim minority and the rest of France, undermining national identity. This has several implications. The first is that this will further exacerbate any misconceptions that connect Arabic to Islamist extremism or paint the language as a “language of fanatics,” thus perpetuating falsehoods that are damaging to the French idea of national identity. This will also affect the political activity of citizens, as the marginalization of the Muslim population will inevitably lead to tensions between the two groups instead of promoting a shared sense of community that will lead to divergent interests and goals. This fractures effective and much-needed political reforms and takes away attention from urgent issues. Furthermore, in the age of immigration, any splits between Muslim migrants and French residents will feed into the paranoia of the other; collaborating on a solution with both parties will instead trade off with Islamophobia, limiting possibilities of effective change.

Though the Education Ministry has yet to release any updates on its budding proposal, one of the biggest concerns is whether the Arabic program, when implemented, will be able to be as developed as the other foreign language courses that have been instituted for a while. The most important thing to keep in mind is that one cannot expect that the new program will work perfectly or that all French students will immediately choose to take Arabic. The development and maturing of a program is just as important as the intentions of the program itself, and continually discussing the program will lead to better awareness for students. It is also important to understand the effects of the proposal within the current French education system for consistent engagement and analysis of how other students around the world are currently being educated. Especially in a time of high tensions surrounding immigration in the U.S., examining similar global issues deepens the breadth of our interpretations toward Islamophobia and immigration in general.