Paris: Some teachers in France say they censor themselves to avoid confrontation with students and parents about religion and freedom of expression. This was a cruel problem when a teacher was beheaded after showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad in class.
History teacher Samuel Paty showed an image of mocking the prophet in his lesson on freedom of expression. The painting was first published by the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and caused a deadly Islamic attack on the office.
Earlier this week, Paty’s murder sparked anger in a country where many fiercely advocate the separation of church and state. It also revealed a division of society where a minority of vocal music in the Muslim community feels their beliefs are not respected. Delphine Girard, who began teaching in 2004, the year France banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves from schools, says these fault lines have grown stronger over the past 10 to 20 years.
“Students are not like themselves, but like the spokesperson of the accident… It comes from people who want to impose a stronger religious identity.” Self-censorship takes many forms. From elementary school teachers who refused the backlash because they feared the backlash from some Muslim parents, to history teachers who avoid religious satire.
National secularism or “laicité” is central to France’s national identity and calls for the separation of religion and public life. Schools have historically instilled republic values in their citizens. Some teachers say that the more French Muslims and other religious believers try to express their religious identity, the more difficult it becomes.
“I did a lot of self-censorship on matters related to laicité,” said a teacher previously employed at a high school in Paris. He was afraid of repercussions and demanded anonymity. “I felt a real hatred for French values.” Her experience meant that while Paty’s murder was fatal, it wasn’t entirely surprising.
Recalling the attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015, she said she avoided discussing it with students the next day. “We kept silent for a moment and I kept moving on. I was cowardly.”
Secularism was enshrined in French law in 1905 after an anti-office struggle with the Catholic Church. In recent decades, the desire to express a religious identity among some French Muslims has dominated the debate over the balance of religious and secular needs. Some teachers have said that in the deprived suburbs surrounding the French city, the list of delicate subjects in the curriculum is constantly expanding and has criticized families and communities for affecting young people.
The government said it knew there were problems with self-censorship among teachers, spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters this week. The national curriculum in France sets the framework and directs teachers to a website that proposes textbooks and lesson plans. For lessons on freedom of expression for children 13 years old, the same class that Paty taught, the Charlie Hebdo comics are a general suggestion.
History teacher Maxime Reppert, referring to Hitler’s Nazi Manifesto, said, “Caricature is not my camp.” “They are not asking to incite hatred.” President Emanuel Mark Long on Wednesday sent emotional homage to Patty, saying France will protect French values and teachers. There was no pressure, abuse, or ignorance in France.
Many teachers want more specific reassurance from Macron and his government at the end of the October half-year holiday. “Should I bring this issue up with the Prophet’s caricature in hand when my students return?” said an art teacher who put her name on hold in publication.
She continued that silence could be worse. “Today I am afraid. But if we let this fear get in the way of the debate, it’s far more so than it can be.”