Teaching religion and secular Islam at school, a path to training in critical thinking?

Teaching religion and secular Islam at school, a path to training in critical thinking?

“Can the secular teaching of Islam contribute to the school project? Can it allow everyone to know themselves, to understand the world, to learn to live in fraternity with others and to think for themselves? » At the Arab World Institute, this Wednesday, May 29 in the morning, the debate is posed by the philosopher Abdennour Bidar, intellectual figure of liberal Islam.

Before him, Islamologists, historians and other speakers are gathered on the occasion of the biannual cycle of conferences of the association Islam in the 21st century. Chaired by medical professor Sadek Beloucif, it aims to “contribute to making Islam better known” and to “give a platform to modern Islam”, by bringing together thinkers committed to the reform of their religion.

In a context of recurring political and media tensions in France, which crystallize in particular on “attacks on secularism” in schools, the speakers wondered that morning whether the teaching of religion in schools can participate in calm these debates and promote the emancipation of students. A university teacher, Islamologist Steven Duarte has some experience, since he gives courses in Arabic and the history of Islam to students from Seine-Saint-Denis, the majority of whom are practicing Muslims. . He describes them as influenced by an Islam “salafizing” – conservative and rigid – very present on social networks.

“When they discover the plurality of Islam, it opens horizons for them”

However, he testifies, it is entirely possible to have in-depth discussions with them on very controversial subjects such as homosexuality, the wearing of the veil or the historicity of the Koran. “This does not mean that the students adhere to progressive ideas, in fact that is not the goal, he nuances. The goal is first for them to think for themselves and realize that Islam is historically diverse. When they discover this plurality, it opens horizons for them because they can glimpse an Islam with multiple choices. »

To ensure peaceful discussions on subjects that may affect students in their privacy, Steven Duarte often begins by asking them a simple question: ” Is thatth Quran is the word of God? » Muslim students, spontaneously, respond in the affirmative. Either, he told them, “it’s your faith and I won’t go into that.”

He then asks them to answer this same question, this time adopting historians' glasses. “The historian does not have to comment on this question”, he concludes. A way of reassuring them that scientific discourse and beliefs are on different levels.

Steven Duarte then shows his students that, far from being monolithic, this religion is very diverse. Evoking the different currents that run through Islam, he talks about Sunnism, Shiism and Ibadism, a third way almost unknown to students. Thus, to a young man from Djerba, in Tunisia, he once suggested: “Maybe your family is Ibadi” – “Astaḡfirullāh!” » he protests, which could be translated as: “God forbid!” » A few weeks later, however, the same student returned to his professor after questioning his family, and confessed: “We are Ibadis, and I didn’t know it. »

Knowledge to reduce fear

Would teaching religion at school be beneficial? Without a doubt, also believes the historian Jamal Ahbab, who maintains that“better knowledge of the culture and values ​​of others contributes to alleviating fear and therefore limiting the polarization of society.” He therefore believes that training is “probably much more effective” than a succession of laws which, according to him, “push students to continue to believe that they are not accepted within the Republic. »

However, there is no consensus on this position. For the French historian and political scientist Patrick Weil, the teaching of religion in school would indeed risk reproducing an assignment to the religious affiliation of certain students. “Is the priority of the school religious teaching which will assign children to a particular identity? “, he asks.

Opposing this measure, he proposed another path, that of“inscribe the particular history of the students in the general history”. Concretely, he advocates the teaching of the French empire, slavery, colonization, decolonization, in other words “of what makes the common presence of these children in France”. And the researcher insists: “We must give them a place in the political history of the country. »

To deal with tensions with a specifically religious dimension, Patrick Weil proposes the creation of general chaplains by religion in national education, who would be able to give advice when a situation arises. “Through knowledge of religion, we solve 90% of problems”, he maintains. The debate remains open.

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