Over the past two decades, as France’s Muslim population has sought a greater role in the country, officials have often tried to limit the public presence of Islam as part of an increasingly stringent interpretation of French secularism known as laicite.
A 2004 anti-Muslim hijab law banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools and sparked years of harrowing debate over France’s treatment of Europe’s largest Muslim population. President Emmanuel Macron’s new anti-Islam law is expected to strengthen state control over existing mosques and make it difficult to build new ones.
But one major institution went in the opposite direction: the army.
The military has given Islam a place equal to the more established denominations of France through a more liberal interpretation of laicite. Imams became chaplains in 2005. Mosques have been built at bases in France and around the world, including in Deir Keefah, Lebanon, where some 700 French soldiers are helping United Nations forces maintain peace in the southern part of the country. Halal rations are offered. Muslim holidays are recognized. Working hours adjusted to allow Muslim soldiers to attend Friday prayers.
The military is one of the institutions that has most successfully integrated Muslims, military officials and outside experts, adding that they can serve as a model for the rest of France.
Sergeant. Azhar, 29, said he grew up facing discrimination as a Muslim and difficulty practicing his religion while working in a restaurant before serving in the military. According to him, in the army, he can practice his religion without arousing suspicion. Forced to live together, French people of all backgrounds know more about each other than the rest of society, he said.
“The army has all religions, skin colors, all origins,” he said. “So it provides an impartiality that is not found in civilian life.”
At the heart of the cause lies the lay that separates church from state and has long served as the cornerstone of the French political system. According to the 1905 law, the laity guarantees the equality of all denominations.