File Photo, madrassa in India
A school ‘condemned to death’
Catherine Nixey/The Guardian
Why are the authorities refusing to fund France’s oldest Muslim school, now facing bankruptcy?
* Translation: how do we get the infidels to finance their own demise?
- Quel Malheur!Â I have a great idea: why not ask the filthy rich Wahabites of Sowdi Arabia to drop a few million in their account? Or why not join the French schools which are open to everybody regardless of creed? Why do these Muslims insist on being seperate from the mainstream while demanding to be funded by the same people they despise?
- Strangely, the Guardian doesn’t show such compassion for the abduction, brutal torture over 24 days, andÂ horrificÂ murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew who was lured into a honeytrap by the Â adherents of the very same Religion of Peace…
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” As the imam’s wail rises, the rows of worshippers kneel. “Allahu Akbar!” The rows touch their foreheads to the floor.
Between the prayer mats the white lines of a sports court are just visible. On the wall, a poster showing children how to kneel for prayers is pinned between a mural of a mole sitting on a toadstool and a squirrel picnicking on nuts. This is RÃ©ussite, France’s oldest Muslim school. And it is on the brink of closing.
“We are collapsing under the weight of our debts,” says Yvonne Fazilleau, the school’s headteacher. “Last week our accountant said to me: ‘We are penniless’.” They have enough money to pay wages for the next two months. After that, the future is uncertain. When I telephoned to arrange a visit, Fazilleau was unable to phone me back: “We don’t have enough money for foreign calls.”
Walk around the school and its poverty is clear. Housed in a converted warehouse in a suburb of Paris, it is a spartan environment. Its roof is made of corrugated plastic; the walls are chipboard. Although it is a sunny day, it’s cold inside and most of the pupils keep their coats on throughout the lessons.
RÃ©ussite – its name means “success”- is in serious financial difficulty because, unlike many Jewish and ChristianÂ schools, it receives no government grants. Under a 1959 law, faith schools, provided they follow the same curriculum as a state school and submit to inspections, are eligible for – indeed, almost assured of receiving – government grants. These are considerable, paying the wages of every teacher in the school. Over 8,000 schools are funded in this way. However, although France has western Europe’s largest Muslim community, only two of these schools are Muslim.Unpaid teachers
On paper, RÃ©ussite would seem eminently eligible for funding. It follows the same curriculum as state schools. And its results are excellent. Last year, it had a 100% success rate in France’s formidable baccalaureat, compared with a local pass rate of 81%. Yet, despite having repeatedly applied for money, RÃ©ussite has received nothing. Last year, its teachers worked without pay for three months.
Despite the difficulties, it attracts and keeps pupils. “It is expensive for our parents to send us here,” says Selma Ikhafoulma, 15. “But for them it’s very important. The education we receive is very good and the atmosphere here is nice. It’s like a family for us.”
The school has repeatedly applied for funding to the Inspection Academique, the equivalent of a local education authority. Every time it has applied, it has been told that its application is, in some way, invalid. “We have applied three times,” says Fazilleau. “Each time they say that some papers are missing from our file. But I was the person in charge of sending the file, and I can assure you nothing was missing.”
Fazilleau, who was born a Catholic, converted to Islam in her early 20s. She has been surprised by the treatment the school has received. “Had I heard our story from someone else, I would have believed it to be exaggerated. This is my country. It’s supposed to be a fair country.” Thirty years of living as a Muslim in Paris has changed her views. “I feel ashamed to say it, but it is obvious there is discrimination, almost segregation, against Muslim people in France. They just don’t want to give us the money.”
The mayor and the MP of Aubervilliers have been quoted as saying that the school seems to have received “abnormal treatment” from the government, that they have the impression that an “injustice” is occurring and that RÃ©ussite has been “condemned to death financially”.
One argument against governments supporting faith schools is that they cement segregation within communities. Dr Mohamed Mukadam, the chairman of the UK’s Association of Muslim Schools, disagrees. “If one community alone isn’t allowed to run schools, then they will feel like alienated, second-class citizens,” he says. “Societies need to say: ‘Yes, Muslims can run schools just like anyone else’.”
In the case of Muslim schools, there is the added fear that they will foster extremism. Walk around RÃ©ussite and it doesn’t seem extreme. There are the squirrel murals, for one. During the lunchtime prayers, several pupils shuffle in late, chatting and drinking Coke as the imam chants. A group of girls sits at the back, giggling and chatting throughout.
Nevertheless, France has seen a gradual hardening of attitudes towards Islamic practices. In 2004, a law was passed banning the wearing of all “conspicuous” religious apparel in schools. It was supposed to apply to the symbols of all religions equally – Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses were also banned – but many saw it as targeting the Muslim community.
The law has made Muslim schools all the more important for many Muslim girls. “Friends of mine who go to state schools wear their headscarf outside school, but take it off at the school gates,” says Selma. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
Last June, RÃ©ussite submitted to its most recent government inspection, and received a favourable report. “An inspector came and asked me a lot of questions and inspected everything,” says Fazilleau. “He told me that our school was very good. He said he would give his authorisation for us to receive money.”
The school had expected this money to come through in time for the current school year. It received nothing. In September, a delegation from RÃ©ussite went to the Inspection Academique to try to find out what was happening. “Nine of us went to hear what they would say,” says Fazilleau. “When we arrived [the school inspector] told us: ‘As far as the administration here is concerned, there is no trace of your school. For me, you do not exist.’
“It was like some sort of farce,” she says. “At least four of them have visited this school. We gave them a big lunch. We have photographs of them being here. It is impossible for them to tell us that we do not exist.”
No one from the Inspection Academique has been available for comment.
Sad and angry
The school’s debt has now reached â‚¬300,000 (Â£260,000) and it is in imminent danger of being declared bankrupt. “A lot of the teachers here really don’t know what to do,” says Monya Zalila, who teaches English. “Many feel sad and angry that we still don’t have any money. We have done everything we can and we don’t have anything in return. One teacher told me that if we are not paid again she will have to leave and look for another job.”
Last year, the school managed to stay afloat through a series of charity events. “The only opportunity for us is to go out and beg,” says Fazilleau. The school held a fundraising dinner for Muslim entrepreneurs and even put out collecting tins in local restaurants. “When people go to dinner they might give one or two euros,” says Fazilleau. “We exist on charity.”
She cannot give an exact estimate of how long the school can survive, but she is not optimistic. “If nobody helps us soon, we will simply have to close.” This, she feels, will have repercussions beyond the small community of RÃ©ussite itself. “This school, this enterprise, is not just for those of us who attend it,” she says. “We are sort of pioneers. If we have to close down, this will be a terrible blow for the Muslim community in France.”
The final school bell of the day rings. RÃ©ussite’s pupils, wearing jeans, T-shirts and headscarves, hurry out of the warehouse. Their route home takes them past another local school, which is government funded. It has recently been renovated, and is resplendent with steel fittings and golden stone cladding. On its front wall, in letters two-feet high, it bears the proud legend: “LibertÃ©. Ã‰galitÃ©. FraternitÃ©.”