Learning arabic
Learning arabic
Marwan Lahoud and Hakim El Karoui*


PARIS — The year 2015, an annus horribilis if there ever was one, will remain etched in people's memories for the violent acts committed in the name of religion, of murder perpetrated in the name of Islam. Faced with the threat of terrorism, we've adopted new security measures for the long term, and that's a good thing, but now it's time for a deeper response to this issue. Our goal should be to prevent the radicalization of a segment of France's youth that is tempted by a totalitarian, murderous ideology: terrorist jihadism.

An individual's downward spiral into extremism has many possible causes: an identity crisis, social isolation, teenage angst, a forced cultural integration that has destabilized one's family, a lack of authority or guidance from parents who've lost their footing. Host societies once gave them work when it was convenient, but did not know what to do with them once deindustrialization began.

But there is one other key factor missing from this list: a lack of education. Those who know nothing about the culture of their origins are easy prey for all kinds of charlatans of terrorist ideology, who present themselves as the "real upholders" of Islam, as "scholars of religion," and the true masters of Arab culture.

At the root

There is, of course, no miracle solution, but we think it's vital to attack this evil at its ignorant roots — and teaching the Arabic language can help.

Why? Because France's public schools are still the best place for students to learn about the history of Islam and the culture of their foreign-born parents, and to ponder the meaning of multicultural identity. And, of course, knowledge of Arabic is also an asset in the globalized job market, considering the importance of Gulf and Maghreb countries in international commerce.

Unfortunately, reality poses a stumbling block. The French Ministry of National Education has objected in the past to teaching Arabic to children of Arabic origin; currently, only 9,000 secondary school students in France are studying the language. This is probably owing to some misplaced notion of integration into the French Republic, along the lines of: "The Bretons weren't allowed to learn Breton in the early 20th century, so we're not going to allow the Arabs to learn Arabic!"

Principals have also been reluctant to teach Arabic in their schools because they are afraid this would lead to an increase in the enrollment of immigrant children... which, for them, translates to more problems.

The bottom line, they say, is that teaching Arabic would favor the isolation of the community, which is frankly laughable when one sees the disproportionate number of immigrant children already stuck on the outskirts of large cities. No need for Arabic classes to have segregated ghetto-schools.

But the demand for such classes exists, and since the education ministry hasn't responded to it, Arabic-speaking countries have seized the opportunity, funding visiting professors who spend hours outside the classroom teaching the "language and culture of origin" to French children with Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian or Turkish backgrounds.

This system was conceived when immigrant workers, it was believed, would eventually go back home. But it's now become obsolete: The children and grandchildren who came to rebuild France in the 1950s and 1960s are French, and French to the core.

Fortunately, the education ministry has become aware of the problem and has formally entered the field with better-trained and better-managed Arabic teachers, who soon will join the general education system via the creation of an "international" study option.

But that's not enough, especially considering that the number of children learning Arabic in elementary school (about 50,000) far surpasses the number of secondary school Arabic teachers.

Mosques as alternatives

Mosques are also meeting the demand for Arabic language teaching.

An estimated 60,000 young French citizens learn Arabic in mosques, cultural or charitable associations, or institutes linked to religious centers. The government exerts no influence over the content and learning methods of these courses, the values they transmit or the quality of textbooks used.

We will not fall into the trap of saying mosques are dangerous places: the vast majority of mosques in France are not places of radicalization. Rather, they promote peace and respect for the political environment.

But for lack of Arabic textbooks edited in France, young people are learning the language with books from their countries of origin, which emphasize rote memorization and do not encourage critical thinking. The values transmitted in these textbooks are those of North Africa or Turkey, and they often contrast with French values.

Language and religion are greatly intertwined in Islam, all the more so when Arabic is taught in mosques, where teaching the language is, of course, an opportunity for proselytism, especially in Salafist mosques. But Arabic exists independently of the Koran: It's a living language, a language of culture, a language of business.

By giving religious associations free reign over Arabic instruction, France is providing them with a steady income, as Arabic lessons have become an important source of revenue. And by failing to teach Arabic, France is sending its children to mosques: a strange approach for a country that prides itself on its secular vision.

The time is now to teach Arabic in French schools.

*Lahoud is international managing director of strategy and public affairs at Airbus Group; El Karoui is a former adviser to the French Prime Minister and founder of the Club du XXIème siècle ("21st Century Club"), an association that promotes cultural diversity in France.

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