Teacher quits French school over ‘insidious Islamism’

A teacher at France’s only state-funded Muslim faith school has quit his job, writing in a leading newspaper that the establishment was riddled with anti-Semitism and was “promoting Islamism” to pupils.

François Lo Presti, AFP / Students at the Averroès Lycée in Lille, northern France

Philosophy teacher Sofiane Zitouni wrote in left-leaning daily Libération on February 5 that the Averroès Lycée (high school) in the northern French city of Lille was a hotbed of “anti-Semitism, sectarianism and insidious Islamism”.

Zitouni, who is of Algerian descent and began teaching philosophy (which is compulsory for all high-school students in France) at Averroès in September, wrote that he could no longer tolerate the school’s alleged contradictions with France’s strictly secular “Republican values”.

“The reality is that Averroès Lycée is a Muslim territory that is being funded by the state,” he wrote. “It promotes a vision of Islam that is nothing other than Islamism. And it is doing it in an underhand and hidden way in order to maintain its [80 percent] state funding.”

Zitouni’s view of the school could not be further from how the establishment, which has been judged an “excellent” lycée by school inspectors, and achieves a 100 percent pass rate in the baccalaureate exams taken by all French high school students, sees itself.

The school’s director, El Hassane Oufker, told FRANCE 24 the school’s staff and student body were “hugely shocked and upset” by Zitouni’s comments and said that he would be suing him for defamation.

“We are in a state of shock,” he said. “The teachers are depressed and the students are very upset. We never got the chance to discuss [the allegations of Islamism]. We feel betrayed.”

‘Keep an eye over your shoulder’

A week after the terror attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Zitouni wrote his first opinion piece in Libération titled “Today, the Prophet (Mohammed) is also Charlie”, a reference to the popular slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).

In his article, the teacher criticised “pseudo-experts on Islam who don’t understand their own religion”. He also blasted Muslims for failing to have a sense of humour about their own faith.

Zitouni wrote in his second article that after publication of the first, colleagues whispered to him threateningly that he would be wise to “keep an eye over your shoulder when you walk down the street”.

One of his colleagues, ethics teacher Sofiane Meziani, went on to pen a counter article, published in the French weekly L’Obs, where he argued that Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, was a publication that “contributed to the trivialisation of racist acts”.

‘I have never heard so many anti-Semitic remarks’

Students also voiced their anger, Zitouni wrote, telling him he “licked the shoes of the enemies of Islam” and that his words were “blasphemy”.

His colleagues and pupils’ were even more angered by his statement that in his “20 years as a teacher I have never heard so many anti-Semitic remarks coming from the mouths of students”.

“I would hear that ’Jews dominate in the media’ and that ‘Jews are a cursed race’,” he wrote. “Even the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is viewed with scepticism purely because he was a Jew.”

“I did all I could to rationally dispel these conspiracy theories but to no avail,” he added. “I hit a brick wall. The Jews [his pupils told him] are the enemies of Islam. Full stop.”

But the school’s principal, El Hassane Oufker, insisted that nothing could be further from the truth.

“He worked here for three months and he saw and heard things that no one else has,” he told FRANCE 24. “The only thing that rings true about what he says is that he has spent a large amount of time talking about Islam in his philosophy lessons.”

‘Professional error’

“He tried to convert the pupils to his Sufi interpretation of Islam, particularly in terms of the veil and the role of women in society,” he added, referring to the more “spiritual” branch of Islam that places less emphasis on the literal interpretation of the Koran.

“It was a professional error on his part. He should have concentrated on the syllabus that is laid out quite clearly in the French state curriculum, something that he did not do.”

The entire teaching staff at the school have subsequently signed a joint communiqué in which they “strongly condemn the slanderous lies” of their former colleague Zitouni.

“This lycée was founded on the principles of openness and tolerance, in keeping with an understanding of Islam that is perfectly in tune with the values of the French Republic”.

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