Fighting radicalisation: A Salafist convert's mother heads back to school
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Two specialists of Salafism, a fundamentalist version of Islam, are raising awareness among French middle-schoolers on the dangers of indoctrination. France 24 reports from one of the pair’s workshops.
In room B6 of the Collège Saint-Chef, a middle school in a French town of 3,600 between Lyon and Grenoble, Madame Brazon’s History-Geography class stepped off the beaten track last Tuesday. “What are we going to talk about today?” the students were asked. Young Lisa, her hair swept up in a French twist, threw her hand up, “Salafism.”
“Propaganda,” Eline chipped in from the front row.
“Radicalisation,” said Damien from the back of the class.
To broach complex hot topics like these with 14-year-olds, their teacher opened her door to a mother whose daughter was indoctrinated to Salafism as a 12-year-old and later decamped to suburban London at 18 to wed her polygamist husband. For six long years, the child’s mother saw her drifting away from their family. The story is now a book: “Ma Chère fille salafiste: Radicalisée à 12 ans” (“My Dear Salafist daughter: Radicalised at 12 years old”), which she wrote under the pseudonym Lau Nova. A copy sat on the ledge of the chalkboard at Saint-Chef.
When Charlotte becomes Amina
Speaking to the class, the author bears witness, describing the different stages of her daughter Charlotte’s indoctrination for her young audience. “The story begins with my daughter, who was in seventh grade at the time, heartbroken over a boy, as often happens at that age. But in looking to win him back, she grew closer with the boy’s sister, who would go on to draw her into Salafism. That was the real trigger that pushed my daughter toward radical Islam,” Lau Nova recounted calmly.
“Since her beliefs forbid clothes that were too revealing, she had to change how she dressed to wear a veil called a djilbel that covered her from head to toe; because she wasn’t allowed to play with boys, she had to quit sport. And stop drawing, too, since one mustn’t draw representations of eyes,” Lau Nova explained. “Then, she took it to the next stage, withdrawing from her friends. She began calling herself Amina.”
The girl’s indoctrination through social media followed next, before she finally left the Lyon suburbs for Britain.
“As a teacher and/or a parent, how can you not be affected by this story?” said Noëlle Brazon, the teacher who convinced her colleagues to bring the author into their eighth- and ninth-grade classes to raise the students’ awareness. After several phone calls with Lau Nova and her publisher Véronique de Montfort, school principal Jean Gelineau quickly greenlit the project.
“We educate the students about evacuating the building in case of an intruder, so why not sensitise them to the indoctrination process?” Gelineau said.
Since French philosopher Régis Debray’s 2002 report advocating an intelligent rather than an abstentionist secularism, the “religious fact” has been taught in History-Geography classes in France. The curriculum was bolstered in 2005 and again in 2016.
Isolated initiatives like these are “many but scattered”, regrets Hasna Hussein, a sociologist and research assistant for the European PRACTICIES-Radicalisation prevention project at the University of Toulouse II. In France, experts are hoping a centralised plan will be put into place.
‘It could happen to us, too’
In February, Lau Nova and her publisher Montfort spoke to two ninth-grade classes. “The connection was excellent. We wanted to do it again with classes of eighth graders,” the principal said.
Students are struck by the power of the first-hand account. “This mum is right in front of us telling us her story. It’s real and it’s touching because we’re thinking that could happen to us, too,” said Fanny.
But the prevention workshop is above all meant to be educational. “Lau Nova isn’t here for pathos. Otherwise, the prevention workshop would not be constructive,” said Montfort, a journalist by training who made the leap to publishing. The Belgium-based publishing house La boîte à Pandore, where Montfort is Editorial Director, has for years been publishing works on the religious fact, like “Finalement, il y a quoi dans le Coran?” (“So what’s in the Koran anyway?”) by the Islamic scholar Rachid Benzine and the film director Ismaël Saidi. A specialist on religious themes, Montfort has met with 1,500 Belgian children over the past five years to present radicalisation workshops with her authors.
An educational tool
On the strength of that expertise, La Boîte à Pandore published an “educational tool” to help teachers prepare ahead of time, with a dedicated edition for France “to respect the principal of French secularism, which doesn’t exist on the other side of the border” in Belgium.
“France and Belgium are linked on the issue of Salafism,” the publisher said, referring to the jihadist network that committed the deadly attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other Paris targets in November 2015 and the Brussels attacks in March 2016.
As a result, middle schoolers had already read the book; some with their “very involved parents” and had worked through selected excerpts. In Madame Brazon’s class, students worked in groups to create thematic poster boards on the issue. “We spent two class hours on the topic,” the teacher said.
Over the course of the 50-minute workshop, the two speakers solicited critical thinking of the students. “Would you be okay with having your first name changed?” asked Montfort, leading the session.
”No, not at all,” replied young Eline.
“Should a group be telling you what you should be doing?” the publisher asked next.
“It makes me think of a shepherd and sheep that have to follow him,” Abigail chimed in.
“What did you think of the book?” Montfort asked, pacing around the class to hold the kids’ attention.
“I felt an emptiness in the fact of not recognising a person you thought you knew,” an imposing boy called Nico replied timidly.
“What do we need to do when we’re on social media?”
“Be careful,” the students answered.
Their verbal and non-verbal cues speak volumes, Montfort said. “Some share their sadness, others how very interested they are,” she said. “Today, we practically got into political science when Chris made a link between jihadism, power and money. It was super!”
It does happen that a student will hint at sticking points. “Not all of them agree with our message,” Montfort said. That wasn’t the case in this rural school, which brings together 600 students from nine small neighbouring villages. “Here, no cases of radicalisation have been observed,” Gelineau, the principal, noted.
From Molenbeek to Saint-Chef
Montfort has been confronted elsewhere with schools that were much more sensitive, such as in Molenbeek, the Brussels suburb known for having harboured several terrorists. “There, when we talked about disengagement, some sunk down into their chairs and pulled their hoodies up over their heads,” she said. “A way for them to directly mark their territory.”
But here in Saint-Chef, the objective has been fulfilled, say the history teachers, who hung back to let their middle-schoolers speak freely. “It defused the terminology that they hear in the media or elsewhere, made it comprehensible, opened pathways,” said one teacher, who elected to remain anonymous.
France lagging behind
Last Tuesday, the mother-author and her publisher, who spoke free of charge at the school, left the premises proud of having brought what they could to the table. “Success!” said Montfort, who has already been asked to speak at other neighbouring schools. “But still, what about all those other ones that we don’t see?” she wondered aloud. Montfort is preparing educational documentation for the French Ministry of Education so this sort of session can be reproduced across the country in other schools.
“Compared to Belgium and other countries, France is lagging behind in terms of radicalisation prevention in schools,” Hussein, the sociologist, acknowledged. The Belgian government has, for its part, produced a pamphlet on Salafism that was distributed in schools, universities, prisons and elsewhere. “In France, the plan on preventing radicalisation [unveiled in February] that includes 60 measures has interesting aspects, but it doesn’t go far enough in terms of financing and organisation,” she said. “Not to mention the logic of monitoring, which is going to weigh things down and accentuate the lag.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.