Ep. 212: Religious Liberty and Education – France’s Crackdown on Islamic Education and Homeschooling

October 12, 2020

In this special edition of our Religious Liberty and Education series, we are joined by Jibran Khan and Danish Shakeel to discuss Islamic education and homeschooling—specifically in regards to recent announcements made by France’s president.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is a special edition of our Religious Liberty and Education series. I say that because usually, we’re discussing an essay or a chapter of a book, but this time we’re actually going to be talking about a recent event. Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a crackdown on what he calls “Islamic separatism,” and a great deal of his plan concerns education. A part of his plan includes tighter control over private education. He says that in order to avoid what he calls illegal schools run by “religious extremists,” they will be limiting homeschooling to children with valid medical reasons. Currently, there are about 50,000 French children being homeschooled, so this has wide-reaching implications and education would be made compulsory starting at age three. So this is clearly a plan that, if presented in America, would be considered incredibly radical.

To discuss these developments, we have two guests today. Dr. Danish Shakeel is a postdoctoral research fellow with a program on education policy and governance at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of two studies we’ll be discussing today. One is called, Islamic Schooling in the Cultural West: A Systematic Review of the Issues Concerning School Choice, and a second study called, Does Private Islamic Schooling Promote Terrorism? An Analysis of the Educational Background of Successful American Homegrown Terrorists. We are also joined by Jibran Khan, a freelance journalist who is the author of a chapter in a book which I co-edited titled, Religious Liberty in Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas versus New York. His chapter is called, “Between Tradition and Regulation: What Can Muslim Education Offer The West?” Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast.

Jibran Khan: Thank you for having us.

Jason Bedrick: Dani, we’ll start with you. The second of the two studies I mentioned, concerned the relationship between Islamic education and terrorism. And the hypothesis, I think that many people have in their head, clearly the French president is one of them, is that the more that students are exposed to Muslim education, the more likely they’re going to become extremists and possibly become terrorists. Is that what your study found?

Danish Shakeel: Yes. Before I go to my study, I want to just point out something I read recently about Macron. I was searching for the ban on homeschooling in France, and I came across this news article from UK, and there’s a paragraph there that struck my eye. The paragraph says, “According to Lionel Devic, president of the Fondation pour l’Ecole, an association that supports the creation and functioning of independent schools in France, it is clearly established that not a single perpetrator of terrorist attacks in France came from independent schools.” In his statement, he added that, “Emmanuel Macron lucidly acknowledged that Islamist separatism can be traced back to public schools and private schools under contract with the state.” So, there’s actually no evidence in France itself that free private schools or independent schools are creating these terrorists or separatist sentiment.

Jason Bedrick: A part of this is coming in response to there is a recent stabbing outside of the, and I’m going to butcher the pronunciation, but the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, where there had been a shooting several years ago, and it was an Islamic extremist who was responsible and so the specter of so-called “Radical Islam” is rearing its head again. But what that study finds and what you also find, is that, the students that are going through the system, the actual Muslim school system, are not growing up to be terrorists. What’s the disconnect here. What’s going on? What did you find?

Danish Shakeel: I looked at a small case study of the successful acts of terror in the U.S. And Patrick Wolf and I both looked at the right-wing terrorists, the reaction they want and the jihadist counterparts. Now, in the case of successful acts of terror for data we could find, we found that there’s no association between having gone to a religious school or even an Islamic school and then becoming a successful terrorist. Actually, if you look at the evidence, it is not causal, but it suggests that, if you actually go to a religious school and you have strong family, if you have strong participation in the community, you are likely to become a civic citizen. So actually our study, and there’s also evidence by Peter Burgin and others who have studied the topic, that these so-called, religious schools, do not provide either the linguistic or the technical skills for someone to become a terrorist. And moreover, they rather produce civic citizens.

Jason Bedrick: So this, for many listeners, may seem like a counterintuitive finding. Although those who are familiar with Muslim education, would not find it counterintuitive at all, it would make perfect sense. I will turn to Jibran now. Jibran, why is it that you think that those students who actually grow up in the Islamic school system appear to be much less likely to go on to become an extremist or become a terrorist?

Jibran Khan: Thanks, Jason. I think the first thing to understand is that the general structure of a Muslim education is fundamentally a liberal arts education in the older kind of sense that even a lot of Catholic schools will adopt where you teach some foundational skills, which are grammar, rhetoric and logic. And you try to build up thinking skills and engagement with the great texts. And generally speaking, that kind of environment, first of all, it’s not even a politicized environment, but there’s an environment looking at what’s allowed by religion, what’s not allowed by a religion. And the nature of extremism is that, tends to not be more to any of that. I mean, if you look at these horrible attacks that happen, they are themselves prohibited by the religion. Someone who’s put four to seven years sitting and studying religious texts is going to be aware of that, as is someone who spent even a couple of years in the school, looking into these topics.

So fundamentally, you’re looking at these curriculums that are very old school, in a way, similar to what an old Oxford curriculum would be like, except with Arabic and Persian sometimes as the languages where Greek and Latin would have been before. This is actually something that colonial observers looking at India, for example, and seeing the kind of education that even Muslim shopkeepers would give their children. They point out, “This is actually very similar to what we have back home.” They even study some of the same authors, but they know them by their Arabized names rather than their Anglicized names. The entire environment is actually really just based on critical thinking and understanding rationality and logic and grounding that in a spiritual perspective. There’s very little about that that connects to grievances or aggravate that kind of response.

Jason Bedrick: One of the interesting things that I learned from reading your chapter, was that there are four different schools of interpretation of Islamic law, or what’s called a Sharia law. Could you maybe just explain a little bit to our listeners about what these four different schools of interpretation are?

Jibran Khan: Absolutely. And that’s actually one of the best ways to look at the difference between extremism and the religious mainstream, because extremists tend to take attack of, there is this path that this guy has come up with and that is the way. But actually, in classical Islam, there are four interpretive methods that look at the same religious sources, which are the Quran and the Sunnah, and they’ll apply different ways of weighing the evidence. On any given matter, really, you will have a variety of rulings, even within a specific matter, like the way that people pray. Some schools will say that you keep your hands up. Some will say your arms are to the side. So there’s this inherent intellectual diversity and debate baked into the way that these subjects are taught. And this is there even in the earliest days, in fact, if anything, four is a trimming down from what used to be many, many more in the middle ages.

So there is this idea that there isn’t a monopoly on what is the right opinion. In fact, that various points in history, on civil law matters, there would even be multiple courts so that And generally, the people who follow different interpretations could get a suitable ruling, which was very unusual for us to imagine in today’s world, but there is this inherent diversity there. And I think that speaks to the fact that when you study subjects like this that require a grounding in the skills required to do them, you’re going to see that different people will approach the subject different ways and there’s no single answer in the way that extremists tend to argue that there is.

Jason Bedrick: If you grow up in a tradition, and religious traditions tend to have a lot of universalist claims—there is one absolute truth. But at the same time in Islam, there is this inherent pluralism, because there are these at least four mainstream, interpretive traditions. Now, let me ask this first, for students growing up going through a Muslim school system, are they going to be primarily in one type of school that focuses on one tradition, or are they going to be generally in a school that’s going to teach, to some extent, all four?

Jibran Khan: The way it tends to work is, as with any subject, you need to learn how to do something one way before you can… If you half learn a bunch of different ways, you’re not going to be able to do the skill. But the way that it tends to work is, you are learning one specific school of thought as part of your education. And generally, the variance there is just by the region. So in Africa, for example, it’s largely the Maliki school. In Asia, it’s largely the Hanafi school, but at the same time, you’re also going to be studying Usul al-Fiqh which is the philosophy of law, the roots of law. And as part of those studies, you do learn about all the schools, you learn about what makes their arguments different. And the founders of all of the schools are revered in the religion.
If you’re studying one particular school, it doesn’t mean that all the texts you study will be from that school. For example, the most commonly studied creed in the Muslim world is Aqidah Tahawiyyah, and that creed is by Hanafi, but it’s studied by people of all four schools. The most commonly studied, Usul al-Fiqh, our philosophy of law book, is by Imam Ghazali who’s a Shafi’i. But again, it’s studied by all the schools. So there is the same major teachers within one school will have students from another school. And that’s always been part of the way that it works.

Jason Bedrick: Dani, I know that in your study, you can’t actually make causal claims and you don’t actually have strong evidence that one particular facet of Islamic education reduces the likelihood that somebody becomes a terrorist. But given what Jibran has explained, what would you say is driving this change? If you could speculate on what the causes might be, why is it that students that actually grow up studying Islam full-time in the Islamic school system end up being less likely to be attracted to sort of extremist variants of Islam?

Danish Shakeel: So again, it’s a speculation, but some of that I already discussed in the paper and I would focus on two things. One is ideology and second is government. And thirdly, I would add, their involvement in the community. So when it comes to ideology, as Jibran already mentioned that, among the Sunni Muslims, there are four schools of thought, or four schools of jurisprudence. What fundamentalism does is that, it rejects the traditional consensus among the scholars. It is [inaudible at 12:23] The fundamentalists, they go against the consensus and then they bring up their own interpretation. So they want to revive the religion according to their own interpretation. This is the ideological thing that is available to fundamentalists. And this teaching is more available on the internet than in the schools themselves. So this is the first thing that schools play to actually tie the students to the community they live in.

So if a student is living, let’s say, in Africa, the communal values will demand that they learn the local law, which is the Maliki law there. But the fundamentalist will draw them towards the interpretation, which is available on the internet. That’s the first thing, the ideology level. The second is that at the government level. So many governments in the world, they try to control the schools. Let’s say, I’ll give examples of Saudi Arabia or Iran or other countries. And there they introduce a common core. And then the common core there is that the state will go on what is taught. And those states actually produce radical versions of Islam. It is not the market orientation, which the [inaudible at 13:28] Muslim schools have. So, if someone goes to a madrassa which is not governed by the state. Let’s say, for example, if you study the case of India, India has the maximum number of Muslims in the world.

Maybe you can call number one or number two. But if you see the representation of Indian Muslims in the international jihadists, it is both, by percentage and proportion, the least. So much so that many Westerners from other countries have joined the battlefield more, in percentage, with respect to their proportion in the community. Now, our hypothesis in the paper is that it is because the Muslims there have a role in the schools they play and the government is not involved. And that could be causing two actual reasons because of free market orientation, which is not the case let’s say in Pakistan or other countries, but with the government actually intervenes in education.

Third thing is community. It has been found in studies in Europe and elsewhere, that Muslims are attending mosque in a larger degree. They are participating in the communal activities. They are tied to the community. So they are not looking for some identity, which is available on the internet to extremism. So these three things definitely play a role. And if a Muslim is having communal involvement, if they go to a religious school, which is providing them with some variation in Islam, and then the government is not intervening in their education, they end up becoming a more civic citizen. That would be my hypothesis.

Jason Bedrick: So if what I’m hearing is correct from both of you… Well, first of all, we’ve seen a lot of the terrorists that claim to be, you know, committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, actually grew up in relatively secular households in the West, went to public schools or at least went to private schools that were secular in orientation. And then they get radicalized sometime in college or in their early twenties. That tends to be the profile. So if what you’re saying is correct, it seems then that those students who grow up have strong ties to the community actually have a strong Muslim identity and have an education in what Islam really is. And these four different schools of thought, when they are maybe later exposed to some extremist elements, like you say online, they’re essentially inoculated against it. They recognize it for what it is. They say, this is not true Islam. They don’t feel any draw to it.

But those who maybe don’t have that grounding in Islamic education, can’t see through those claims to not only legitimacy, but claims to being the one true version of Islam. And if they are in their late teens, early twenties, they’re searching for their identity, they feel alienated from the community. And then there’s this voice that says, “This is the one true way. This is who you really are.” They maybe are, let’s say, less inoculated against that vision. And therefore, on average, more likely to be seduced by it. Would you say that’s accurate, Jibran?

Jibran Khan: That’s actually a great way to put it. And actually, that’s a lot of the thinking behind, for example, courses in the fundamentals of creed and the fundamentals of religion that are targeted, at say, high school students have that in mind. The idea that, if you understand what the religion really is, then you’re going to have the stable base for it. Whether that base is for studying further or for being aware of, this doesn’t seem right. You have an understanding of what the reality is and that way it makes you more grounded in the subject.

And I think, related to what you were saying, Dani, there’s a dual factor there, where in the places where you don’t have the state coming in to run things, you do have a pretty organic system that emerges of naturally regulating, which is that Muslim knowledge is entirely built around this concept of Isnad, which is chains of transmission. So to study something, you need to study it from someone who has studied that text himself from a teacher, going back to the author of that book. If you’re grounded in the idea of studying Islam, you’re not going to take your knowledge from just anywhere. You’re going to take it from someone who’s gone through, understands the subject, has studied the subjects. So that’s an element as well that this kind of self-taught radical figures. They don’t have the filtering that comes with having actually studied and learned about that system and understood that. I mean, any even basic book that I’ve studied, has been with someone who has studied that from a teacher, with the line going back. That’s considered absolutely fundamental to the religion. And I think that’s one of the ways in which a robust Muslim education system is very strongly protective against any of these kinds of influences.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. On that note, Dani, the other study that you conducted, Islamic Schooling in the Cultural West: A Systematic Review of Issues Concerning School Choice, one of the things you will look at is, what Muslim parents are looking for when they choose an Islamic school. So maybe you could enlighten our listeners about what it is that they’re looking for.

Danish Shakeel: Like any religious parents, the Muslim parents want to maximize the cultural and religious components, which they have, and then transfer it to their students and their next generation. So they are looking for intergenerational mobility of cultural and religious skills, I would say. Apart from that, they also want their students to do well in the society. So they are looking for civic values to select society processes. They’re also looking for cognitive and non-cognitive skills. So they value achievement, they value mixing with others… All the things which any religious parent wants. So they are no different than the parents are religious from other communities. And there’s one difference though—that in Islam, the worship of God means that if you do any act intention of obeying the creator, it is considered to be worship. Worship is not only praying in Islam. So theologically, if you go to a school and if you have the intention that you are doing it to please your Lord, it is worship.

So this is the additional component which Islamic parents have, if they’re aware of it. So therefore, they have the incentive to acquire cognitive skills or non-cognitive skills with the intention of pleasing their God. And therefore, a religious parent can push their kids or motivate their kids to do well in the secular subjects as well, with intention to please the creator. Islamic schools are a real phenomenon divest. Like in the U.S., only 3 percent of kids, when I did the study, I found that 2 or 3 as what was 3 percent of the Muslim kids go to Islamic schools. And actually, if you go to other countries in Europe, probably the Dutch-speaking part of the Europe has a greater proportion of Muslims going to Islamic schools. Among the 40 schools that were studied by [inaudible at 20:23], he found that those schools are doing pretty well at getting values and making them good citizens. So currently, there is no evidence inside the Western part of the world that Islam was actually creating extremism which go against the state. And this is clearly not based on data.

Jason Bedrick: Turning back now to the president of France. If you are correct, then it looks like he’s actually going about this the wrong way, because if his goal is actually to reduce Islamic extremism in France, then it seems that he should actually be embracing Islamic education and working with religious leaders in France, instead of what he’s doing, which is trying to limit Islamic education. Dani, how do you think Macron should be looking at this situation?

Danish Shakeel: Well, I would say that Islamic schools, they are like a market. And a market has two qualities. It provides the consumer with some variation in understanding, so that they can decide what works for them. And secondly, there should be options of valid nature to choose from. Let’s say, I go to Walmart and I don’t have any idea how does a particular soda look like? How does it feel like? So I would end up actually trying a lot before choosing which is good for me. But let’s say if I had no access to markets, then I would be just stuck with the one option I’m given with.

And then somebody comes on internet and tells me, “Hey, I have a better product.” I would definitely go for that person because I have no knowledge of differentiating between what I have and what the person is offering. So that is the case that Macron is presenting. By taking away religion, by taking away the ability of a person to form… By providing them with no option to distinguish between the variation in the content, I think Macron is being bad and therefore it will be just a market failure, and a market failure in this case would means that a consumer will go for a product about which they have no knowledge, because they want to build that identity in religious values, and they may end up becoming extremist.

Jason Bedrick: So by driving religious education underground, he’s actually primarily going to be suppressing the more moderate voices. And what’s going to be left among, let’s call it the black market of religious education, would actually be more of the extremist voices, relative to the moderate voices. Is that an accurate description of what you’re arguing?

Danish Shakeel: Yeah, exactly. And the consumer is worse off because he or she has no information about what the product is and how to choose and differentiate it from other products.

Jason Bedrick: Jibran, did you have something to add about that?

Jibran Khan: I think, as you’ve both stated well, there’s massive effects there of cutting off what are mainstream forms of religious expression and therefore creating room for the very thing that supposedly the president is trying to stop. But I think it’s unfortunate for a number of reasons, including the fact that, this is practically an elimination of the public sphere. Under Jacques Chirac’s presidency, Jewish caps, hijabs and crosses were banned from public schools. And at that point, there was this idea that while parents exited that and went to religious schools or started homeschooling, and now it’s as though the private sphere does not even exist at home anymore. And I think that’s concerning not only because mainstream religious education does inoculate against these radical ideas, which is important, but it actually causes further alienation if even the private sphere is kind of an extension of the state.

And I think that, across the board, that’s something very dangerous and very strange, and it’s going to affect a lot of people. It’s not purely a radicalism issue, but it’s a lot of this stuff as analysis of situations in France pointed out, relate to deep-set socioeconomic issues that are not resolved at the public policy level. And this is basically creating a whole new one with unpredictable effects. And it’s very unfortunate, and hopefully the administration and perhaps when it enters into debate in parliament early next year, some people will bring up the fact that, “No, actually, religious education and homeschooling are vital expressions in the private sphere.” And they inoculate against these very same negative effects that the state is concerned about.

Jason Bedrick: Our guests today have been Dr. Danish Shakeel and Jibran Khan. Dr. Shakeel is a postdoctoral research fellow at the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. The two studies that we discussed were, Islamic Schooling in the Cultural West: The Systematic Review of the Issues Concerning School Choice. And the second, Does Private Islamic Schooling Promote Terrorism? An Analysis of the Educational Background of Successful American Homegrown Terrorists. Jibran’s chapter in the book, Religious Liberty Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas Versus New York, was titled, ”Between Tradition and Regulation: What Can Muslim Education Offer the West?” Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.

Jibran Khan: Thank you, Jason.

Danish Shakeel: Thank you, Jason, it was pleasure.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors or activists, or just interesting individuals you’d like us to interview for the Religious Liberty and Education Series, please send them to media@edchoice.org. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast, follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.