NPR's Audie Cornish is in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population. France is a secular country, and it has a law called "laicite," which maintains a strict separation of church and state. The law poses a challenge for some Muslims who want to publicly express their faith.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've been hearing this week from European Muslims about the tension between their faith and the values of their Western societies. France is a secular country with a strict separation of church and state. It's a principal called laicite, and it's central to what it means to be a French citizen. Our colleague Audie Cornish has been traveling through Europe and continues her reporting from France.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm here in central Paris with our correspondent Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thanks for having us.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Audie, welcome to Paris.
CORNISH: Now that word we just heard - that French word, laicite - it's often translated as secularism. But I know it's not just a cultural idea, right? I mean, it's law.
BEARDSLEY: That's right, Audie. This is a law since 1905, which was designed to curb the powers of the Catholic Church of the clergy. And what it means today is a complete separation of religious identity and affiliation from the public space. In public, you don't have a religion. You're just a citizen of the Republic.
CORNISH: So what does that mean in everyday life?
BEARDSLEY: Well, in everyday life it means, for example, you would never hear the president say, God bless France. You would never have a congressional prayer breakfast of lawmakers. People do not pray in public. It is not seen as an added value to talk about your relationship to God - never. That is your private, personal business, and in the public sphere, that is no one else's business.
CORNISH: And in fact, that's what's taught in schools, too. I mean the education minister announced a renewed strategy to help teachers address this after reports that there were kids who refused to participate in the moment of silence for the Charlie Hebdo attacks. We went to meet some teachers in the Parisian, Sofia Arrash (ph) and Samira Enni (ph).
We're at Samira Enni's apartment building. Her flat is cozy, but the walls are thin. You can hear the footsteps of kids running around upstairs and muffled voices from next door.
SAMIRA ENNI: Bonjour.
CORNISH: Enni is 34 years old, built like a bird, and looks enough to be one of her own students. She clears off the table where she's been grading papers.
ENNI: (Speaking French).
CORNISH: Her friend, Sofia Arrash, is there. She's 28 years old with a wide smile and a gorgeous halo of auburn spirals for hair. She teaches history and geography. They're both French-born from Algerian Muslim families with very different experiences in the classroom. I began by asking them how students in their classrooms reacted to the attacks at Charlie Hebdo on January 7. Samira Enni teaches in a vocational school, a racially mixed class of young adults 18 and up. And she says the discussion got awkward.
ENNI: (Through interpreter) A lot of them actually talked right away about a conspiracy. The media are exaggerating. It serves other causes. There were a lot of reactions about how it was all a conspiracy.
CORNISH: Did that surprise you?
ENNI: (Through interpreter) Not really because for students, everything is a conspiracy. Even the grades we give them are conspiracies. But many of them were actually sad about the people who died, but some students were so angry. And for many of my older students, they were confused and had a lot of questions.
CORNISH: Sofia Arrash, on the other hand, teaches mostly Muslim students between the ages of 12 and 15, and for her, it was a different story. She says the kids are really suspicious of traditional media, and they were clearly getting all kinds of ideas online.
SOFIA ARRASH: (Through interpreter) Some of my students told me, but miss, we didn't see the blood come out of the policeman's head who was shot, so it might not be true. Maybe he's naturally dead or he wasn't actually killed. And on top of that, because it was Charlie Hebdo, they knew it by reputation because of the caricature they did of the prophet. So some of them - not everyone - they said it was deserved in a way. But when you put things back into context, they understand that there were collateral victims. And after a while they thought about it, and they said that yes, maybe it went too far.
CORNISH: It also ended up sparking real debate in her class, Sofia Arrash says - a debate about freedom of expression versus freedom of religion.
ARRASH: (Through interpreter) Because in terms of the question they had, they were getting things confused. They saw that the backlash after Charlie Hebdo was an attack against Muslims.
CORNISH: Sofia Arrash says she told her students that French secularism is actually meant to protect Muslims like them from discrimination.
ARRASH: (Through interpreter) I reminded them what laicite is, and that it's not just about forbidding visual symbols of faith, but that laicite is actually meant to protect religion. It's meant to allow different religions to be expressed - to leave your religion in one country because there's no official state religion in France.
CORNISH: It's the kind of answer a civil servant in this country would give. I mean, teachers are very much bound by the laws of laicite. Now, Samira Enni's younger sister has been leaning in a doorway to the room, listening in. Her name is Anisa (ph). She's 24, a law student who speaks fluent English, and I can see she wants to jump in.
CORNISH: And you were listening to her answers, but it sounds like you guys are arguing now - that you disagree with how they've explained laicite and what kind of effect it has on Muslims? I mean, what does it mean to you?
ANISA: Today, laicite is really, really dangerous for people who practicing their religion. And I think they didn't emphasize this.
CORNISH: So what makes you upset about them as teachers talking about it in this way? Do you think that they're being kind of soft on their explanation?
ANISA: And I'm not saying that because I'm a Muslim. I'm impartial. I'm saying the truth. In France today, it's really hard to practice a religion, whatever it is. It's not just Islam, but - I mean, my headscarf is an obligation in my religion, so I don't have any choice. I wear because I want to - because I believe my religion teach me to do it.
CORNISH: You started wearing the hijab, your headscarf, just three years ago. What do you think this generation is going to have to deal with if they're going to really feel a part of France?
ANISA: Some of them will have to choose between, for example, work and their headscarf. I have a lot of friend who can't wear it, so they decided to take it off just to work. And some of them want to go out to leave France, like me, because I don't want to choose between a work and my religion. It's not normal for us to leave a country just to be able to practice a religion.
CORNISH: Do you see your future in France?
ANISA: No. I can't because I don't want to stay home. I want to work, but in France they won't accept me. So what other choice do I have? I have to leave. I want to go to England maybe or even America or - whatever they accept me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.