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Roundtable discusses Islam in the U.S. and France, religious tolerance in the West

Published: October 15, 2010
Section: News


Hannah Taieb, the resident director of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in Paris, spoke to Brandeis students and faculty Monday on the importance of intercultural communication.

As an American living in France for 20 years, Taieb offered a unique perspective regarding how religions function in society and how to push past religious prejudices. Taieb said that her workshop was designed “to compare things that are not always comparable” or to compare anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in France and in the United States. Taieb began by asking participants, “What comes to mind when you think of Jews and Muslims in France?” The question was immediately met with suggestions like conflict, tensions and the fact that Islam clashes with the French government.

Following such challenging suggestions, Taieb spoke about how religious groups have learned to assimilate into French culture, which has a strict definition of secularism. She also pointed out that the reason Islam does not appear to have fully assimilated into French culture compared to Judaism is because of the influx of young first and second-generation Muslim immigrants, whereas most French Jews have been culturally assimilated for centuries.

Taieb explained a relevant 1905 French law that guarantees the right to worship. The law falls under three definitions. The first is freedom of religion, which says the state has to recognize religions. The second is state neutrality, which says the state has nothing to say about religious issues, and the third is that the state has the responsibility to force its citizens to be free thinkers. As a result, today’s French mentality of secularism is a product of this law. While Taieb said, “there is a plethora of interfaith activity in France,” students in state schools cannot outwardly express their religions.

Taieb continued to point out an important distinction between France and the United States, saying, “the rigidity of French secularism relates to the tremendous presence of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, many immigrants come to the United States on the grounds of wanting to express their religious beliefs freely.”

Not only did Taieb discuss the ways different religions assimilate or stand out in French and American culture, but she also discussed the presence of religion within the two countries’ respective penal systems. While conducting a dialogue between the Muslim chaplain from the United States Marines, the Muslim chaplain from Fort Dix, a Catholic chaplain from Oregon and the Catholic chaplain in charge of the United States prison system, she found that there are 69 recognized religions in the United States prison system. On the other hand, there are just four recognized faith systems (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam) in the French prison system. Taieb then brought a group of French prisoners to a United States prison, and found them fascinated by the differences between the two.

Taieb concluded by asserting her belief that all of the conflict Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is raising regarding religious expression is actually a method of diverting France’s attention from its current economic crisis. She also stressed how important interfaith work is, because while older generations of French citizens “just don’t talk about” political conflicts with religion, we need “more and more young groups to bring light to religious discussions [so they can] learn to live in a multicultural world.”