The following accounts are mainly drawn from two surveys carried out with 559 early childhood educators and 219 school social workers between 2012 and 2016. A survey carried out at the Académie de Créteil among school social workers during three departmental team meetings made it possible to examine the question of religious facts and secularism in the school sector, which is particularly affected by these subjects. Respondents answered 11 closed questions about their exposure to religious facts, the possible radicalisation of the high school students they were accompanying and their conception of secularism. At the end of the questionnaire, they were able to add comments, and some sent observations to the researcher in the form of anecdotes or written accounts, a number of which have been reproduced in this chapter. Finally, interviews were conducted with two technical advisors from the National Education.
The surveys were also supplemented by accounts collected during training sessions and university courses in religious anthropology for future social service workers, sociocultural workers and specialised educators (2014–2018). While the studies presented here mainly concern France, and while it is always appropriate to return to the historical context to understand the present, we believe that what is described in this chapter can be applied in part to most European countries experiencing the same type of evolution. Whether it is the process of secularisation, growing religious diversity, the emergence of a European Islam, migration or the ecological crisis, many Western societies are experiencing the same major challenges that affect citizens.
Professionals in the social and socio-educational sectors who indicate they have encountered religious beliefs during their work with vulnerable persons, oscillate between a visceral rejection of any religious intrusion and making reasonable accommodations, between calls to secular order and shows of tolerance for arbitrary contours. A very large number of anecdotes collected on serious issues in social work concern Islam, but it should also be noted that other currents of religious thought, such as Evangelism, may also be identified by social workers. A survey we conducted in 2016 among 122 school social workers in Seine-Saint-Denis showed that 56% of the problem situations concerned Islam, 25% evangelism, 9% Catholicism, 5% Judaism, 1% Buddhism and 4% other religions or sects (Sikhs, Jehovah’s witnesses). If we want to understand the new forms of religious expression, we must also observe their interactions. Religious identities, Olivier Bobineau argues, mirror each other, and vary according to “power relations, strategies and protagonists” (Bobineau, 2015). Indeed, confessional affiliations do not only express a certain disposition to spirituality but are also an indicator of social relationships. For example, when young people from MECS claim to belong to Islam, we have seen that they more often affirm a desire for social requalification than a mystical or spiritual disposition. This is so to the extent that ‘common’, ‘fragile’ or ‘discriminated against’ may, in some institutions, be systematically associated with ‘Muslims’ and relayed by the protagonists themselves. At Las Cases high school in Montpellier, 96.5% of the children are of Moroccan origin and when asked about their identity, they do not declare that they are French or possibly Moroccan, but ‘Muslim’ (Libération, October 18, 2015).
Educators and social workers note that they are sometimes prevented from carrying out their mission because the intended beneficiaries object to them on religious grounds. For instance, they may challenge a training course, demand halal food, ask for spaces for praying, or refuse to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex. Many of them have difficulty understanding that what they often consider as futile, superstitious, an outdated practice or even discriminatory against women, can stand in the way of a measure designed to provide social or educational assistance to beneficiaries of policies:
What can I do? I’m here to help people integrate professionally, but when it comes to this woman who doesn’t want to consider a job where she has to remove her veil, I don’t see what I can do. (Manager in a job-seeking assistance service)
Yet despite these obstacles, we have also found that social workers are adaptable and most often seek to safeguard a trusting relationship between beneficiaries and social institutions by practicing a form of reasonable compromise, based on the Canadian accommodations model. In Canada, this is a legal provision designed to make a labour law rule more flexible in order to avoid the possible discrimination it could create by being too prescriptive. Such adjustments can already be observed in nurseries where early childhood educators work (Verba, 2014). They do not wait for ministerial prescriptions to take into account certain cultural practices if they do not affect the safety of young children, nor call into question the principle of religious neutrality required from officials in municipal or departmental structures:
What comes first to me is the physical, moral and emotional well-being of the child and his or her family, with respect and without judgment. If an educational practice seems questionable to me, I discuss it with the parents and we reach a mutual understanding and compromise, in the interest of the child, on both sides. (Childhood Educator)
The wearing of the veil [of mothers] generally does not pose any problem in early childhood care because it is the reception of children, their harmonious development, and therefore the taking into account of their families, whatever they may be, that is at the heart of the care project. (Educator)
Finally, some social workers have been able to achieve the necessary distance from religious reference points by carefully deciphering the power relationships that are established between professionals and the people they support:
I remember a “Chechen leader” who led all the residents to boycott the party we had organised for them on the pretext that the meat was not halal, contrary to what we had told them. And then, finally, I understood that what he was really telling me, as the head of department, was that he was the leader! (Head of Service, Asylum Seeker Centre)
The director of a MECS (Maison d’enfants à caractère social, Children’s home of a social nature) in Toulouse also experienced the strategic use of religious references by a group of young Muslim girls at his school, to gain some substantial benefits related to Ramadan, such as being allowed to stay up later than others in order to eat, or being able to get up later in the morning, in short, benefits which would enable them to distinguish themselves from other young girls and highlight their particularities. Having to deal with the hostile reactions of the non-Muslims in the home and the disruption of his establishment, the director backtracked and revisited not only the girls’ schedule but also the house rules. At the end of these revamping efforts, only one resident continued fasting. The others had simply sought to reverse the balance of power with the educational team and had used religious rituals as an effective pressure lever to regain some power within the MECS and “become a dominant and abusive group”. Many anecdotes show how Islam is often used by young people both to rebuild disallowed identities and gain advantages, but also sometimes, simply to oppose adult educators and reverse power relations:
We had a kid who converted from a traditional Catholic family (...) and it’s clear, her conversion to Islam was clearly to oppose her family (...) when she came to our service with all these [sic] Qurʾan that she very visibly displayed, it was almost funny, it was such a caricature (...) her mother was completely lost, her daughter was walking around the city in her black veil. Not easy, by the way, for the family assistant who looked after her (...). (Educator)
To address the complexity of religion in contemporary France, it is therefore necessary to understand the context, that is, the social positions in which religious protagonists, both collective and institutional, take on meaning in relation to each other. In this sense, Muslim practices in France cannot be disconnected from the Catholic and secular context in which they developed, being an echo of, or reaction to, the influence of French secularism. If we do not take this context into account, we cannot understand why young Iranian or Saudi women seek to escape religious constraints such as the wearing of the veil, when, at the same time, it is the subject of a demand for freedom of expression in France (Guélamine, 2016; Zérouala, 2015).Footnote 4