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Secularism, Social Work and Muslim Minorities in France

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)


Islam’s increased visibility in France over the past 20 years has challenged social workers, confronted with new practices that often provoke consternation and cause professional difficulties. Social workers’ relationships with members of society who are motivated by faith, and also with their colleagues, some of whom openly express their Muslim identity, force them to adapt to new religious frames of reference. Social workers are also occasionally compelled to revisit the Christian roots of social work that many of them felt had been left behind by the profession. These patterns also explain the prevalence of reminders about the secular basis of social work, in a sector where radicalisation among the young tends to be perceived as a regressive influence on freedom of expression and, above all, on women’s rights.


  • Islam
  • Social work
  • Religion
  • Secularism
  • Radicalisation

This chapter is a revised translation of an article published 2017 in the journal Ethnologie française, 168(4). The authors would like to thank Professor Chantal Zabus for reviewing and correcting the article in English.

The Christian Roots of Social Work

Islam’s increased visibility in France over the past twenty years has challenged social workers to confront new practices that often provoke consternation and cause professional difficulties. The awakening of religious identities, within a highly secularised context, has been troubling for social workers, particularly as it has thrown into relief the origins of their discipline, which is at least partly rooted in Christian religious traditions (Verdès-Leroux, 1978). For a long time, social workers and especially social service assistants were recruited from practicing Catholic families.

To construct legitimacy for their interventions, in opposition to the charitable and religious provisions of the founding mothers and fathers, social workers laid claim to the legal and political principles of the secular Republic, with its values and the separation of spiritual and temporal powers becoming widely accepted. As a result, religious practice was often confined to a strictly private domain. The re-emergence of religious questions in social work has therefore triggered bitter debates within socio-educational institutions. Torn between an attachment to the values of the Republic and a need to take into account client specificities in order to better support them, social workers are now called upon to find a compromise between ensuring respect for a certain religious neutrality, at the risk of cutting themselves off from clients who see their beliefs as an essential part of their identity, and taking such specificities into account, at the risk of falling into the trap of culturalism, in which people are determined by and defined within their own cultural system. Whether the question of religion is used as a pretext for rejection, seen as a mixed bag of beliefs, including racism, or for new ways of proselytising (the impact of which is still to be measured), the very meaning of social work, both in its historical foundations and in its daily practices, is called into question. This can be seen in some lower-class neighbourhoods, where religious associations may compete with social institutions, such as community or prevention centres. This uneven playing field means that social work is faced with the challenge of finding new intervention methods based on individual and collective resources of population fractions which have been led to communitarianism around the values of Islam, after having tried in vain to have their citizenship recognised and to benefit from its related rights. This “recourse to Islam” (Hamdi-Chérif, 2014; Verba, 2016) can thus be seen as a failure of traditional social work, which has not been able to adapt to a context of racialisationFootnote 1 of social relations, as highlighted in the work of Didier Fassin and Éric Fassin (2006) and Didier Fassin (2010).

Emergence of an “ostensibly halal way of life”: The Pride of Muslim Youth

The visible Muslim presence in France is quite recent, even if the first waves of immigration occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. During the 1950s, these populations were the subject of targeted social treatment both in metropolitan France and in French departments, in a context where issues of Muslim social control were caught up in the interests of colonial administration and the needs of the French economy (Mahjoub-Guélamine, 1997). However, it was not really until the 1980s that new forms of social visibility appeared, with the emergence of what Rachid Benzine a scholar of Islam called “an ostensibly halal way of life” (Pascual, 2015), expressed through the wearing of the veil, the development of Islamic finance, a more perceptible practice of Ramadan, or more numerous halal butcher shops; in short, as a vocational social animation student told us, there was an emergence of “Islamic pride, as there was with gay pride at other times.” (Interview with the researcher).

In the summers of 1981 and 1982, the suburbs of Lyon with high immigrant populations saw significant social unrest, demonstrations and rioting. Subsequently, “young people from suburban areas of post-colonial immigration,” emerged on the public and media scene, demanding equal treatment and an end to the stigmatisation and discrimination to which they were subjected. This jolted French society into an unexpected awareness: these social movements showed the entrenched presence of populations that had moved from the status of “passive” to that of “active” minorities (Göle, 2015). All these movements eventually merged into imaginary and media constructions which established the Muslim, and especially the young Muslim individual, as an “enemy from within.” A few years later, these constructions would be reinforced by the figure of the terrorist, justifying his or her mass crimes in the name of Islam (Liogier, 2012).

If Islam has disrupted the general concept of the relationship between Republican and religious institutions, it is not only because it has moved from its initial discretion to being more socially visible, but also because it sometimes claims that its beliefs and social practices are more strongly interwoven. This calls into question the French secular pact, which resulted from a hard-won struggle against the Catholic Church. “It is the presence of Islam in France,” Jean Boussinesq contends, “that reveals, or causes to resurface, the reference to secularism, resulting mostly in a negative conclusion, about which we can ask: on what knowledge of Islam it is based, and on what knowledge of secularism?” (Boussinesq, 2003).

La laïcité: Secularism as a Hostile Recourse against Islam

Breaking with a secularism that is more anticlerical than mindful of religious expression, even the most qualified social workers are tempted to brandish the law on the Separation of the Church and the state as a weapon, or as protection, against religions – particularly Islam – despite most of them not being overly familiar with it, and make only a performative or “narrative” use of it, as Jean Baubérot described (Baubérot, 2012). At a conference at the University of Paris 13 (Bobigny), of the 122 school social workers present in the amphitheatre, only one had read the text of the law. This misguided use of secularism, also embraced by certain early feminist movements,Footnote 2 seeks a neutralisation of public space and professional life, even though its regulations are much more liberal, almost exclusively limited in scope to the state and its officials, of whom religious neutrality is indeed required. On the other hand, users of public services are in no way subject to this obligation, even though some social workers, territorial civil servants or association employees would prescribe it for the persons they deal with, thereby extending religious neutrality well beyond legal obligations (Guélamine, 2016).

Faced with religious arguments, social workers may be all the more troubled if they are unfamiliar with monotheistic belief-systems. They may be dissuaded from seeking to decipher them as they may do in other situations where vulnerable people mobilise arguments to convince a social worker their demands are valid. The use of religion asserts a kind of argumentative meta-legitimacy, that is, a form of sacred recognition which can destabilise social professionals, if they lack familiarity with the social functions of religious belief. In academic circles, magico-religious beliefs have largely been exorcised from social science-derived professions, as they broke with the vocational dimension of their origins. At a conference organised on May 4, 2016 by the NPO Enquête on the teaching of religious facts in primary school, several speakers spoke of a ‘religious illiteracy of teachers’ which could also concern social workers, whether they are believers or not. For example, during an intervention with social workers from a departmental council, an educator from a children’s boarding house told us that when a young girl came to her and unexpectedly asked to respect Ramadan or to wear the veil, she admitted to reacting in a derogatory way that questioned the sincerity of the approach.Footnote 3 However, such sudden surges of religiosity also reveal a social and identarian unease characteristic of adolescents, who are undergoing psychological restructuring and seeking to confront the adult world. This is even more the case for Muslim adolescents, who are aware that, in the hypersensitive environment surrounding them since the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, religious references, particularly to Islam, can generate a certain panic among socio-educational teams.

Social Workers and the Islam of Assisted Persons

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

Believers and Non-Believers

In addition to the tensions between social workers and service users concerning religious practices, particularly if these practices hinder social support to vulnerable people, tensions also emerge during interactions among professionals themselves, reproducing fractures within French society. In some cases, such conflicts can be exacerbated by differences in regulations between public structures, bound by the religious neutrality of their social workers, and private associations, which benefit from more flexible regulations. Additionally, some social professions, particularly those that require fewer qualifications, such as nursery assistants, animators or social auxiliaries, have become highly ethnicised. Under the influence of mechanisms which are fragmenting social professions, as well as other segments of the working world, women – particularly those from working-class backgrounds – are taking up many of these care professions, which receive little recognition. Indeed, the professional practice of these women has become religiously connoted – even if there is no proselytising action involved – provoking hostile reactions from management, colleagues, but also sometimes from service users themselves:

During a camp with teenagers, a young animator, Asma, of Maghrebian origin and Muslim faith, led a room full of young girls. I heard three young people discussing the fact that Asma got up every morning at dawn to pray. The three young people said they were ashamed not to do the same. I explained to them that everyone has the right to live their [sic] belief and faith as they see it. One of the young people told me that she was still ashamed and that she would not go to heaven (...). On the third day, two of these young girls got up early for the first prayer. (Prevention Educator)

In exchanges that touch on religious issues, social workers may themselves be caught in the trap of their own affiliations, by ruling on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ religious practice, or by intervening as ‘experts’ either on secularism or Islam.

One afternoon at the youth centre of the neighbourhood house, the facilitator was set up with a group of young girls. They were talking about Ramadan [it was underway], how to observe it and respect its ‘rules’. The majority of these four or five girls were Muslim; the facilitator did not hide that she was practising. They talked about a young girl who was not there, and whom they all obviously knew. The host criticised this young woman’s way of practicing Ramadan. In an attempt to be educational and moral, she affirmed that this young girl, who one day practiced, the next day not, one day hid it [her religion], the next day not, was not clear about her choices, and in a way disserved the religion she wanted to promote. (Prevention Educator)

Among Muslim social workers, there are also significant differences in practices between those who consider themselves “first Muslims, then educators” (Educator, Protection Judiciaire Jeunesse), those who claim that “you have to be Muslim to work in the neighbourhoods” (Prevention Educator), and those who, on the defensive, tend to apply secularism well beyond legal obligations to ensure that they are not exposed to proselytising allegations.

We had educators who did not shake hands with women, but this is intolerable, we took it up again in terms of labour standards, the necessary collaboration, politeness, gender equality. (NGO Executive)

This creates latent conflicts between qualified social workers, often from the ‘white’ and secularised middle classes, and unqualified educators or animators who tend to use a religious reference framework in their professional practices, most of the time related to Islam. This is also reflected in Nathalie Kakpo’s doctoral thesis citing the director of a social centre who was confronted with an animator drawing pedagogical arguments from Muslim theology:

It is not possible to say to a child, “don’t hurt a tree because you hurt Allah”. We can tell a young person that a tree is a living organism. You shouldn’t hit it or stab it. There is the scientific side and there is the religious side. You can’t mix the two, especially within a youth and community centre because that’s not why you’re here. (Kakpo, 2007, 156)

In addition to these references to religion, religious affiliations may cause a kind of competition within teams, through seeking to obtain secondary benefits or exercising symbolic power by putting pressure on the management team. For example, some Muslim social workers may be tempted, as a visible minority, to request days off for Muslim holidays, scheduling arrangements during Ramadan or special diets that may ‘annoy’ non-Muslim colleagues, who see them as opportunistic and illegitimate claims, perhaps even as proselytising. The imposition of halal food in certain structures or during summer camps, without information on actual religious affiliations, is also a recurrent subject of debate within institutions that host young people, including an over-representation of North Africans or sub-Saharan Africans who are immediately assigned a ‘Muslim origin’:

It is not the absence of colleagues during religious holidays that bothers me, but the inequality compared to other professionals of different religions. (School Social Worker)

I knew that the employee representative had spoken to management about me and raised the issue of my attitude. I don’t eat meat because I eat halal, but I didn’t say anything, I didn’t ask for anything (...). When I heard about this, it outraged me, I didn’t have the opportunity to talk about it again, I didn’t understand (...). It is good to know that in no way is my attitude contrary to secularism. I never said anything about that, I don’t understand why she said that it would raise questions about respect for secularism! (Educator)

On weekends, the boys were allowed to choose what they wanted to eat for dinner. Some of the boys were Muslim. In order not to make different meals, the educators got halal meat for everyone at each meal. Those who were not Muslim have always asked for non-halal meat, but it was never accepted to avoid making a difference. (Trainee Educator)

During an adapted holiday where I was the facilitator, I was challenged by a situation: the facilitator in charge of the group of adolescents was Muslim, and did not hide it [he even displayed it rather proudly and spoke about it very often when we were in a team, and I know that he sometimes discussed the subject with the young people, although I do not know in what way or how often]. The young people admired him very much and he was a role model for them. As the stay progressed, an increasing number of members of his group asserted their Muslim identity and asked not to eat pork at mealtimes. (Trainee Educator)

Far from being an orthopraxis claimed by young Muslims, religious rituals such as halal prescriptions and especially the wearing of the veil, are subject to a wide variety of interpretations and uses, which makes them all the more difficult for social workers to understand.

Misunderstandings about the Islamic Veil: Resisting Aversion

Among the new forms of religious expression, the Islamic veil is probably the one that has caused the greatest consternation among social workers. (Often) perceived in the West as a sign of Muslim women’s submission to a dominant phallocratic order, in France the Islamic veil is experienced by many social work professionals as an intolerable regression that evokes a bygone era, sometimes even their own personal history. During a training session, a 50-year-old educator collapsed in tears as she talked about these practices, which sent her back to a situation for women she had thought was over:

With the veil, I find it difficult (...) it reminds me too much of nuns, I don’t understand (...). (Social Service Assistant)

It should be noted that social work is overwhelmingly carried out by women who espoused the emancipatory values of post-1968 feminist movements, at least among those of the older generations. These generations often demonstrate a very critical discourse towards the wearing of the veil, which they see as the ‘return’ of male power and the expression of Muslim women’s subordination to a repressive order. Many of the testimonies or reactions we have gathered show this aversion, for some social workers, regarding this piece of clothing which conceals women’s bodies in the name of a moral order whose terms are defined by men:

Imagine this: I demonstrated, [I] marched for women’s rights, so that women could be freed from the shackles that bound them (...) and [now] I find myself facing women – young or not so young – who hide themselves or are hidden away (...) and, on top of that, lots of my colleagues don’t understand how I feel, it’s unbelievable! (Head of Specialised Prevention Service)

Such a position, showing a general hostility to religious expression in the public sphere, exacerbates political and scientific controversies. There are culturalist theories, which attribute macho predispositions to Arab-Muslim cultures, and then the sociologists, who point out the power relations which weigh on visible minorities, indicating that in certain contexts, they could lead to acts of “social revenge”, such as during the New Year’s Eve demonstration in Cologne in 2015 (Amara et al., 2016; Daoud, 2016).Footnote 5

This debate, which in France sees certain schools of thought that denounce the wearing of the veil and others who see it as a form of emancipation or even revolt against the dominant Western order, doubles further in intensity among those who support the neutralisation of public spaces and those who point out that the French principles of secularism are far more favourable than hostile to an expression of religious affiliation:

A lack of knowledge on the subject adds to the confusion, particularly with regard to the place of women in Islam. We hear all sorts of things about it, but in this I find we must be uncompromising, we cannot accept it: we must be able to receive people on an equal footing and promote equality between men and women. Whatever is said about wearing the veil, the woman is hidden, and doesn’t have the same right to be seen as a man. I don’t understand the claims of the women who want to wear it, well (...) I tell myself that it’s a way of defining yourself (...). And sometimes as a sign of recognition or social pressure. (...) There’s a lot to discuss about that. (Family Social Economy Advisor)

[With] young girls wearing veils in high school, it’s hard to believe that it’s a personal choice. Fortunately, in my school they are obliged to remove it before entering the school. (School Social Assistant)

The first time I received a veiled woman I found it really difficult. Now, it’s only when women don’t want to reveal their faces. That’s not the case when you know them, but that’s where I find it difficult. I can’t do interviews with hidden faces. Well, really it’s rare, but in fact it should be said, now that veiled women are commonplace, it’s become pretty usual and it doesn’t shock us as much as it did before. (Social Work Assistant)

Social workers can also break free from certain stereotypes about wearing the veil by observing daily life or while carrying out their duties that this piece of clothing does not systematically correlate with gendered submission. The interviews we conducted with young veiled girls show that far from the social representations enforced by populist media or certain feminist movements such as FEMEN, there are many motivations to ‘take the veil’: as a religious sign, of course, but also as a form of identity renewal, an emancipation from family and school, as a sign of generational belonging, for the sake of fashion, if on the matrimonial market and, of course, for social control, the significance of which should not be underestimated, as it is difficult to perceive for those who do not share these women’s daily lives:

In fact, women who are born of migration or who we imagine to be immigrants are quickly assumed to be submissive women. Yes, there may be some that are, but that is not the only case, and we would do better to also see how other women, who are not immigrants, are discriminated against. (Social Worker)

Religious Practices: From Clothing to Food

Beyond the individual reactions just described through a few significant and recurrent anecdotes, it can be observed that many institutions, whether public or private, struggle to take a clear stand and set guidelines for their teams. Teams are often left to cobble responses together on their own, which may or may not be well-adapted either to the law or various contexts:

Secularism is not defined well enough and is incomprehensible to many people. I work on the basis that it is the principal’s job, i. e. the representative of the state in the school, to define whether clothing corresponds or not to the values of the school [veil, yarmulke, clothes that are too short]. (School Social Assistant)

We have noted a diverse range of management practices regarding religion in socio-educational institutions, which are more often related to the convictions of social workers and the institutional context than to regulations. Drawing on the most emblematic situations of religious expression in social institutions, such as the veil or halal food, researchers could establish a typology of management practices that ranges from the most rigid to the most flexible. As an example, a head of department working in a MECS demonstrated in her master’s thesis that three successive directors within the same institution had managed religious practices in three different ways (Cros, 2017). The educator first noted that before 2011, the food question had not arisen and that the institution had responded on a case-by-case basis when a resident requested halal food:

When children had specific requests for meals, alternative menus were offered [e. g. fish instead of pork]. Halal meat consumption was only exceptional and rare, during meals prepared with the educators. We have not seen any requests for vegetarian or kosher dishes.

When a new director arrived in 2012, she proposed that halal meat be made available for children who wished to eat it. Herself a practicing Muslim, she considered this proposal was in conformity with the rules of secularism within medical and educational institutions in the volunteer sector. However, in October 2015, a new director reasserted the principle of secularism and suspended the provision of halal meat in his establishment. In this way, over 4 years, the educational team witnessed three ways of dealing with religious practices and, more specifically, Islam, without there being a collective reflection on allowing legislation, context and the wishes of the residents to be correlated at any point.

Most associations assert respect for secularism and Republican values in their statutes, but without mentioning the legal framework for its application. However, it seems that there is often a soft focus which allows room for many possible interpretations, from the most intransigent to the most flexible. This is especially so since, in matters of secularism and the values of the Republic, there is a tendency to mix matters of law and matters of conviction. Sometimes the directorates keep the problem at bay by considering that “we already have enough to deal with in educational terms without having to talk about religion” (MECS director), thus excluding any reference to religious practices; sometimes each resident receives specific care, at the risk of disrupting how the institution functions and creating differences between service users, as shown above. Many social work professionals believe that associations should be subject to the same obligations as public institutions and that religious neutrality must apply as much to employees as to residents or service users. Others argue, on the contrary, that boarding schools are similar to the private sphere for young people for the time they are resident, and that they can therefore claim access to specific food, a place of prayer or even Ramadan fasting. Unfortunately, these debates have not been sufficiently addressed by the departments or boards of directors, although it is their responsibility to ensure legislation is upheld and, if necessary, to make adjustments through negotiated or non-negotiated internal regulations with all persons concerned.

Radicalisation: Disorder among Professionals

While experts do not always agree on attributing religious significance to radical abuses linked to Islam, the fact remains that they are perpetuated by radicals in its name, or more precisely, in the name of a supposed ‘true Islam’. It is also in the name of Islam and by virtue of a different ‘truth’ that others strongly condemn them. From a sociological point of view, this type of positioning tends to essentialise and reify ‘Islam’. Professionals in direct contact with subjects potentially concerned by radical abuse are called to reflect on and engage with new paradigms, hitherto little mobilised in social work: ‘radicalisation’, ‘sectarian abuse’, ‘actions to prevent radicalisation’, ‘undertaking deradicalisation’. A vocabulary not often heard until recently, it has taken on an increasingly important place in the field of social work, where professionals are called upon to identify and denounce people who are likely to become radicalised. They are unlikely to master the complexity of the root causes of radicalisation, and are being asked to act in contradiction with the ethical principle of professional discretion (Soutra, 2015), which guarantees a relationship of trust between social workers and accompanied persons:

In the institutions where I work, I am solicited regarding young girls who are required to remove their veils at the entrance to the institution [but are permitted to keep loose black dresses on over their clothes or wear wide black headbands while inside the institution]. Being called upon in this way puts me in a situation that I find delicate. The ‘pretext’ used to address them to me is that these young girls are sad and withdrawn and that removing their veils just in front of the school can lead to delays. But I feel that I am [really] expected to ‘assess’ their level of radicalisation, or even to find a way to change their behaviours. I feel, though, that my intervention would make more sense if it came after they and their parents were reminded of the rules, and that my role is supposed to be in child protection and the assessment of possible danger. However, most of the time, families have not been contacted or questioned on this subject, and interviews with the girls do not provide me with any information of real concern. When I give this feedback to the institutions, I sometimes feel that they are annoyed. I also feel quite poorly equipped to assess these situations, that I lack tools for and knowledge on this subject. (School social assistant)

Following the January and November 2015 terrorist attacks, these events were the subject of numerous exchanges between professionals and service users, particularly young people:

It was just after the attacks on the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. We had a discussion with some young people in the home, including K., who is Muslim. We asked them what they thought about it, if they felt concerned, K. then said “It serves them right, you shouldn’t caricature the prophet, you just don’t do that!” The young people around him stood up and one of them said: “Do you think it’s right to die for a drawing? When you don’t agree with someone, do you kill them?” K. laughed and answered: “No, but you don’t touch the prophet, that’s all”, and he left. (Trainee Educator)

It wasn’t easy to take up this subject with young people, we didn’t want to, but we had no real instructions from our management. Young people were very shocked, they didn’t understand. You know that with everything people read on websites (...) with some of them, we had to talk it through, we heard a bit of everything and a lot of rubbish, that it was not true, that it was a conspiracy (...). I know a teenager who wanted to go to the demonstration and gave up because she heard it was dangerous; another one [who wore the veil] turned around because she was uncomfortable, she said she was being looked at strangely. (Educator)

After the attacks of November 2015, young people were scared, really very scared, they were terrified, one of them told me: “it’s going to be a Holocaust of Muslims.” (Educator)

For the children who refused to observe a minute of silence, instead of suspecting them of the worst, we should put more effort into getting them to talk, we must exchange with them, for them and for us, precisely so that we can work with them and not leave the Internet as their only form of communication. When we hear what they read, it’s worrying, we must step into that space at all costs. (Prevention Educator)

When statements seem provocative or when adolescents in particular refer to the ‘conspiracy theories’ put forward on websites and social networks (Bouzar et al., 2014), professionals become concerned and consider it urgent to take these divergences into account in a renewed, adapted educational effort:

A young man once said to me, “What do you care if I go to Syria?”, I answered “Well, go ahead,” reported one social animator. “But I can’t say that: I’d be too afraid that some of them would pack their bags and go,” another replied.

Sometimes disconcerted yet mobilised to act, social work professionals are now asking to be informed and to better understand what is commonly referred to as the ‘radicalisation process’. Some people are hesitant about qualifying such behaviours. For some, radicalisation is similar to forms of sectarian conduct:

It’s the opposite to religion, it’s a little bit of everything and nothing in the name of religion: above all, we are dealing with sects of sorts, with people being influenced, with young people being influenced to believe just about anything. (Social Worker)

On these ‘difficult’ subjects, social workers question the links between Islam and its divergences more broadly:

Religious beliefs are becoming more important in society, it’s becoming quite a worry, they wear us out with their halal, their: “I swear on the Qurʾan”, because what’s really behind the words? Apart from religion, how do they see themselves? It wasn’t the same when I started out as an educator, and then we act surprised that it turns out adults like the Kouachi brothers, the MerahFootnote 6 (...) and so on, but you can’t think that it’s only with Islam, all religions are concerned, it’s very worrying. (Prevention Educator)

I am struck by the demand for religion among our young people, it starts young, very young, as if they needed to cling to that (...) and whether we like it or not, it creates a fertile ground for all sorts of recruitment, especially among the most vulnerable. (Head of Department, Home for Children)

For other professionals, referring to the processes of radicalisation and extremism means separating them from religious facts:

You have to be careful not to mix everything up. Extremes exist, but it’s not the norm, be careful not to see in each religious person, someone who is a fundamentalist (...) why do we never talk about religion in a positive way? It’s also a resource. (Social Worker)

For our young people [unaccompanied foreign minors], religion is all they have left, and they fled their country at war precisely for religious reasons, some were persecuted by jihadists. (Head of Department)

Social workers therefore seem to oscillate between two positions on radicalisation. Some question the purely religious dimension of violence and may attribute it to other causes such as social and economic vulnerability. Others are more hesitant and may develop a discourse which is hostile to religions in general and Islam in particular.


The purpose of this chapter was to analyse the relationship between social workers and Islam. In a context made sensitive by attacks in France and around the world, social work professionals seem to be in a difficult position: they testify to paradoxical positions, sometimes hostile to religion, in the name of a secularism which frowns on religious expression, sometimes showing understanding and ready to make adjustments for the people they accompany. This is less so when they deal with the religious beliefs of their own colleagues, as if religious beliefs were a departure from the very values of social work. There are therefore tensions in the field that traverse both social belonging and professional status, as shown in the distribution of gender and class across the different professions of social work. If Islam is indeed a subject of social concern – which social workers bear witness to:

It is like any of the major religions present in societies “out of religion”, a toolbox, a stock of symbolic references in which, in the absence of any code of meaning imposed on them and on society as a whole, individuals draw elements useful in the construction of the small believing narrative, within which the experiences and social relations they live are likely to find their meaning. (Hervieu-Léger, 2000)

It therefore becomes a matter of reintegrating religion into society by not dissociating the relationship of religion to family and social histories and, more broadly, from any trajectories, whether academic, professional, residential or matrimonial, of people accompanied by social workers.


  1. 1.

    By racialisation we mean the social process by which social proponents tend to be assigned or to assign themselves a single identity of race, class, gender or religion.

  2. 2.

    Elisabeth Badinter is one of its most emblematic figures.

  3. 3.

    Familiarly translated, this was: “Stop your bullshit!”

  4. 4.

    Precisely against the defenders of anticlerical freedom of expression.

  5. 5.

    This controversy took shape, in the columns of Le Monde newspaper, with a debate between the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud and a group of French academics who accused the writer of Islamophobia.

  6. 6.

    The Kouachi brothers were the perpetrators of the murders of the Charlie-Hebdo journalists. The Merah murdered 3 soldiers and 4 Jews, including 3 children.


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Verba, D., Guélamine, F. (2022). Secularism, Social Work and Muslim Minorities in France. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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