Arabic in France: Conflation with extremism hurts Arabic tuition

Islamaphobic right-wing politicians peddle propaganda that make people suspicious of Arabic-speaking communities

Teaching Arabic has become a highly politicised issue in France. This has deterred the state from offering enough Arabic classes. With few options, parents turn to mosques for learning.
Nesma Moharam
Teaching Arabic has become a highly politicised issue in France. This has deterred the state from offering enough Arabic classes. With few options, parents turn to mosques for learning.

Arabic in France: Conflation with extremism hurts Arabic tuition

Teaching Arabic to France's immigrant Muslim population has become a highly politicised issue which has conflated the Arabic language with the Muslim religion when, in fact, they are best understood separately.

Populists and right-wing politicians exploit this conflation, using the fear of political Islam and extremism to make people suspicious of Arabic-speaking communities.

But even those who do not consider themselves to be right-wing also conflate Arabic and Islam, suggesting that the latter does not align with French values.

These attitudes contribute to the difficulties Muslims face in integrating into society, which treats those interested in learning Arabic with suspicion.

"There is a lack of political will to offer Arabic language courses in France," Mohammed Qarqour, director of the Arabic language teaching department at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or Arab World Institute, in Paris, told Al Majalla.

"Widespread misconceptions about Islam and the Arabic language exist, and certain segments of the French population associate the Arabic language with extremism and terrorism, which is simply not true."

Colonisation legacy

At the heart of the debate over learning Arabic and the identity of French Muslims lies the complex colonial history between France and Algeria, from which the largest French Muslim community originates.

Colonial-era France imposed its language and culture on Algeria in a bid to erase its Arab identity. These effects can still be seen in Algeria today.

France has historically imported cheap labour from North African countries, particularly Algeria. Since World War II, these workers and their families have formed a marginalised and excluded community, grappling with the complexities of their history of French colonisation.

For many French Muslims—who number around 6 million— Arabic is an integral part of their religious identity. This alarms a significant segment of the wider French population, which views Muslims as a threat to the unity and cohesion of society.

A photo taken on August 17, 2023, shows French Education Minister Gabriel Attal (C) attending a meeting at the Bourbon High School.

Security approach

So, these two primary concerns—Islamist terrorism and cultural separatism—have significantly complicated the inclusion of Arabic in the national education curriculum, unlike other languages such as Russian and German, as well as Chinese.

That is even though Arabic is France's most widely spoken foreign language, followed by that of the sizable Chinese community.

This taboo associated with Arabic reflects what Mima Chahal, a political science doctoral student in Marseille, France, calls a "security approach”, which links teaching Arabic to terrorism and political Islam.

Although Arabic began being offered in state schools in 2017, it has faced many challenges, including shortages of qualified teachers. Only around 200 Arabic teachers are employed across France, which isn't enough to meet the demand.

There is also a gap between secondary education and university-level tuition. Language researcher Miloud Grafi described it as “astonishing”, reflecting an elitist culture among top-level scholars in Islamic and Arab culture within universities, who typically do not engage with pre-university education.

Additionally, many graduate students of Arab origin do not pursue careers in teaching in France and often return to their home countries after completing their degrees.

"After settling in France, I attempted to find a teaching job given my qualifications and experience. But the bureaucratic obstacles made me abandon the idea," Abu Salma, an Arabic teacher from Syria who relocated to France in 2015, told Al Majalla.

Others have faced similar experiences with the national education system, who treat such job seekers with suspicion. Some schools with right-wing administrators purposely exclude Arabic language courses for political reasons.

But even in schools where Arabic is provided, it's not advertised.

"I was unaware my school offered Arabic courses, so I chose Spanish in middle school. When I began secondary school, I learned Arabic was available, but it was offered on a campus far away from where I live," one 16-year-old Morrocan high school student in Toulouse told Al Majalla.

"Additionally, my father would have to pay a fee for me to attend, so I stuck with Spanish as it was the easier and less costly choice."

Right-wing French politicians use the fear of political Islam and extremism to make people suspicious of Arabic-speaking communities.

Fluctuating numbers

The number of students taking Arabic language classes has significantly fluctuated across the decades. In 1986, around 13,000 were signed up for Arabic classes, but by 2000, that number dropped to just 7,000 and in 2007, it dropped further to 6,500. The year 2019 saw the number of students more than double to 14,000.

Because of the lack of availability of Arabic language classes in state schools, the gap has been filled by private institutes, which fall out of the purview and supervision of the Ministry of Education.

Mosques and embassies of Arab countries have also stepped up to offer Arabic language courses.

A report by the French Institute for Integration revealed that in 2015, around 75,000 students signed up for Arabic language classes at various Arab embassies.

The Institut du Monde Arabe also teaches Arabic and has a reputation for being an independent institution that avoids political and ideological influences. The institute strictly focuses on Arabic language, culture, and art and avoids Islamic associations.

Hesitance over mosque classes

While the media plays a big role in the conflation of Arabic with Islam, mosques also play a role in perpetuating this association.

Many mosques teach Arabic as a way to stay connected with their cultural identity and communicate with their extended families and social circles.

However, this venue for learning Arabic has also been criticised because teachers often shift the focus from teaching Arabic to teaching religious dogma.

One Syrian refugee and Arabic teacher said one mosque he approached for employment encouraged him to take Quranic recitation courses so that he could "teach proper Arabic pronunciation to students."

Nesma Moharam

Another woman told Al Majalla she enrolled her 13-year-old daughter in classes affiliated with a civil society organisation linked to a mosque in the southern French city of Toulouse.

But she was upset when one teacher suggested that it would be "beneficial" for her daughter to wear the Muslim headscarf at a young age. She didn't appreciate the "suggestion" and ended up pulling her daughter out of the school.

Another Lebanese man said he was reluctant to enrol his children in Arabic classes through the mosque because it also taught Islamic studies. He feared this education could be perverted by extremist dogma which could impede his children's ability to integrate into society.

Despite these concerns, many people end up enrolling their children at mosques because of the lack of alternatives. 

"I am learning Arabic in this mosque but I disagree with many things I am being taught," Maysa, a 15-year-old student with a Sudanese mother and a French father, told Al Majalla.

"But, unfortunately, I don't have any other option at the moment."

Unlike Maysa, many individuals, along with their parents, seek to integrate their Arabic language learning with the teachings of Islam. They do not object to religious and jurisprudential lessons mosques offer alongside Arabic language instruction.

However, there are concerns about the potential influence of extremist interpretations of Islam propagated by certain Islamist groups within French society and cultural circles, according to an Arabic teacher at a public school in Paris.

Ferdous, a 14-year-old French-Algerian, has been attending Arabic language classes since she was 12. Her mother emphasised the importance of learning Arabic not only for improving grammar but also for enhancing understanding of the Quran and religion.

Mosques offer Arabic classes but have been criticised by some for shifting the focus from teaching Arabic to teaching religious dogma.

Connecting with their roots

Ferdous, who identifies as French, acknowledges her Arab and Muslim identity but is frustrated by the prevailing hate speech that seeks to exclude individuals of Arab and Muslim origin from French society.

Many other students Al Majalla interviewed expressed similar feelings of alienation and marginalisation by French society.

Wael, who immigrated from Syria to France with his family at age 10, initially maintained a strong connection to Arabic but found his vocabulary diminishing over time. However, his father's passion for Arabic poetry inspired him to study Arabic.

At the end of the day, everyone is motivated by their own reasons for wanting to learn the Arabic language. Some want to learn it to understand Islam better, while others want to strengthen their cultural roots and family ties.  


This is the third and final installment of an Al Majalla series looking at the challenges associated with learning Arabic in Europe.

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