Faith - When secularist traditions are lost in translation

8th November 2013 at 00:00
Headteacher flees Qatar after `anti-Muslim' accusations

The decision to ban citizens from wearing full-face veils in France and the country's commitment to secular values in its schools have proved controversial.

But an attempt to impose similar rules within an Islamic country has contributed to the leader of a French school leaving his post after accusations that he is anti-Muslim and fears that he could face prison.

Hafid Adnani, who was headteacher of the Lyce Bonaparte in Doha, the capital of Qatar, was content for the curriculum to include Arabic and Arab history, but he drew the line at religious instruction. He also forbade the wearing of religious veils and headscarves.

Although accounts of the build-up to his departure vary, the case illustrates the cultural tensions that can persist in international schools, despite determined efforts by Qatar and France to develop business, property, sporting and diplomatic ties.

There have also been reports of British private schools with Christian traditions having to accept that they cannot teach their religious beliefs when setting up franchises in foreign countries, including China.

The expat French community in Doha is said to be in shock at the departure of Mr Adnani, who was described by French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur as "smiling, dynamic, steadfast and attentive".

The immediate trigger was a dispute with the school's administrative and financial director. Mr Adnani is reported to have dismissed her after questioning her educational qualifications; she accused him of wanting to remove her "because he doesn't like Muslims".

Among a number of incidents, Mr Adnani is said to have had an amicable disagreement with a brother of British-educated ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani, who wished to know whether his daughters could attend school in hijabs once they reached adolescence.

Mr Adnani's supporters said that the emir's brother accepted the headteacher's explanation of why this was not possible and simply resolved to transfer the girls to another school when the time came.

An Egyptian dentist was less understanding and lodged a complaint when told that his daughter could not remain in class while wearing a headscarf. Taken before a Qatari judge, Mr Adnani was asked: "Are you a Muslim? Do you have anything against Muslims?"

Mr Adnani has denied any such hostility, and responded to similar questioning in a court hearing at the end of August by saying that he represented the French state. He was briefly held in jail and was told that he was at risk of receiving a five-year sentence for attacking Islam.

Television network France 24 reported that Mr Adnani owed his freedom to an intervention by the French ambassador, who advised him to leave Qatar as soon as possible because his security could no longer be guaranteed.

Mr Adnani left on the eve of the new academic year, flying back to Paris in a "compromise" negotiated by diplomats. His wife, who taught at the same school, and their daughters followed a month later. He now has a new job as deputy headteacher of a school at Gif-sur-Yvette, in the south- western suburbs of Paris.

Mr Adnani told Le Nouvel Observateur that his situation was "Kafkaesque and sad", but that he could say no more because he had been warned by the French authorities to avoid public comment.

The official French government line is that Mr Adnani's departure had nothing to do with secularism.

A foreign ministry spokesman told TES: "The principal had a dispute with an official of the lyce. To avoid the matter escalating, and in his own interests, the Agency for French Teaching Abroad has offered him a new position."

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