ONE of my earliest memories of middle school, at age 10, involves one of the first friends I made there. Her name was Charline.

I don’t recall many details about her, except that she was exceptionally confident, assertive, and outspoken. She didn’t tolerate any nonsense, which I admired, because I was more of the reserved type.

I vividly recall one anecdote: one day, Charline arrived at school wearing a kippah. I can’t recall the occasion or why she chose to wear it that day, but she did. I don’t remember any students commenting on it, but the headteacher clearly disapproved.

When Charline refused to remove it, he intervened, leading to a scene where she cried and protested loudly. She insisted it was unfair, that she had done nothing wrong, and that she should be free to wear whatever she liked.

This remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. So, when I came across news of a High Court ruling in favour of a prayer ban at Michaela Community School in Greater London, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn more about it.

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A Muslim student took her state school to court because they banned all prayers and worship. She argued that this ban violated her right to practice her religion. However, the court disagreed, saying the student knew the school had strict rules when she chose to attend.

Plus, she could have gone to another school that allowed prayer during lunch. And even though she couldn’t pray at the usual times, she still had the option to make up for it later.

I am actually rather supportive of the rule against praying at school. Coming from a religious family myself, I would have hated it if religion was anywhere near school. I would have hated any assumptions, comments or judgments, positive or negative, about my personal relationship to religion in school.

I have always preferred to keep my personal spiritual beliefs private and I believe they should not be a topic for public discussion. To put it provocatively, just as what happens behind my bedroom door is private, so are my beliefs. They are nobody else’s business.

However, I recognise that my views on this matter are greatly influenced by my experience going to school in France when the 2004 law prohibiting religious signs in schools was introduced.

The National:

The incident with my friend Charline happened around the year 2000. Back then, French schools didn’t have clear rules about wearing religious symbols like the kippah. It was up to each school to decide.

They usually followed the idea of laïcité and tried not to disrupt learning. A law banning religious symbols in state schools came a bit later. But even before that, debates about religion in schools were already happening since the late 1980s.

In September 1989, more than 30 years ago, France faced its first major controversy over wearing headscarves in schools. It began when three practising Muslim girls – Fatima, Leila, and Samira – were sent home from their school in the north of France for refusing to remove their headscarves.

In the name of secularism, the school insisted they couldn’t attend while wearing them. Samira’s father objected, seeing it as unfair and possibly racist.

The minister of national education, Lionel Jospin (who would later become prime minister from 1997 to 2002), insisted on the need to maintain secularism in schools while also ensuring inclusivity: he stated that schools must instruct parents not to send their children to class with visible religious signs, yet schools should still welcome all students, even if parents insist on their children wearing such signs.

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This sparked a heated national debate. Despite criticism, Jospin maintained his stance, and a couple of months later, the State Council ruled that it was up to individual school heads to decide on cases involving religious symbols. This ruling stood until the 2004 law.

Secularism is a big deal in France – such a big deal that it appears in the first article of our 1958 constitution, which is still in effect today.

It says that France is a republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic, and social. It ensures that everyone is treated equally under the law, no matter where they come from, what race they are, or what religion they follow. It also respects all beliefs.

This emphasis on secularism stems from the country’s long and complicated history with religion. In the late 19th century, secularising schools wasn’t straightforward in France, where practically everybody identified as Catholic.

Public schools then provided religious and moral instruction, but a law in 1882 made primary schools secular, replacing religious teachings with moral and civic instruction.

The church naturally opposed this move and urged people to favour religious schools.

The National:

The government sought compromise, while the Vatican softened its stance over the years. Efforts to make society more secular started in public school but in 1905, a law was passed to separate churches and the state. This meant the government wouldn’t pay or support any religious groups, and the church wouldn’t have a say in politics or schools any more.

Since 2013, schools have been displaying a Secularism Charter. This is like a set of rules reminding students about the importance of secularism.

One key rule in the charter is that schools should provide an environment where students can form their own opinions, without any pressure from religion. It is all about giving students the freedom to make their own choices and learn about citizenship without any religious influence.

It is interesting to see how the UK and France have distinct pasts and collective psyches when it comes to secularism and religion in schools. Even though they encounter similar dilemmas, like the role of religion in modern society, it is clear that each country needs to figure out solutions that fit its own unique culture and history.

My views have evolved and will continue to do so as society changes. For me, it is absolutely vital to make sure this debate isn’t a cover for Islamophobia and racism, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognise when religion is exploited to bully, intimidate, and harm others.

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Just like freedom of expression, the right to religious expression isn’t absolute – it’s nuanced. However, it’s crucial to see that many celebrating the ruling have ulterior motives, often rooted in racism and Islamophobia, and they are making a very poor job of trying to hide it under the guise of secularism.

The problem of laïcité as we debate it in France is that it is unclear what the advocates truly aim for and what their end goals are. We have banned religious symbols in schools, but they say it is not enough. The debate now extends to whether a mother wearing a headscarf should accompany a class on a school trip.

There have also been tense debates about banning alternative meals in schools for students with dietary restrictions based on their beliefs – Scit could be vegetarian, vegan, kosher, but really this debate was only about those who eat halal. Both of these controversies couldn’t be further from the principle of laïcité outlined in the 1905 law.

This is, in reality, an effort to uniformise shared spaces and ease differences, all in the name of societal cohesion. But it only leads to resentment, suspicion, and division rather than unity.