Converting to Islam in the secular republic

PARIS, France — Emilie meets me in front of her old high school in the suburb south of Paris where she grew up. I spot her from down the block and wave. When we meet, we pause, do the “bises”—the standard French greeting of a kiss on each cheek—and head toward Le Stadium, a café around the corner that has become our habitual meeting spot.

Emilie—who is 18 and whose name I changed to protect her privacy, as well as withholding the details of her hometown and school—hasn’t stepped foot in her high school since 2016, when she dropped out. She was an excellent student, her teachers tell me, and she loved school.

“I didn’t want to quit,” she says, a defensive edge sharpening her typically sweet tone. “I liked school. I was good at school. And I tried to make some concessions, but after a while it was too difficult for me, given my religious beliefs. So I chose to leave.”

Those “concessions” came in response to requests from the school administration that she remove her jilbab—the long, black fabric she wears to cover her whole body, exposing only her eyes, nose and mouth—in compliance with the 2004 law banning ostensible religious symbols in public schools. It billows down to her feet, somewhat bizarrely contrasting with the pink canvas sneakers she’s wearing. Her chin is covered but the fabric sometimes shifts; she sporadically readjusts it as we chat. She has a young face—even more than her age would suggest, with full cheeks and round eyes.

The 2004 law was partly fueled by the assumption—highly contested—that Muslim girls wearing the headscarf were succumbing to pressure in their private lives—from their fathers, brothers and men in their communities. Its supporters considered the new rule “liberating,” an opportunity for young women to free themselves from the presumed religious pressures undermining their development as citizens in a secular French republic.

That wasn’t the case for Emilie, who converted to Sunni Islam in 2014, when she was 14 years old. That decision, and her insistence on the jilbab—at the expense of her studies—is a thorn in her home life. Her mother insists she remove the garment before stepping foot in their apartment, and, Emilie tells me, “doesn’t want to hear anything about Islam.” But Emilie remains determined, her case a test for the reasoning behind a ban that can overlook the nuances of particular circumstances.

 

A girl wearing a jilbab in the 11th arrondissement of Paris

 

‘Islam made a lot more sense’

Emilie’s mother, a devout Christian, left her native Democratic Republic of Congo for France in the mid-1990s, fleeing the bloody conflict known as the First Congo War. She settled in the Paris region and found a job at a factory. She often works nights, and money has always been tight.

Emilie and her two brothers grew up religious, attending church on Sundays. While the boys rolled their eyes at preachers’ sermons, Emilie loved them, and asked to be enrolled in catechism classes at nine years old. “My mother was delighted,” she laughs, taking a sip of orange juice.

Her 24-year-old brother Benjamin, whose name I also changed, converted first, in 2013. Emilie was skeptical, but quickly became interested. “Islam made a lot more sense to me than Christianity. I questioned everything I thought was true, and I was worried I was going to make the wrong choice,” she tells me. “But I saw how much better he was becoming, how much he was changing.”

 


“Before, he did lots of stupid things—he’d hang around the projects smoking cigarettes. He was kicked out of school. We fought almost every day—he was nervous, he had a big personality,” she laughs. “I don’t miss how he was before.”

Impressed by Benjamin’s transformation, Emilie started reading about Islam. She borrowed his books, enrolled in a religious school to study the Quran and began going to the local mosque, where she made friends and met other converts, new ones, like her, and seasoned veterans. She learned a lot online, she tells me, but when I ask, she says she can’t recall the names of specific websites. “The violent extremists are mostly on social media, though,” she adds as a caveat, as if to reassure me. She says she’s recognized since 2015 that people associate Islam with terrorism and think that her jilbab means she’s aligned with the likes of the Islamic State. She’s heard through the grapevine about locals who left for Syria with that purpose, although never directly knew anyone who did. “Those aren’t Muslims, they’re just bad people claiming Islam. The vast majority of Muslims condemns terrorism.”

Indeed, French officials estimate that 1,700 nationals have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State since 2013. Juliette Galonnier, an expert on conversions to Islam in France and the United States, described an “overrepresentation of converts among the ranks of the Islamic State.” Although estimates indicate that fewer than 3 percent of Muslims in France are converts, they make up nearly a quarter of French jihadis, she told me during a phone interview. Of course, that doesn’t mean all converts who embrace a hard-line interpretation, like Emilie, slide into radical circles—but the risk isn’t insignificant, either.

Alarm bells in the principal’s office

The prospect of radicalization was on the administration’s mind at Emilie’s high school when she showed up in her jilbab seemingly overnight. She refused to take it off, and, per official protocol, was sent to the principal’s office. “I tried to open a dialogue with her, like I do with other girls who are reluctant to take off their headscarves,” the school principal, whose name I’ve also withheld, told me in her office in December, noting that the 2004 law asks teachers and administrators to pursue dialogues about religious garb with students before taking any form of disciplinary action. But Emilie wouldn’t budge. “I admit that in this case, the law wasn’t particularly helpful,” said the principal, who otherwise spoke favorably about the legislation.

The circumstances of Emilie’s conversion worried her. “She converted under the authority of her older brother,” the principal said with wide eyes. “She completely isolated herself. We called her mother, who was beside herself and didn’t know what to do either. We realized that Emilie was isolating herself.”

 

‘They were worried that I had radicalized, when that wasn’t the case at all,’ Emilie says. ‘I just wanted to practice my religion in the way that made sense to me.’

 

Emilie found herself in the principal’s office on a near-daily basis, when she was “lectured on laïcité, over and over,” she tells me, referring to the French secularism that inspired the 2004 law. But she wouldn’t budge. Her obstinacy over the jilbab worried the administration, which feared she might be sliding into jihadi circles. As directed by the government in such situations, the school referred Emilie’s case to the Protection Judiciaire de la Jeunesse (PJJ)—an agency within the Justice Ministry that handles difficult cases involving minors, from delinquency to radicalization.

“They were worried that I had radicalized, when that wasn’t the case at all,” Emilie recalls, frustrated. “I just wanted to practice my religion in the way that made sense to me.” She lists some of the questions PJJ officials asked her—whether she still saw her old friends, if she had made new ones. Some surprised me, like, for example, about her “opinion of the Islamic State”—as if a teenager in the process of radicalizing would say while in the hands of the Justice Ministry, “I think they’re great.”

Emilie recognized the school administration’s alarm, but found the response misplaced and “overly simplistic.” “I had to go to the PJJ—I didn’t have the choice,” she says. “Once I was there, I realized how strange it was to be surrounded by kids who weren’t at all part of my world—delinquents, kids who had failed out of school. I was a great student, and all because of my veil, I was suddenly among failures.”

 

A Paris boutique selling Islamic clothes

 

The PJJ ultimately determined that she wasn’t at risk of radicalizing, but kept her case open nevertheless, offering psychological services to help temper her relationship with her mother, and, most important, to ensure that she would finish high school one way or another. Now that she’s no longer a minor, her case is officially closed. She’s currently enrolled in the Education Ministry’s distance learning program, known by its French acronym, CNED. She plans to take the Baccalaureate exam, known commonly as the “bac,” and go to college, where the law on religious signs doesn’t apply.

Ostentatious Islam

The rigid vision of Islam Emilie embraced isn’t necessarily systematic among converts, but it’s not fringe, either. Galonnier explained a tendency to embrace “an ostentatious Islam, to mark a demarcation between a new religious identity and family or social environments, in which their entry into religion becomes a rupture with their past.” That schism is prominent among official criteria for determining signs of radicalization, and, since 2015, the government has instructed teachers to respond swiftly.

However, many converts are simply drawn to an Islam that presents itself clearly and unambiguously. “There’s a desire to separate black and white, halal and haram,” Galonnier noted, referring to the Arabic terms for “licit” and “illicit.” That can draw new converts to fundamentalist Salafi movements, she explained, which promote a puritanism that “emphasizes an Islam in the way that it was practiced during the era of the prophet—a textual Islam that is extremely clear and lacking nuance, that offers a clear path to being a good Muslim.” But Salafism isn’t monolithic, and broadly covers two appellations—“quietist” and “political.” Both are staunchly conservative, the latter calling for political activism often propelled by violence, which the former rejects.

Emilie’s strict adherence to a clear-cut, rigid Islam could have helped her navigate the uncertainty that inevitably accompanied her conversion. “There’s an understandable need to resolve those costly social choices, which can manifest itself in a decision to focus on what’s visible,” such as Emilie’s choice to wear the jilbab, Galonnier said. The consequences of her conversion—sharp tensions at home and dropping out of school—could have magnified that need. “When we make costly decisions, we feel the need to stick to them, to remain anchored.”

The kid stuff is over

Emilie is sweet and open, and answers my questions patiently. As we walk around her neighborhood, she tentatively asks me a little bit about myself: Where I’m from, if I have a boyfriend, where I’ve traveled. She’s never left France and listens intently as I describe trips to Serbia, Tunisia and Ecuador. She’d like to live somewhere else one day—a Muslim country, preferably, where life is simple. “Mauritania is supposed to be nice,” she says wistfully. She doesn’t like big cities and can’t remember the last time she went to Paris, about 30 minutes away. “Too much speed,” she tells me, smiling.

As we talk, a picture of her past starts to take shape. She was an avid basketball player and admits that she misses it—a little. “I had a lot of energy and I was good,” she tells me. But she had to stop because “it became too complicated with the jilbab.” She no longer plays any sports, and, while talking, seems to realize she gets very little exercise. “I should try to do more—for my figure.” She blushes.

But those appear to be minor considerations. “Everything about me is different since I converted,” she says confidently. “My whole worldview has changed, and I’m much more mature. Before, I was a bit crazy, I laughed all the time with friends. We’d yell in the streets.” She’s smiling, just barely, and I sense a muted nostalgia. But when I ask if she misses her old life, she emphatically shakes her head no and clears her throat. “That was childhood stuff,” she says. “And I don’t want to say the religion is strict because that’s not how I see it. But it’s given me a new, calmer way of life, and I’m older,” she adds firmly, proudly mentioning that she’ll be 19 this year. “The kid stuff is over.” She insists that her newfound maturity is directly linked to her conversion, and not, as I suggest, to the standard sea change that sets apart 14 and 18-year-olds.

The younger Emilie liked manga—the Japanese cartoons with somewhat of a cult following—and science fiction. Neither interests her anymore. She would sometimes iron her hair straight or put it in braids, which she had become quite good at doing herself. Sometimes she still does, when she’s at home, just for fun. She was never particularly interested in boys, she tells me, and wasn’t especially inspired by her friends’ “momentary heartthrobs that fell apart after a month or two.” But down the line, she’d like to get married and settle down; when she’s ready, she’ll ask her brother if he knows anyone suitable. “Definitely someone religious,” she adds.

And while she was a serious student to whom success at school came easily, she liked to goof off and would sleep in on weekends, waking up around lunchtime. Now, things are busier: She gets up at 6 every morning—sometimes with an alarm, but most of the time on her own—to pray. Religious study follows, and then it’s noon. After lunch, it’s time for the CNED, her remote-education course. In her spare time, she babysits to help her mom make ends meet, but less frequently than she used to.

 

A Muslim butcher selling halal meats in Paris’s 20th arrondissement

 

She plans to go to college in France and wants to become a teacher of Arabic or the Quran. I ask what she wanted to be before she converted: “A lawyer,” she says without hesitating, and somewhat incredulously, as if it’s an absurd idea. An older cousin—more of a sister to her—was studying law, and Emilie “wanted to do whatever she did.” They were joined at the hip growing up but have hardly spoken since her conversion. “It makes me a little sad that people I’m close to don’t understand,” she says softly. “But when you have a strong belief in a religion, it becomes an integral part of your identity, and you become uncomfortable around people who don’t accept it.”

Emilie knows how much her conversion, and her older brother’s, hurt her mother. “She took mine worse than his, though,” she says, because for Benjamin, Islam meant an end to what she recalled as his bad behavior. “He stopped misbehaving, but I stopped school, and I wear the jilbab, so it seems like converting affected me differently.” I ask whether that bothers her—that, despite following her brother’s footsteps in embracing Islam, the religion imposes itself differently on each of them, based on gender. Does she find it unfair? “Both men and women have a requirement of purity in Islam, and it makes sense that women, with their different attributes, need to be more covered than men.” If she were a man, she adds, she would have different obligations before God—growing a long beard or wearing pants that hover above the ankles, for example—so she doesn’t see the demands as unequal.

What she does consider unfair, however, is French law. “Just because I converted doesn’t mean I was at school to proselytize,” she says. “Who cares about that? I was there to learn.” Although she’s generally calm and collected, she becomes agitated when describing the events that led to her decision to drop out of school. “I thought laïcité protected religious freedom, but if I’m not allowed to wear my jilbab at school, then I’m not allowed to express myself.” She pauses for a minute, casting her eyes down. “A lot of doors have closed for me—I realize that. But that also means there’s no equal opportunity in France.”

It will all work out

Emilie compares her conversion to a “coming out,” and likens the hardened response she’s faced—from her mother, cousin and the school administration—to a heartless rejection of her identity. “I hope people will learn to accept Islam, just like people have slowly become more open about homosexuality,” she says. “It’s about changing people’s mentalities so that they can accept even what shocks them.” I mention that while she’s right that certain societies have become more tolerant of homosexuality over time, her conversion wasn’t exactly a “coming out.” She had told me herself that she had known nothing about Islam before Benjamin converted in 2013. It was a choice—now part of her identity, certainly, but also something she chose to add as a teenager. “The fact that it’s new and that I chose to adopt it doesn’t mean it’s not an integral part of who I am now,” she replies defensively.

Was it worth leaving school, abandoning her everyday, and hardening her relationship with her mother? Emilie continues to insist it was, and now that she’s enrolled in the CNED and will take the bac anyway, she says she doesn’t see a significant difference. She’ll go to college, and her visits to the principal’s office and meetings with the PJJ psychologist will become distant memories.

I think back to my interview with the school principal, who listed numerous cases of students who had “no problem” taking off religious garb after a bit of dialogue. Not long ago, she had told me, three girls came to her office to ask if they would be required to remove their headscarves on a school trip. “I told them that as far as they represent the high school, yes, they’ll have to take them off”—a demand that, in fact, has no legal basis in the 2004 law, which applies only to what takes place on school grounds.

Emilie’s story tests and complicates the logic of the ban. She insists she’ll never leave Islam and that she’s proud of her decision. But she’s a teenager. “Conversions can be seen as lifelong undertakings that evolve with time,” Galonnier told me, adding that, in some cases, converts who start out embracing strict interpretations soften their views over time. What if Emilie’s conversion was the whim—albeit a provocative one—of a 14-year-old negotiating her place in society, and reckoning with the uncomfortable psychological and physical strains of teenage life? Would she have renounced her previous life as categorically had she not been put in a position where she had had to choose?

 

‘I really have a strong belief in this religion,’ Emilie says. ‘I hope my mom will come around. I’m still her daughter, after all, even if she disagrees with me.’

 

The school principal had also recalled another student who made her pause—a boy who was increasingly absent on Fridays, when Muslims go to the mosque to pray. A teacher noticed that he was watching a video during lunchtime of a decapitation posted online by the Islamic State. She immediately called him aside and eventually approached his parents. “It turns out,” she sighed, “that he was just having a rough time at home—his parents had divorced. It faded after a while, and he’s one of the strongest students in his class.”

His case clearly differs from that of Emilie, whose rapid transformation understandably sounded alarm bells among the school administration—especially in 2015, as France was struggling to grapple with homegrown radicalization and terrorist attacks perpetrated by its own nationals. But if the concern was that, left unchecked, Emilie might eventually break with society and adopt a violent ideology, she would have perhaps been better off at school than at home, retreating to her room to avoid confrontation with her mother.

That is all hypothetical, of course. After all, Emilie didn’t go to Syria, and the PJJ itself concluded she wasn’t at risk of radicalization. But was Emilie’s choice to adopt a conservative vision of Islam a threat to the classroom in itself? Would the majority of students have been tempted to follow in her footsteps, or would they have alienated her, perhaps prompting her to question her decision, and weigh the cost of self-exclusion?

I ask Emilie if her soured relationship with her mother saddens her. “I really have a strong belief in this religion,” she responds quietly. “I hope that my mom will come around. I’m still her daughter, after all, even if she disagrees with me.”

“But I don’t need to change to please anyone else,” she adds. She remembers how much she cried when her mom told her she needed to stop—stop practicing, stop going to the mosque, stop studying the Quran.

“My mom tells me that I made a mistake, and that I’ll realize when I’m older. She says I created walls, but I don’t see it like that—the law created the walls,” she insists, adding that if she lived in another country, none of this would have been such a big deal. “I don’t regret any of it. I tell myself I have to be patient, and that it will all work out.”

About the Author

Karina Piser’s research will explore measures to promote French secularism in public high schools in immigrant-heavy areas. Beginning in suburbs of Paris, she will interview students, teachers, administrators, and education-policy practitioners to better understand how the government is targeting schools to improve social cohesion in the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. Prior to receiving the ICWA fellowship, Karina was an editor at World Politics Review, and has previously held positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights in Tunis, Tunisia. She holds a master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and World Politics Review, among other publications.