French principal flees Qatar after claims of anti-Muslim attitudes

Deal struck by diplomats after principal is accused of having anti-Muslim attitudes and told he faced imprisonment. Colin Randall reports

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The principal of a French lycée in Qatar hurriedly left his job and the country in a deal struck by diplomats after being accused of having anti-Muslim attitudes and told he faced imprisonment.

Hafid Adnani, born in Algeria but not a practising Muslim, left Doha without his wife and daughters on the eve of the new school year in early September. They followed a month later.

As head of the Lycée Bonaparte, he had banned female pupils from wearing Muslim headwear and resisted pressure on foreign schools from Qatari authorities to introduce the teaching of Islam.

In each instance, he cited the law as it would apply in France, which requires that education be conducted on secular lines.

The case raises delicate questions about the extent to which France expects to enforce cherished secularist principles, based on its 1905 law separating of church and state, in institutions it runs in Muslim countries.

Mr Adnani appears to believe he was acting in accordance with his statutory duties, though French foreign ministry officials say such a school overseas commands no diplomatic status and is subject to local law.

The difficulties that led to his departure sit uneasily with determined efforts by Qatar and France to forge close links.

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund owns the Paris Saint-Germain football club, having invested huge resources to re-establish it as a force in Europe. Among its other extensive business interests are luxury hotels in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur.

French media reports say Mr Adnani was advised by France’s ambassador to Doha, Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, to leave the country as soon as possible because his security could not be guaranteed.

According to one of the most detailed French reports, in the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, he had readily agreed to the Qataris authorities’ wish that Arab and Qatari history should be part of the curriculum but was adamant that a French school could not include religious instruction.

But the story of Mr Adnani’s sudden exit is blurred. Government officials in Paris insist it had nothing to do with France’s official policies on secular education but arose from a dispute with a colleague.

The principal himself has referred to the situation as “Kafka-esque and sad” in a rare public comment, having been urged by the French authorities to say nothing.

French reports list examples of disagreements caused by his stance on Muslim headwear.

In one instance, resolution seems to have been reached on friendly terms. A brother of Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, reportedly asked whether his daughters could attend school in hijabs once they reached adolescence.

He is said to have accepted the head’s explanation of why this was not possible, indicating that he would transfer them to another school when the time came.

But when an Egyptian dentist was told his daughter could not remain in school wearing a headscarf, the matter went to court.

Taken before a Qatari judge, Mr Adnani was asked: “Are you a Muslim? Do you have something against Muslims?”

He was asked a similar question in a subsequent court appearance, a few days before he left Doha, when he was allegedly warned he faced five years in jail for offending Islam.

His response was that although he was of Kabyle origin, he was not religious and performed his professional duties as a representative of the French state. Mr Adnani, who left Algeria at 18, flatly denied being hostile to Islam.

Before his last court appearance, he was held briefly in a prison cell. He was released after the hearing and flew back to Paris in a “compromise” negotiated with Qatari officials by embassy staff.

He now has a new job as deputy head of a lycée at Gif-sur-Yvette, in the south-western Parisian suburbs.

According to Le Nouvel Observateur, the expat French community in Doha was shocked at the loss of an acclaimed head teacher seen as “smiling, dynamic, steadfast and attentive”. In the 2012-2013 academic year, the baccalaureat pass rate was 100 per cent. The school has Lebanese, Moroccan and Algerian pupils as well as the children of French expats.

This week, the 37-year-old school’s website still carried an introductory message in which he wrote: “A fair education for all is a school that integrates all its students and allows them without distinction to succeed …The way we view our students must be the same regardless of their social origins, whatever their nationality, with disabilities or not.”

The immediate trigger for his departure was a dispute with the school’s administrative and financial director, a Frenchwoman married to another Algerian.

Mr Adnani dismissed her after raising doubts about her declared educational qualifications. However, she claimed he wanted to remove her “because he doesn’t like Muslims”.

The official French government position is that secularist policies are not at issue in the affair.

A spokesman for the foreign ministry said: “The principal had differences with an official of the lycée. To avoid the matter escalating, and in his own interests, the Agency for French Teaching Abroad (AEFE) has offered him a new position.”

The ministry said France’s “charter for secularism” applied abroad only in schools directly managed by AEFE. Head teachers worked closely with ambassadors to ensure implementation took account of local circumstances. The Lycée Bonaparte receives state subsidies but is not directly under AEFE control, meaning the link with government is weaker.

Another lycée head had to leave Qatar at the end of 2012 after being accused of paedophiliac conduct, which he strenuously denied. French reports suggested in that case, too, that the real cause was a disagreement over the content of natural history and science courses between the authorities and the lay mission that ran the school.

Le Nouvel Observateur reported that French lycees in the UAE had agreed to include the teaching of Islam in their classes.