Students and teachers at Brighton High on Thursday, March 3 hosted a delegation from France visiting Utah as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
The aim of the visit, which was arranged as part of CSD’s innovative involvement in the Face to Faith initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, was to engage in a frank dialogue about how faith and religion contribute to culture and society in France and the United States.
The French diplomats Ali Dahmani, the director of a mosque; Frederique Neau-Dufour, the director of the European Center of Deported Resistance Members, which is located at a former Nazi concentration camp; and Emmanuel Valency, the rabbi of Bordeaux and southwestern France told students that, unlike students in America, public-school students in France are prohibited from wearing any garb or jewelry that would signify faith or religion while on campus. For this reason, they said, many religious families in France send their children to private schools.
Dahmani and Valency also explained through the use of an interpreter that anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment runs rampant in some parts of France. Dahmani said his group is working hard to fight the radicalization of Islam and educate the French nation about “the true face of Islam.” “The problem is,” he said, young adults who have questions about the faith “don’t have adults to turn to (for answers) … Islam is not a religion of violence or hatred. But when they don’t know, they turn to the Internet,” and what they find isn’t always correct or are beliefs espoused by terrorist groups, he said.
Valency said his organization, in an effort to build bridges across faiths, pairs teenagers of different religions on soccer teams. If the players can’t learn to overcome their differences, he says, then the team loses.
The group also told students that far-right political groups are creating a climate where hate speech against minority religions is commonplace and even accepted in many parts of the country. Neau-Dufour said statements are being uttered in public discourse that “would have never been said in public before.” She also said many French observers of U.S. politics are “shocked” that recent statements made by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump about immigrants and Muslims would strike a chord with American voters.
Trump, she said, reminds many French of the extreme far-right politicians that have recently rolled into power.
Neau-Dufour also noted interest in the gender of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the fact that she’s married to a former president. “For us, it’s surprising that candidates come from the same family,” she said. She also said it was significant for many French when America chose Barack Obama as the first African-American president.
The students in teacher Jodi Ide’s class listened respectfully and intently to the delegation, engaged in dialogue about the differences between France and the United States, and answered questions from the French visitors about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They also asked the visitors what they liked the most about Utah. The answer? The state’s snow-capped mountains.
During the visit, which was attended by Board of Education members Nancy Tingey and Amber Shill, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation retweeted the District’s and school’s Twitter coverage of the event.