Penn State

Penn State instructor voices hope for peaceful, secular France in wake of terror attacks

Penn State instructor Johann Le Guelte is a native of France.
Penn State instructor Johann Le Guelte is a native of France.

It has been more than six weeks since two Islamic extremists forced their way into the offices of the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people.

In that time, Penn State instructor Johann Le Guelte, a native of France, has thought about the Jan. 7 attack and its aftermath from a unique, personal perspective.

“Part of my extended family is from El Jadida, Morocco, and they are devoted Muslims. They are living in France and have been for about 20 years,” he said. “We have always been around Islam. We are atheists but believe in everyone’s right to practice their religion. Extremism is the issue, not Islam.”

France is home to about 5 million Muslims, about 8 percent of the population.

The nation’s policy of laicité, the idea of state secularism and whether it is being practiced fairly, has been questioned since the attack, The New York Times reported.

“There is no way to prevent individual acts like these. In order to protect its citizens, France needs to reflect on what, in our society today, would push a young man or woman to join the jihad or go fight in Syria,” Le Guelte said.

The problem is not the individual, he said.

“It has mostly been created by France itself and a growing discourse of stigmatization and exclusion coming from far-right-wing parties.”

Le Guelte, who was born and raised in France, attended Université Catholique de l’Ouest in Angers, France, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in foreign languages and literatures. After graduating, he worked in France as a press translator for a year.

With an opportunity to join Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee, he moved to the United States and worked as a teaching assistant. After a year he knew he wanted to stay in the U.S. He teaches two French language classes at Penn State and has been working for the past two years toward a doctorate in French literature.

Le Guelte said he returns to France once a year during the summer. His family lives in Sulniac, a village in Brittany in the northwest of France. Despite the distance, he said, he is close to his family and they are in regular communication.

“My family believes in immigration and in the idea of a multicultural France. They are convinced that the issue does not come from immigration but years of stigmatization and exclusion suffered by immigrants and descendants of immigrants,” Le Guelte said. “Let’s not forget that the three gunmen in the Paris attacks were French,” he added. “Linking their acts to immigration is part of this stigmatizing discourse.”

Many in France support the idea of secularism and believe it creates a better society.

“Secularism is non-negotiable because it allows us to live together,” French President Francois Hollande told the newspaper Le Monde. “It has to be understood for what it is: the freedom of thought — therefore, the freedom of religion. These are values and rules of law that aim to protect not only what we share, but also what is unique to each one of us. It is France’s guarantee against intolerance.”

Le Guelte said that, “although all French people march for the freedom of expression, I think that it is just an interpretation. Doing more for those who have suffered the most from discrimination and social exclusion is the only way to improve the situation.”