The chief military chaplain, Abdelkader Arbi, has revealed in December the project outlines of the first professional training for French Muslim military chaplains, which should be open in September 2020. For three years, aspirants (bachelor’s degree holder at least) would receive an intensive formation of 25 hours training per week, mainly based on a practical theology. Upon completion of the course, four news chaplaincies should be recruited each year. The recruitments would be frozen, making this training the only recruitment channel and offering a guarantee of employment.
In comparison to the long historical incorporation of Muslim soldiers in French ranks – from the 19th century in Napoleonic army to the double world conflicts – the creation of a Muslim chaplaincy appears as a recent phenomenon. Indeed, the Muslim chaplaincy has been inaugurated in 2005, under the patronage of the Minister of Defence, while Catholics, Protestants and Jewish chaplaincies were already institutionalized for a long time. In France, chaplaincies are subsidised by the State (in accordance to the law of 1905, on the separation of State and churches), as they support the freedom of religious exercise in “closed institutions”, such as hospitals, prisons and army. Although the constitutional proscription of ethnic and religious statistics makes such estimations difficult, approximately 15% of French soldiers should be from Islamic faith and the institutionalization of a Muslim chaplaincy, might be perceived as a consequence of their numerous growing importance.
In a detailed radio interview, the chief military chaplain, Abdelkader Arbi, precisely explained the chaplains’ mission. In his eyes, Muslim chaplains play a crucial role in the internal coherence of the army, which has its own codes, but also reflects the social components of French society, including clichés or even a certain defiance towards French Muslims. Refusing to be a “conscience director”, Abdelkader Arbi aims to “trivialize the Muslim religious in the army”. Chaplains are in charge of a spiritual, moral and worship support towards the soldiers, but also have to advise their military hierarchy vis-à-vis religious issues. Among the most recurrent requests emerging from Muslim soldiers, two appeared as particularly predominant and tend, nowadays, to be routinized: the provision of confessional meals respecting food bans (a shared request co-ported with the Jewish chaplain) and the access to place of worship. Bearing their emblems (an olive branch with a golden crescent), more than 40 Muslim chaplains already are officiating in the different components of French army, for domestic and foreign missions, including 7 women.