Last weekend's kidnapping of two French journalists by Iraqis protesting Jacques Chirac's government's head scarf ban caught many Frenchmen napping. Nothing unusual about that, except the French had hoped their opposition to the War in Iraq, and their continued and blatant mooning of the Bush Administration, would give them a sort of righteous immunity from acts of terror. This despite repeated warnings of mayhem by Islamic militants, at home and abroad, if the ban were enforced. The French haven't been this naively taken in since they allowed Hitler to militarize the Rhineland in 1936.
Journalists Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro went missing August 20, after leaving Baghdad for the holy city (more like black hole) of Najaf, where U.S. forces were battling insurgents holed up (as usual) in a mosque. Their captors, Muslim fanatics calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq, are the same cutthroats responsible for the murder of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni last week. The so-called Army's spokesman told al-Jazeera television that the French head scarf ban is "an attack on the Islamic religion and individual freedoms," with an emphasis on the former. Few Iraqis would go to such extremes over mere "individual freedoms."
The kidnappers appear to have an unwitting ally in the Bush Administration, long a proponent of Christian prayer in public schools (though not Catholic crucifixes), which criticized the French proposal to ban head scarves and other conspicuous religious items from schools, telling the New York Times that such displays constitute "a basic right that should be protected." John V. Hanford, the administration's voice on issues of religious freedom, recently told the Times, "A fundamental principle of religious freedom that we work for in many countries of the world, including on this very issue of head scarves, is that all persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully, without government interference, as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society."
But intimidation, particularly of French Jews, is becoming commonplace in the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, so much so that some Jews are voluntarily returning to the ghetto for their own protection, while others are immigrating to Israel in numbers not seen since the aftermath of the Holocaust. Meanwhile Chirac's government has been desperately, if ineffectively, attempting to clamp down on a decade of anti-Semitic attacks chiefly carried out by teenage Muslim thugs. Scarcely a week goes by in which there isn't some report of an anti-Semitic attack. French Interior Ministry figures show no fewer 510 reported anti-Jewish acts or threats in the first six months of 2004. More, the French Muslim attackers have been emboldened by continual anti-Israeli rhetoric from France's intellectual left and the half-spirited half-measures of the French government. But this latest kidnapping will doubtless cause many Frenchmen to rethink their opposition to the Israelis.
Opinion polls suggest 70 percent of the French population -- a population increasingly concerned with the religious violence within its borders -- supports the ban. France is home to Europe's second largest Muslim population (5 million) as well as the continent's largest Jewish population (600,000). By imposing the ban French officials hoped they might at least keep their public schools with their volatile teenage populations relatively secure. But again the French exposed their naiveté when Fouad Alaoui, secretary general of Union of Islamic Organizations in France, immediately urged schoolgirls to defy the French head scarf ban. Since the scarf ban is seen as a direct attack on Islam, it was only a matter of time and opportunity before militants struck back.
SO IS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION correct in labeling the religious symbols ban as a case of French intolerance toward Muslims, in which case vengeance is at least understandable, or is it instead another episode of religious fanatics trying to break down the flimsy barrier between church and state?
Considering how the new law bans all religious symbols, including the Sikh turban, the Jewish skull cap and the Catholic crucifix, and applies solely to public schools, and was imposed in hopes of reducing religious tensions, it is difficult to see how the law can be construed as anti-Muslim. Predictably, the crucifix and skullcap ban has not caused a wave of kidnappings by French Catholics or Hassidim, who mainly view the law as reasonable given the conflicts currently tearing apart much of the world.
Still many suspect the ban is simply another underhanded attempt to make Muslims feel unwelcome in their adopted homeland. The irony is that most Muslims flee to a secular society like France or Belgium because only there can they hope to build a decent and peaceable future for themselves and their families, and yet many immediately set about undermining that future by refusing to integrate into the secular society.
Muslim immigration, mostly from former colonies of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal, is larger than any other influx France has experienced. According to USA Today, the new immigrants are young and have a higher birth rate than the French. The Muslim population in France could grow from 8% -- 5 million of France's 60 million people -- to a majority in 25 years. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that in a generation or two French Catholic women could be required by law to don the hajib or face finding themselves lashed to the whipping post.
SUCH NIGHTMARISH SCENARIOS have many Frenchmen seriously reconsidering just how tolerant their government should be toward a religion that has a popular militant strain seemingly at odds with the values of their Republic. And while most Muslims publicly portray themselves as peace-loving and nonpolitical, there is more and more evidence that even the mildest of these secretly privately support the militants' terrorist campaigns against Israel and the West, as documented in Jonathon Randal's new book on Osama bin Laden.
This latest kidnapping will likely cause the French to stiffen their resolve, rather than cave in like Philippine government did recently. But whether France backs down or not, the militants may have achieved at least one of their goals. Before the kidnapping Belgium and a majority of German states, including Berlin, announced plans to pass similar bans on religious symbols. It will be interesting to see whether these nations carry through with their plans to reinforce the wall of separation between church and state, or whether the wall is dangerously undermined.
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