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Wave of anti-Muslim legislation in Europe has broad support

Knight Ridder Newspapers
Mar. 5, 2004
www.kansascity.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday March 5, 2004

EVRY, France – (KRT) – Manuel Valls, a leader in France’s new generation of Socialists, is an arch-liberal and a human rights activist. But not when he talks about Islam and the move to ban traditional Muslim head scarves from French public schools.

The Hijab

“Hijab is the modern name for the practice of dressing modestly, which all practicing Muslims past the age of puberty are instructed to do in their holy book, the Qur’an. No precise dress code for men or women is set out in the Qur’an, and various Islamic scholars have interpreted the meaning of hijab in different ways.”
- Wikipedia

“I came to understand that this law wasn’t about the head scarf, it was about funneling Islam toward being a more acceptable religion for France,” said Valls, the mayor of this city north of Paris and a deputy in France’s National Assembly. “There are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In France, we want good Muslims.”

Five hundred miles away, Corrina Werwick-Hertneck is also a rising leader in her political party, Germany’s Liberal Party. She, too, considers herself a political liberal and a human rights advocate. But she favors banning the hijab – the Muslim head scarf – among Germany’s teachers.

“Look, I’m a liberal,” she said. “I know my position has no ideological foundation. But it is my position. Preserving our Christian heritage is very important.”

With immigration from Muslim countries rising throughout Europe, politicians across the continent are pushing for laws reining in the Muslim community.

Unlike previous anti-immigrant movements, which were championed largely by nationalist politicians generally out of power, the anti-Muslim legislation is being pushed by politicians in power who represent centrist and leftist parties that traditionally worry about human rights.

The movement has little opposition. When France’s 577-member National Assembly approved the head-scarf ban last month, only 36 legislators voted against it. The margin was just as one-sided when the Senate gave it final approval Wednesday, 276-20.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

Even Germany’s Green Party, for 20 years the best line of defense for immigrant communities there, is backing a head-scarf ban.

Muslims have become fair game for a number of European political factions. Animal rights activists refer to Islam as a “barbaric” religion. Feminists claim that the head scarf is a sign of the oppression of women. On the right, politicians say Muslims will tear apart the fabric of all that’s European.

The movement worries human rights monitors.

“It not only has legs, it has very strong legs,” said Julia Hall, counsel for Human Rights Watch for Europe. “The center is shifting to the right in Europe, and there is almost no one left willing to stand against this trend.”

That’s especially alarming given history, they say.

“We have seen this kind of thing before – policy against a single religion – in our history, and not so long ago,” said Barbara John, Germany’s recently retired commissioner for foreigners. “Many different people – from the left, from the right – are agreeing that we must draw a line somewhere regarding these Muslims. I would never say that this is the beginning of a new Holocaust. But this is how it starts.”

Up-to-date statistics are difficult to come by, but Muslim activists think violence against them is rising. The most recent European Union study, for the year 2002, found that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, anti-Muslim acts rose in Europe, including hundreds of cases of verbal abuse and 86 cases of violence against Muslims or their institutions.

And Muslims say it’s worse now. They say that beyond attacks by individuals, Muslims now face restrictions by governments.

“Islam is under attack in Europe, and Islam is innocent,” said Merroun Khalil, the rector of France’s largest mosque.

France’s decision to ban head scarves in public schools has drawn the most attention, but other nations also are looking at ways to curb Islam:

_ Germany is considering a ban on teachers wearing head scarves. A similar ban appears to have broad support in Belgium.

_ In the Netherlands, long a haven for tolerance, 26,000 mostly Muslim asylum seekers are being sent home to places such as Afghanistan and Iran.

_ In Denmark, a law has passed to keep religious missionaries out of the country, which will stop Islamic clerics from serving their traditional four-year stints in area mosques.

The laws often appear evenhanded. The head-scarf bans are couched, for example, in legislation that also affects the wearing of Jewish skullcaps and large crosses. But politicians say openly that Islam is the target.

Denmark’s missionary ban affects all religions. But only Muslims, who make up 3 percent of the population, need the visiting missionaries as clerics.

“In theory, these rules concern all clerics from all religions,” said Danish People’s Party spokesman Peter Skaarp, whose traditionally nationalist party backed the rules. “But in practice, they target Muslims.”

Anti-Islamic feelings are hardly new to Europe. In A.D. 711 the Islamic Moors invaded Spain, and “Moor” became a term of derision in Spain and the rest of Europe that’s still used today. The Moors weren’t forced from southern Spain until Christopher Columbus was sailing for the New World.

The Christian Crusades of 1,000 years ago were intended to rout Islam from Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and they spanned hundreds of years of Christian-Muslim slaughter.

French and Spanish schoolchildren learn such ancient epic poems as the “Le Chanson de Roland,” which tells the tale of Sir Roland, who with a mighty sword slices up a lot of Muslims in Spain.

As recently as the late 1990s, the National Front in France was proposing – and making headway with – anti-immigration legislation largely aimed at African Muslims, though that movement largely was subdued when an Algerian immigrant led the French national soccer team to a World Cup championship.

The new push to limit Islam’s spread can be traced to the role Muslims in Europe played in toppling the World Trade Center in New York. Much of the planning for that attack was done in Hamburg, Germany, and Germany remains the only country in which someone has been convicted of direct involvement in the attacks.

Muslims are open about their dismay over the direction of debate in Europe, but they aren’t very surprised. They say there’s long been a history of discrimination against them in housing and jobs. They think Turkey hasn’t been allowed into the European Union because it’s a Muslim country. And they worry about the future.

Burhan Kesici, who heads the Islamic Federation in Berlin, wears a conservative business suit and talks freely in three languages. Time and again, he said, he’s been turned away from apartments and mocked at schools because of his religion.

“In university, professors would say, `We had such hope for him. We didn’t know he was a religious Muslim,’ as if that made me medieval,” he said.

Kesici said the German efforts to ban head scarves were demeaning. “The women targeted by the German law are professionals, university educated, leaders in our community,” he said. “To say they are controlled by a head scarf is insulting.”

His arguments resonate little outside Muslim communities. The head scarf is seen as a symbol of Islamic radicalism. German politician Edmund Stoiber called it “not compatible with an enlightened democracy.”

Feminists have claimed that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab against their will and thus never will be able to grow into contributing members of society.

On Fridays in Evry, Khalil lectures to thousands of Muslims at Evry’s grand mosque – two gymnasium-sized rooms filled with men and two large chambers behind thick wooden screens for women.

He said his mosque showed the future of Europe. Evry is 30 percent Muslim. The first wave arrived from Morocco and Algeria to work in an airplane-engine factory. The children of those immigrants now mix in high-rise housing projects with young, recent immigrants.

These are Muslims who came for economic reasons; not to destroy France, but to find a better life in it, Khalil said. “This is the topic of conversation for all people of color in Europe,” he said. “What is our future here?”

Mayor Valls said there was a future _that Europe and Islam could compromise and learn to live together. But in his attempt to be conciliatory, it’s clear where he thinks the effort must come.

He cites the example of a local grocery store. It opened to sell only halal foods acceptable to Muslims. Valls said he was horrified to learn that meant no ham or wine, which he considers staples for a French diet.

“So I went to them and insisted they sell wine and ham,” he said.

Did they agree?

“No,” he said sadly, before brightening. “But there is hope that they will go out of business within the year, and perhaps then a new store will open in their place. And perhaps they will sell foods for everyone.”

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