BEIRUT — A demand by militant kidnappers that a French ban on Islamic head scarves be overturned has raised a backlash among religious and political leaders in the Middle East, who often are silent about hostage slayings and other terrorism.
They say those holding two French journalists have desecrated Islam and mindlessly struck out at a country considered a friend to Arabs.
“This is a brutal operation on the human level, a bad one on the Islamic level and a losing one on the political level,” Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, said Tuesday.
Instead of attracting supporters, the kidnappings and their link to the head-scarf ban “provokes the ire of Muslim scholars and intellectuals worldwide,” Fadlallah said.
Such comments contrasted with muted reaction in the region Tuesday when a grisly video surfaced on a Muslim militants’ Web site showing the purported killing of 12 Nepalese workers kidnapped in Iraq.
The group that claimed responsibility accused the Nepalese of working for the U.S. military. One Iraqi cleric told Al-Arabiya TV that their deaths, while regrettable, were understandable because “their work is military work.”
Journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 19 on their way from the Iraqi capital to the southern city of Najaf. A group calling itself The Islam Army in Iraq claims to be holding the two and has demanded that France abolish its ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools.
France has said it would press ahead with the law, which goes into effect when school resumes late this week.
A militant group with a similar name to the one claiming to hold the Frenchmen was believed to have killed an Italian freelance journalist last week after Italy’s government rejected a demand that it withdraw its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq.
Unlike Italy, France has no troops in Iraq and led the opposition to last year’s U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. There are fewer than 100 French citizens in Iraq, mostly journalists, aid workers and employees of private companies; nearly all are in Baghdad, according to the French government.
Criticism of the kidnapping has come from government officials, activists and religious figures–including those who have censured France for its head-scarf ban.
Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro issued a statement Tuesday calling for the release of the two reporters and also urging France to reconsider its scarf ban, “because of the sensitivity and importance of this issue for Muslims.” Kuftaro also praised France’s stand in support of Arabs.
Many Arabs see France as an important ally in the Arab-Palestinian conflict.
Al Jazeera, the Arab television station, broadcast a stream of criticism from voices including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Lebanon’s Fadlallah.
In a statement issued by the Palestinian news agency WAFA, Arafat urged the journalists’ “immediate release,” calling France a friend of the Palestinian cause. Egypt’s largest Islamic opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also condemned the hostage-taking.