PARIS – France peacefully implemented a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols from public schools on Thursday, transforming the first day of school into a nationwide show of defiance against militants holding two French hostages in Iraq.
For the most part, Muslim schoolgirls arrived bareheaded at the country’s 70,000 elementary and high schools, and most of those who had swathed their heads in varying pieces of fabric removed them upon request.
Instead of dividing the country, as perhaps the kidnappers had hoped, the French elite – intellectuals, journalists, religious leaders – and the entire French Muslim community joined forces with the center-right government to tell the captors of journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot to stay out of France’s affairs. “Today we have to worry about the fate of the two hostages,” said Mohamed Bechari, of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, before heading to Baghdad to win the hostages’ release. “The political battle, a purely French one, for religious freedom will resume later on. France is not at war with the Islamic faith.” The kidnappers had demanded that France rescind its new law banning conspicuous religious symbols from schools. Although the ban is meant to cover other religious symbols, such as Jewish yarmulkes and Christian crosses, there has never been doubt that its target was France’s five million Muslims.
Francois Fillon, the Minister of National Education, toured a number of schools with large Muslim populations in the outskirts of Paris , saying at one of them that opening day was marked by fraternity, the idea that all children are treated fairly and equally.
Simply put, the seizure of two French journalists in Iraq has rocked France. It has exposed the complexity of its struggle to integrate its growing Muslim population at home as it tests the strength of its long-standing network of alliances and personal friendships with Arab leaders and politicians across the political spectrum.
The government has mounted a relentless campaign to free the hostages by wooing the far corners of the Muslim world and enlisting political, religious and intelligence allies as intermediaries with the hostage-takers. Many of those intermediaries have portrayed France as a friend of the Arabs that should not be punished.
Indeed, Chirac has been called the king of the Beurs – a reference to North African immigrants in France – in the French media, and has continued to strongly support Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while most of the rest of Europe has created distance.
At the same time, France is determined to enforce its tradition of strict secularism at home by banning the Islamic veil from public schools
Paradoxically, for the first time, French Muslims have united on a major political issue and rallied behind the French state. They told the hostage-takers that their demand to rescind the law was out of line and that the world should stay out of France’s affairs. “We have seen an extraordinary display of national unity by the Muslim community here saying, ‘First, we are French,'” said Olivier Roy, a leading French scholar.
Even some of the most outspoken critics of the law, including the Geneva-based scholar Tariq Ramadan, shifted course and told schoolgirls to obey it.
Still, much of the Muslim world remains convinced that the new law is an unfortunate affront to Islam. Arguments by French officials and ambassadors since its passage last March to explain it as a desirable mechanism to preserve the republican values of the French state have not been understood.
Even Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was Foreign Minister when the bill was passed, argued against it, predicting that it would be seen, as it has been, as a law that was anti-veil and not pro-secularism.
“The Muslim world simply doesn’t understand the law,” said Abderrahim Lamchichi, of the University of Picardie in Amiens. “It is deplorable that even liberal Muslims think that the law is against Islam. It’s absurd.”
So the strategy of the French government in dealing with the hostage crisis has been two-fold: to focus on the criminality of hostage-taking under Islam and to explain why the law should not be seen as anti-Islam. Those weighing in range from high-profile personalities including King Abdullah of Jordan, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, some of the world’s most senior Muslim clerics, even the Pope; to groups of journalists from countries like Syria and Greece, Muslim associations from countries like Mali and Bosnia, Congo’s highest-ranking media authority and the opposition Iranian Mujahedeen organization which the French government considers a terrorist cult. France’s diplomatic blitz has not won the freedom of the hostages, but it may have staved off a decision on their fate.
There are several other explanations for France’s national obsession with freeing the two men. First, there is a need by France to highlight that it is a victim of terrorism.
French officials point to the threat made in a broadcast last February by Ayman Zawahiri, the second-ranking figure in the Qaeda terrorist network, that condemned France for fighting chastity and decency with the scarf ban, adding that such anti-Muslim acts by the West should be dealt with by tank shells and aircraft missiles. Zawahiri called the ban part of a campaign of the Zionist crusaders of the West against Islam and a crime similar to the burning of villages in Afghanistan, demolishing the homes of Palestinians and killing children of Iraq.
Indeed, France more than any other country in Europe has suffered more terrorist attacks by Arab or Muslim radicals in the past decade.
Second, the crisis of French citizens held hostage by Islamic radicals in Lebanon in the mid-1980s and the intense negotiations they required with Syria and Iran, among others, remains fixed in the collective memory of the establishment.
Chirac himself is still under suspicion for his alleged involvement in the payment of ransoms (widely rumored but never proven) for the release of those hostages between 1986 and 1988 when he was Prime Minister.
Third, the hostages are journalists, whose profession enjoys a much higher standing in French society than it does in the United States.
“These are people who are exposed, who find themselves in wars as they seek the truth,” said Bernard-Henri Levy, author of the best-selling book, “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” about the American journalist taken hostage and slain by Islamic radicals in Pakistan. “The journalist is a figure of modern heroism in France.”