Kidnappers demand end to headscarf rule

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Islamic militants released a brief tape showing two French journalists kidnapped recently in Iraq and said they were holding the men to protest a French law banning headscarves in schools, according to footage aired Saturday by an Arab TV station.

The station, Al-Jazeera, said the group gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the law but mentioned no ultimatum.

Christian Chesnot of Radio France-Internationale, or RFI, and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and RTL radio have not been in touch with their employers since Aug. 19, the French Foreign Ministry said last week.

The station’s news reader said the group described the French law banning religious apparel in public schools as “an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms.”

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.”

The tape, lasting 3-4 seconds, showed the men separately, each standing in front of a black background emblazoned in red with the group’s name, the Islamic Army in Iraq, in Arabic. The tape did not give the hostages’ names, but their employers in France later identified them.

Chesnot appeared first, saying in poor Arabic that “we are being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq.”

The tape then showed Malbrunot. “First of all, I want to tell my family that all is well and we are being treated well,” he says in French just before the tape cuts off.

France’s Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement calling for the journalists’ release. “The services of the French Embassy in Baghdad, like the French authorities, are mobilized more than ever. Once again, we call for the liberation of the two French journalists.”

Sheik Abdulsattar Abduljawad, from the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group believed to have links to insurgents, also called for their release — and for concessions by the French government.

“We call the Islamic Army in Iraq to free the French hostages and ask the French government to cancel their decision forbidding the wearing of the Hijab (the head scarf),” he told Al-Jazeera early Sunday.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, 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.

The French law, which takes effect Wednesday, forbids public school students from wearing religious apparel and “conspicuous” signs showing their religious affiliation. That includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

French authorities have made clear, however, that the ban is aimed at removing Islamic head scarves from classrooms. The law sparked protests at home and abroad, with many Muslims saying they felt unfairly targeted.

Dalil Boubakeur, president of the umbrella group the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said he was “stunned” by the “brutal gravity of this situation.”

“I hope that links aren’t drawn with the Muslim community in France, which is totally innocent,” he told LCI television. “This challenge is an act to be condemned.”

The last time the reporters checked in, they were in Baghdad, RFI said. LCI television said they were last sighted about 20 miles outside Baghdad, on the road heading to Najaf.

Because of the video, “we know that they have been taken hostage,” said Jacques Esnous, RTL editorial director.

“We saw that they are in good health, but we also saw that they have an appalling sword of Damocles hanging above them,” he told The Associated Press. “The terrible decision rests with the government.”

But he added: “It’s a choice between democracy and fanaticism, and until now democratic governments have never conceded to fanatics. … That is why we are terribly worried.”

A spokesman for President Jacques Chirac’s Elysee office said that he had heard about the Al-Jazeera report, but that the hostage-takers had not contacted French officials.

Asked if France was willing to reconsider the headscarf law, the spokesman said: “I don’t think we are at that point for the moment.”

“We must see what the claim is and how credible it is,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are waiting to learn more.”

On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape purportedly released by the same group showing abducted freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni, 56. Two days later, the station received another video that showed Baldoni’s killing.

A senior Al-Jazeera editor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the latest video was similar in form to the Baldoni tape aired Tuesday. Both tapes showed the hostages standing in front of a black background with red Arabic script in the background.

Philippe Necand, deputy chief editor at RTL radio, noted that the name of the group cited by Al-Jazeera is similar to the group that supposedly killed the Italian reporter.

“We are worried when we see what happened to the Italian,” Necand told AP. “We can always hope.”

Scores of foreigners have been kidnapped in recent months by insurgents and criminal gangs seeking to extort ransom or with the political motive of trying to force foreign troops and companies to leave the country.

In April, 40-year-old French TV journalist Alex Jordanov was freed after four days in captivity in Iraq during which he was repeatedly interrogated by captors accusing him of being an Israeli spy.

France, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, has said there are fewer than 100 French citizens in Iraq, mostly journalists, aid workers and the employees of private companies; nearly all are in Baghdad.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, USA
Aug. 28, 2004
Paul Garwood, Associated Press Writer
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 30, 2004.
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