French Headscarves Still Fueling Hostage Crisis

PARIS – The two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq more than three weeks back are still in captivity despite efforts by French and Iraqi leaders to secure their freedom.

Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were kidnapped Aug. 20 by the so-called Islamic Army in Iraq, a guerrilla group opposing the U.S. occupation of the country.

The group at first asked the French government by way of ransom to annul the law banning "conspicuous" religious symbols from schools. These symbols have come to mean primarily the headscarf for Muslim girls. The law came into force Sept. 2.

The group then followed up with three new demands – the "acceptance of a truce with Sheikh Osama bin Laden", a sum of $5 million, and a refusal by the French government to have military or commercial relations with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi regime.

The new demands were placed on the Internet by a "high commandment" of the Islamic Army in Iraq. The French government says the demand could be bogus. The stated demand set a new 48-hour ultimatum expiring Sept. 8.

The two journalists were shown on a video tape broadcast on Arab television channels to be asking French authorities to meet these demands.

The "imminent" release of Chesnot and Malbrunot has been announced several times by French Muslim leaders in Baghdad and in reports in Arab and French media.

"The kidnappers realize they committed a mistake by kidnapping the French journalists and want to liberate them, but are looking for the right opportunity to do it without losing face," French Muslim leader Abdallah Zekri, who has been in Baghdad since Sept. 1, told reporters.

The French government, the opposition, and Muslim leaders in France have come together to condemn the abduction and the demands.

In his first reaction to the kidnapping of Chesnot and Malbrunot, President Jacques Chirac said his government is doing "everything needed to obtain the freedom of the journalists." He said in a televised message that "France is the cradle of human rights, it is a land of tolerance, and it guarantees the freedom of religious practices."

These values "have inspired the French foreign policy in Iraq," he said in a reminder to the kidnappers that France opposed the U.S.-led invasion, and that it has not sent troops to the country.

The two French journalists disappeared on way from Baghdad to Najaf, then the center of violent conflict between the U.S. occupation forces and the Mahdi army of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Nine foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March last year. French reporter Frédéric Nérac, who was covering the invasion for the British ITN news channel, has been missing since March 22 last year.

The first demand of the kidnappers kicked into a French controversy that has spread around the Islamic world. The French government passed a law in March banning the wearing of "ostensible religious symbols in schools" in order to protect their secular character.

The ban provoked anti-French demonstrations in most Muslim countries and also in the United States and Britain.

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone called the ban "the most reactionary law ever passed by a European parliament since the end of the Second World War."

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a renowned Egyptian scholar in Qatar said the ban was "a cause of suffering and pain for all Muslims." He warned the French government "not to provoke the hatred and the enmity of Muslims."

But the kidnapping of the journalists changed the French Muslim position toward the ban. Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, a leading Muslim organization in France, called the abduction of the journalists "odious blackmail." He urged the kidnappers "in the name of Islam to respect the lives of our compatriots."

Lhaj Thami Breze, leader of the Union of French Islamic Organizations who had vehemently opposed the ban on headscarves, said the kidnapping of the two journalists is "unacceptable," and insisted that France is "a friend of the Arab world."

Breze told IPS that "the kidnappers are enemies of Islam. Their behavior is absolutely irresponsible and is damaging the Muslim community in France."

But he added that "this kidnapping should not lead French Muslims to renounce our rights. We hope that the school heads will make concessions, and will accept that girls be allowed to wear an inconspicuous scarf."

According to official figures, on the first day of the new school year 240 Muslim girls in a population of 12 million students came to school wearing a headscarf. Most of them took it off after discussions with teachers.