Follow @southasiaanalys


Paper No. 1116                                                                          13/09/2004

by K. Gajendra Singh 

The kidnapping of two French journalists by an Islamic radical group in Iraq and the threat to behead them if France did not revoke its ban on headscarves worn by Muslim school girls in France, has brought to international attention the debate and discussions on the question in mostly Catholic but secular republic. Its shocked the French who were opposed to the US invasion of Iraq and have supported most Arab and Muslim causes. The Muslim community in France and leadership in Islamic world, even, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and as-Sadr have called for the release of the French journalists. 

A similar problem of headscarves is simmering in secular Turkey, 99% Muslim. But now the government of AKP party which has Islamic roots and favours the removal of a similar ban, and it is creating tensions with the secular establishment led by its armed forces.  

Battle of the Head Scarves Lands in Iraq Quagmire.

Paris was quite hopeful until 6 September about French journalists, Christian Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International, taken hostages in Iraq on 20 August, being freed soon. Since then there has been little good news. The two journalists were seized between Baghdad and Najaf, by a little known Iraqi militant group, the Islamic Army of Iraq, which demanded that France revoke its ban on Islamic headscarves in schools, which they described as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms." 

The French were dismayed early last week when the kidnappers suddenly demanded a $5 million ransom for the release of the journalists, called for a truce with Osama bin Laden and no military or commercial deals with Iraq. There were some doubts about the authenticity and the exact nature of the demands. But the French government faced the dilemma of what to do next. They reiterated that the journalists were safe and expressed cautious optimism about their release. US media (and perhaps some leaders) are gloating at the French discomfiture. "These are opportunistic people looking for any target," said Olivier Roy, a prominent French scholar of Islam. "They don't care about Iraq. They are striking at the West as a whole." 

The kidnapping and threat to behead the journalists had come as a rude shock to the establishment in Paris in the light of France’s total opposition to US invasion of Iraq and a supportive stand on the question of Palestine. Last week two Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were kidnapped, with the demand that Italy pull out its 2,700 troops from Iraq. The kidnappings have triggered big demonstrations in Rome and Paris amid national outpourings of concern. Scores of hostages from dozens of countries have been seized in the past five months, and more than 20 have been killed, as part of a campaign to undermine! Iraq's US appointed government. Of 5 Italians kidnapped, two including a journalist were killed.  The only explanation for the turn of events came in an unsigned editorial in Jordan’s daily newspaper Al Rai, which claimed that “ the American and British intelligence services were behind the kidnapping of two French journalists “. It added that “Washington has not forgotten to make the French pay for their principled stand" against the invasion of Iraq. Al Rai pointed to the appeals for the release of the Frenchmen by "all the Islamic, political and religious organizations, but they have not yet been released, because we all know it means nothing to the CIA or the British intelligence." In case the journalists were killed "then France should look for! the killers in the corridors of the American and British intelligence services. 

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, after discussing the hostage crisis with President Jacques Chirac told the media in Paris last Sunday, "We have serious reasons to believe both of them are in good health and that a favourable outcome is possible." He added that "Our top priority today remains to secure their release. Our priority is their safety." Barnier returned a day earlier after visiting Jordan, Qatar and Egypt to rally support from Arab and Muslim leaders for the release of the hostages. The French secured condemnation of the hostage-takers from across the whole of the Arab and Islamic world leadership – even including from Iraq’s Moqtda as-Sadr, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. 

A senior cleric with influence among extremist Sunni Muslim groups, Sheikh Mehdi Al Sumaidaie, said on 5 September that a US-Iraqi raid the previous day on the town of Latifiya had "disrupted the process of their release."  The cleric also issued a fatwa "urging the group to immediately free and not harm the two French reporters, in recognition of France's position on Iraq." The French-Iraqi Friendship Association on Monday confirmed the report and accused the US forces of endangering the lives of two French journalists by launching military operations. 

Earlier on 3 September, Paris cancelled Sunday’s scheduled visit by US appointed Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar citing the "current circumstances". The French were angered when recently an Iraqi government controlled newspaper said that Paris was partly responsible for the kidnapping of the journalists because it had refused to back "all international resolutions aimed at restoring Iraqis' security."

In spite of the death threats France stressed that it would enforce the law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols from public schools. It was peacefully implemented from 2 September, with a nationwide show of unity including  Muslims, against the militants demand. The head scarf is normally worn in lycees specially in poorer areas by Muslim girls. The French Muslims, mostly from former colonies in Arab north west Africa, the Maghrab,  number around 5 million. Many Sikh students wearing patka were not allowed to enter classes in Paris on 2 September. The Sikh community leaders have taken up the matter with the authorities. 

Before the kidnapping there were widespread agitations and demonstrations all over France against the ban on head scarves, along with other religious symbols like Jewish and Muslim skull caps or prominent Christian crosses. The bans were placed to assert the secular principles of the republic and also to deal with extreme right wing opposition.

In mid July, some 250 delegates from 14 countries gathered at London’s City Hall under the banner of a pro-hijab pressure group to campaign over what they see as human rights violations in France and elsewhere. London’s controversial mayor Ken Livingstone said: “The French ban is the most reactionary proposal to be considered by any parliament in Europe since the Second World War. It marks a move towards religious intolerance which we in Europe swore never to repeat, having witnessed the devastating effects of the Holocaust.” The conference was picketed by gay rights activists against participation by the Muslim theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is opposed to the ban, of being homophobe and who tramples on the rights of women. British Jews entered a formal complaint to the police against the theologian who has condoned some suicide bombings and incited racial hatred. 

At the other edge of European continent, secular Turkey faces a similar problem where Ottoman and Islamic dresses including head scarves were forbidden in public places since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, closed religious seminaries, disbanded Islamic tariqas, converted the Mosque Aaya Sofya into a museum, banned Islamic dresses including the Turkish Fez, veil or Hijab including the headscarf.

But the movement against the ban on head scarves, earlier led by a small minority, is now being spearheaded by the Justice and Development party( AKP) which has Islamic roots. It formed the government after getting a massive 2/3rd majority in the parliament ( but with only 35% of votes polled ) in the November, 2002 elections. In Turkey, the secular establishment led by the Armed forces and the judiciary has punished attempts to bring back Islamic symbols in public life. The battle between the secular establishment and the AKP created a lot of tension when the former tried to introduce Islamic symbols. But with serious problems facing the country following US invasion of Iraq, a truce was called. 

Instead of dividing France, which the kidnappers had hoped, the French elite - intellectuals, journalists, religious leaders, the entire French Muslim community joined forces with the center-right government to tell the abductors of the two journalists to stay out of France's affairs. 

Mohamed Bechari, of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, who led a delegation to Baghdad to canvass for the hostages' release said "Today we have to worry about the fate of the two hostages." He underlined that "the political battle, a purely French one, for religious freedom will resume later on. France is not at war with the Islamic faith." Given the sensitivity of the debate, many Muslim organisations which had previously campaigned against the law called for calm. They were keen to avoid intensifying French antipathy to the country's five million Muslims by appearing to sympathise with the demands of extremists. 

If the kidnappers thought that they had struck a chord with their co-religionists, they were wrong  which only exposes the naïve thinking of ill informed Muslim radicals. Islam  is not what it was during Prophet Mohammad’s time. It has changed. It has become richer and more sophisticated. If it had not changed with times, there would not have been Iranian, Turkish, Moghul and other kingdoms and empires. It is a moot point whether the conquest of Mecca and Medina by the Ottomans, brought with it the heavy Islamic conservative establishment which led to the decline of the Empire. The conservative establishment including the Janissaries opposed modernization by the Ottoman government, even in matters of war. Kemal Ataturk just jettisoned the whole Islamic and Arab baggage.

The French debate on the ban

Both for reasons of upholding secularism and for electoral purposes, most French political leaders except of the minority communities wanted the ban, with a Socialist Party leader saying that the headscarves were "out of place in schools". It was felt that France needed a new law to reassert secular values in its state schools against growing radical Islamic trends among Muslim pupils and a consequent rise of anti-Semitism.

Before the hostage crisis, the debate over the ban on the head scarves, veils or  the hijab was lively and split the nation ; for and against. The French just love debates. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote an article in the Sunday Times headlined "Off with their headscarves". He spoke of the veil as a "symbol of hatred" and associated it with fanaticism and fundamentalism. Some prominent Muslims supported the law as a way of promoting integration. Anti-racism organisations stressed the value of secularism in schools, and feminist groups agreed with the ban against a symbol of repression.

Others saw it as an example of religious intolerance, an abuse of human rights and an attack on the Muslim identity. A Muslim feminist said that wearing the hijab was a personal part of her religious practice. How ever if forced to wear the hijab, the woman's intentions would not be true, rendering the practice meaningless. “Choice is the essence of the act - it is an act of faith; it is about being an independent woman responsible for her actions and conduct; it is a reflection of a woman's modesty”.

Others said that the secularist arguments behind the ban in France amounted to nothing more than a denial of freedoms of expression and choice. Those who look upon the hijab with disdain will now feel at liberty to abuse those who wear it, given that the state legitimises their feelings. This state oppression will alienate the Muslim population in France. It will result in Muslim women being stigmatised. Secular fundamentalism is as abhorrent as religious extremism.

Last year, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister told a meeting of Muslims that people should be bare headed when posing for identity photographs, he was booed. The minister was speaking at a meeting of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) in a Paris suburb,.  ``The law says that on the photo for identity cards the person must be bare-headed, whether it is a man or a woman .... There is no reason why Muslim women should not respect this,'' 

To a liberal it might initially seem to be a matter of respecting individual rights to wear what one wants to wear. But the problem is not that simple. Theodore Dalrymple went to the heart of the problem. Last year Agence France Presse reported that those who opposed the ban were being duplicitous and wanted to impose their views on Muslim women—their ultimate goal being the destruction of the liberal-democratic state itself. Those who appealed in public to the doctrine of universal human rights, which were observed in France; in private, “ use the traditional male dominance of their culture—including the threat of violence—to impose their views on others in the name of Holy Writ.

After all, in some giant housing projects around Paris and other French cities, young Muslim women who dress in western clothing are deemed to be fair game, inviting—indeed, asking for—rape by gangs of Muslim youths. In such circumstances, it is impossible to know whether the adoption of Islamic dress by women in western society is ever truly voluntary, and so long as such behavior persists, the presumption must be against it being so.”

Thus, Islamic extremists  want to use secularism to impose theocracy and many are financed by Saudi Arabia. Similar complaints have been made in Turkey, Jordan and other Muslim countries. Where women are allowed to wear headscarves, the militant Islamists identify any woman who does not wear and not obey the rules the Islamists think women should, become objects of attack. Even  assaults including rape and disfiguring with chemicals is common in some Islamic societies. “The intimidation that leads to the widespread wearing of headscarf is just one step. Even today many women in post-Taliban Afghanistan are afraid to stop wearing the far more concealing chadors.”

According to a poll of France's Muslims last year in the newspaper Le Figaro, 55 percent were opposed to the ban on head scarves for girls in schools, 72 percent of the Muslims hoped that the United States would lose the war in Iraq and 79% favored  the creation of private Koranic schools funded by the state. It certainly is matter of identity and solidarity in times of conflict between Islam and Christianity, and brings in a sense of security.

Ban on head scarves and Turkey

In June, 2004 a seven-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a petition by a Turkish medical student who was banned in 1998 from wearing a head-scarf by Istanbul university. The student had claimed that the ban during classes violated her rights of freedom of thought, conscience and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court found that the rules in medical classes were "necessary", primarily for hygienic reasons and the students "were required to comply with the rules on dress". It "found no violation" under the convention, adding schools were entitled to set dress codes as long as they were fair. How ever, in a 46-page report, Human Rights Watch said the ban "inhibits academic freedom", adding the government exercised too much control over schools. So the ban stays.

In mid 2000, a Turkish court sentenced 23-year-old Nuray Bezirgan to six months in jail for "obstructing the education of others," for wearing a head scarf for her college final exams, which led to disturbances. Teachers and government employees are barred from wearing head scarves. Since 1998 tens of thousand women have been barred from Turkey's college campuses for wearing head scarves as part of Muslim tradition, according to human rights groups. Hundreds of government employees were fired, demoted or transferred for the same reason.

In 1999, a parliamentary deputy was forbidden to take her oath of office when she arrived at the Grand National Assembly wearing a headscarf. From 2000, the ban was also imposed in Islamic religious schools, prompting some Muslim girls to drop out.  But great ingenuity is used some times. When the government barred women from wearing head scarves in photographs for drivers licenses, passports and university enrollment documents, digital camera technology was used to digitally doctor women's photographs with fake hair.

It remains the object of one of Turkey's most divisive struggles, political and religious and also a problem of how to balance greater democratic freedoms while preserving a secular state in a region. The Turkish military believes that Islamic fundamentalism is one of Turkey's greatest national security threats and feels that “ if we are not careful about political Islam, it will lead Turkey to a new Dark Age." A fiercely secularist establishment led by the military has drawn criticism from human rights groups about the means of opposing the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism.

But now the fight is led by the Turkish Government of Justice and development party. The first battle lines between the two sides were drawn on April 23, 2003 when President Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court, and the top military brass led by General Hilmi Ozkok, refused to attend a reception at the Parliament house hosted by its Speaker, Bulent Arinc of the AKP, to mark National Sovereignty and Children's Day, because the hostess Munnever Arinc planned to wear a Muslim head scarf. The opposition, left of the center People's Republican Party (RPP), also boycotted the reception. A last-minute announcement that Mrs Arinc would not attend the reception came too late.

The wives of AKP leaders like Erdogan (even when he was the mayor of Istanbul), Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and others avoid attending state functions as they would have to do so with uncovered heads. The daughter of Erdogan and a few other AKP leaders study in the US, where they can wear headscarves. The importance of fights over Islamic symbols cannot be underestimated. The military and secular elite take note of attempts by AKP members to use Islamic symbols.

On April 30, 2003 a statement issued after a meeting of Turkey's National Security Council (NSC), underlined secularism as one of the basic pillars of the Turkish Republic. Reiterating that its "vigilant protection cannot be over-emphasized", it urged the AKP government to protect the secular state. The NSC was Turkey's highest policy-making body and is composed of the chief of general staff (CGS) of the armed forces and top military commanders, the prime minister and his senior colleagues and is chaired by the president of the republic. The CGS is next in protocol after the prime minister and forms one of the three centers of power, along with the president.

In 1997, Turkey's first-ever Islamist prime minister, Najemettin Erbakan, then heading a coalition government with a secular party, was made to resign by the armed forces for his failure to curb growing Islamic fundamentalism. In 1971, the military members of the NSC had forced premier Suleiman Demirel to resign for his failure to implement land and other radical reforms and curb left-right strife. The military also intervened directly in 1960 and 1980, when politicians had brought the country to an impasse.

But AKP government took advantage of the requirement of the Copenhagen criteria to bring Turkey’s constitution in line with that of the Europe Union (EU ), which it is preparing to join. The reforms reduced the military's hold over the NSC by making it an advisory body with no executive powers. The number of times that the council meets is now limited, and a civilian now heads its secretariat, rather than a general. Not surprisingly, the armed forces were unhappy with the reform package and according to many, are awaiting their chance to get even.

The battles between the secular establishment and the AKP will go on. But the government has for the time being slowed down its plans to change the academic orientation by reshaping the university system, to grant women the right to wear head scarves in schools and public buildings, to limit the army's power to expel soldiers accused of religious extremism. Many a times, laws passed by brute AKP majority are not approved by the President.

Certainly Turkish society is probably becoming more Islamic. While 90% Turks opposed Turkey allowing US troops to attack Iraq, the military was in favour from strategic angle. The military is fighting a rearguard action. Turkey is also trying to become a member of the EU, which has support from majority of the Turks. Would France welcome Turkey with its head scarved women. In Turkey women are regularly killed by near relatives in so called honour killings i.e. illicit relationship or infraction of social code. Rarely were the convicts hanged before the death sentence was abolished last year. The AKP Government is now thinking of making adultery a crime in law, which has raised heckles all around the country. It will not help Turkey’s cause for entry into EU.

While in France it is basically a Muslim minority which is against the ban, in Turkey perhaps a majority ( led by male population other than in big cities ) might favour handscarves. While Ataturk might have put the Turks in trousers and jackets, the thinking specially in the country side is still conservative.

Only as part of Turkey’s drive to bring its laws at par with EU, in early 2002  revolutionary changes were enacted in its family law code, declaring women and men equal in marriage and giving women equal rights in divorce and property ownership. In spite of the excesses of the secular establishment, the military is still a guarantor of the secular state. There is always a danger of reforms being eroded and being swept away slowly. When AKP loses its massive majority, in competitive party politics, it is bound to use the Islamic card. Politicians use the religious card all over the world to win elections, whether its USA, Israel, India or Malaysia, with disastrous results many times. 

Although the custom of covering women with head scarves, Hijab veils or  Chador  is now generally  associated with Islamic societies, but the practice actually predates Islamic culture by many millennia. Veiling and seclusion were marks of prestige and status symbols in the Assyrian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine empires as well as in Sasanian Iran. The Muslim Umayyads, perhaps, first copied it from the Byzantines in Damascus, which they took over lock stock and barrel. According to a tradition, Prophet Mohammad’s wife Aisha did not veil her face. Generally there was greater freedom for women among nomadic Arabs, Turks and Mongols.

But in recent history, veil or hijab has also been used to make political statements as in Muslim countries like Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, and where Muslims are in a minority, as in France.

Says Dr.Faegheh Shirazi, an Iranian professor at the University of Austin, "Some people think of the veil as erotic and romantic, others perceive it as a symbol of oppression, still others consider it a sign of piety, modesty or purity. It has become so ubiquitous that everyone seems to have formed an opinion about it. The various connotations it has, the many emotions it arouses, testify to its continuing, perhaps even growing, significance in the modern world."

(K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal.  He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own.-