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April 25, 2003

Officials Increase Warnings to Muslim Fundamentalists

The chickens, it seems, have come home to roost
Surprised by the strong showing of a fundamentalist party in elections for a council representing France's five million Muslims, France has increased warnings to Islamic fundamentalists.

This past week, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who personally pressed for the creation of the council, threatened to expel any Muslim leaders who preach extremism.

"Imams who spread views that run counter to (French) republican values will be expelled," said Sarkozy in an interview on Europe 1 radio. Sarkozy has been under criticism by refugee associations for expelling illegal aliens.

On Saturday, the interior minister re-ignited a simmering debate over Islamic headscarves by reminding a meeting of French Islamic organizations that photos of women on official identification papers must show them bareheaded.

Muslims attending the annual congress of the Union of Islamic Organizations (UOIF) in Le Bourget booed and whistled at the minister.

The UOIF, which is said to be based on the militant Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, came in second place this month in the newly formed French Council of the Muslim Cult that will be the official representation of Western Europe's largest Muslim population to the French government.

Sarkozy defended his initiatives to help create the council by saying Islam in France had become an underground religion of "basements and garages." Increasingly, second- and third-generation French-born youth of North African parents are becoming more devout and adding to the number of practicing Muslims.

The new council will be the intermediary with the French government for the building of new mosques and even religious schools. Sarkozy said he would make sure the council would not spread radical views nor try to create Islamic law in France.

"Islamic law will not be applied anywhere because it is not the law of the French Republic," said Sarkozy.

Under an agreement previously negotiated, Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris Mosque and representative of a moderate, secular-oriented Algerian-backed party, will be the president of the council.

Boubakeur will lead the body even though his party finished in third place in this month's elections.

The National Federation of the Muslims of France, a Moroccan-dominated party, won the majority of seats.

Objections to Headscarf Comment

Sarkozy's reference last weekend to existing legislation requiring all persons to be bareheaded on identification photographs was seen as a provocation by many French Muslims.

In an interview in the Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday, Sarkozy said he expected to be booed when he made his statement.

"But this won't make me pull back," he said. The minister said that even Catholic nuns must be bareheaded in photos, so there should be no exception for Muslim women.

The UOIF said it would abide by government law, but officials have expressed displeasure at the rule. At Saturday's meeting, a former secretary general of the organization compared the French law requiring women to be bareheaded for identification photos to the mandatory wearing of a yellow Star of David by Jews during the Holocaust.

This week, the minister of education announced that he would propose new legislation next year reaffirming the secularity of schools, where there have been numerous incidents over the years of Muslim students wearing headscarves being barred from classes.

French law allows the wearing of small, unostentatious religious symbols that are not arrogantly displayed and leaves decisions on the matter up to the heads of individual schools.

In announcing his proposal for a new law on secularism, Education Minister Luc Ferry said the public powers have to reaffirm "very firmly" the French republic's principles of secularism "in the face of this rise in communitarianism, racism and anti-Semitism.