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Terror fears in France after Al-Qaeda threat

Published on 25/02/2004

PARIS, Feb 25 (AFP) - French anti-terrorism experts are taking seriously a new warning from Osama bin Laden's right-hand man who accused France of "crusader enmity" for its ban on Muslim headscarves in schools.

Although the Al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, did not threaten “jihad,” or holy struggle or war, he said the headscarf ban was in the same league as “the burning of villages in Afghanistan, the destruction of houses over the heads of their inhabitants in Palestine, the massacre of children and the theft of oil in Iraq.”

Zawahiri made the attack in an audiotape that was broadcast Tuesday by Al-Arabiyah satellite television in Dubai.

He called the ban “a new sign of the enmity of the Western crusaders against Muslims even while boasting of freedom, democracy and human rights.”

The French parliament this month voted to ban religious symbols, including the Jewish skullcap and conspicuous Christian crosses, in state schools in an attempt to enforce France’s strict separation of religion and state.

Some Muslims have interpreted the ban as an attack on their faith.

Experts say Zawahiri’s statement elevates an internal French issue to the international pan-Islamist stage, and can be seen either an incitement to action or a way of legitimising action in advance.

“It’s an incitement to terrorist action,” said Antoine Sfeir, editor-in-chief of the magazine Les Cahiers de l’Orient, which deals with Middle East issues. He added that Zawahiri, “the veritable brain of Al-Qaeda,” sees the headscarf issue as one around which Muslim communities can rally, in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Thousands of people have marched in Paris and other cities against the headscarf ban, which has touched off a noisy debate in the country and led to accusations that the government is “Islamophobe.”

Officially, France has not commented on the statement by Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding with Bin Laden on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Intelligence sources said the tape puts France back among the “crusaders,” following a period in which its opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq appeared to have spared it from Al-Qaeda threats.

Francois Gere, the director of the Institute of Diplomacy and Defense here, said the law against religious symbols in schools, while seeking to grapple with the problem of sectarian ideology in a democratic society, had made the issue more radical.

One anti-terrorist expert said the notion of jihad includes the idea that Islam is under attack and needs to be defended. He said the headscarf ban “could be interpreted by radical Islamic militants as a new attack. One can ask whether the statement by Zawahiri is not therefore an a priori justification for subsequent actions.”

Meanwhile the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF), which is close to the radical Moslem Brotherhood and strongly opposed to the headscarf law, has distanced itself from Zawahjiri. His statement was “irresponsible,” said the union’s president, Lhaj Thami Breze. He said the organisation rejected any attempt to turn the headscarf question into an international issue.

The president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, Dalil Boubakeur, said Zawahiri’s statement was a “provocation” that was not worthy of a response.

Boubakeur, the rector of the main mosque in Paris, is a defender of France’s secular tradition.


                                                              Subject: France news