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Have captors of French overplayed their hand?

The militant demand that a French ban on Islamic head scarves be overturned has raised a backlash among  leaders in the Middle East. Instead of attracting supporters, the kidnappings have aroused the ire of the Arab world.
Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, meets French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, left, in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday. Kidnappers’ demand that a French ban on Islamic headscarves be overturned has aroused a vocal  backlash among religious and political leaders in the Arab world.
Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, meets French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, left, in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday. Kidnappers’ demand that a French ban on Islamic headscarves be overturned has aroused a vocal  backlash among religious and political leaders in the Arab world.Nader Daoud / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The militant demand that a French ban on Islamic headscarves be overturned has raised an unprecedented backlash among religious and political leaders in the Middle East, who have often been silent about hostage slayings and other terrorism.

They say those holding two French journalists have desecrated Islam and mindlessly struck out at a country considered a friend to Arabs.

“This is a brutal operation on the human level, a bad one on the Islamic level and a losing one on the political level,” Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, told The Associated Press Tuesday.

Instead of attracting supporters, the kidnappings and their link to the headscarf ban provoke “the ire of Muslim scholars and intellectuals worldwide,” Fadlallah said.

Such comments contrasted with muted reaction in the region Tuesday when a grisly video surfaced on a militant Muslim Web site showing the purported killing of 12 Nepalese workers kidnapped in Iraq. The group that claimed responsibility had accused the Nepalese of working for the U.S. military. One Iraqi cleric told Al-Arabiya TV that their deaths, while regrettable, were understandable because “their work is military work.”

Journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 19 on their way from the Iraqi capital to the southern city of Najaf. A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq claims to be holding the two and has demanded France abolish its ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools.

France has said it would press ahead with the law, which goes into effect when school resumes later this week.

A militant group with a similar name to the one claiming to hold the Frenchmen was believed to have killed an Italian freelance journalist last week after Italy’s government rejected a demand that it withdraw its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq.

A meager presence in Iraq
Unlike Italy, France has no troops in Iraq and gained points with Arabs for leading the opposition to last year’s U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. There are fewer than 100 French citizens in Iraq, mostly journalists, aid workers and employees of private companies; nearly all are in Baghdad, according to the French government.

In a video broadcast Saturday, the group holding the two reporters gave the French government 48 hours to drop the headscarf ban, then Al-Jazeera reported Monday that the group had extended its deadline by 24 hours. On Tuesday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said his group had been told the deadline was Wednesday night.

Zaki said the Arab League was “using whatever moral influence” it could to get the men freed, but he said the Arab League was not part of any direct negotiations.

Criticism of the kidnapping has come from government officials, activists and religious figures — including those who have censured France for its head scarf ban.

Ranking Syrian cleric reacts
Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro issued a statement Tuesday calling for the release of the two reporters and also urging France to reconsider its scarf ban — “because of the sensitivity and importance of this issue for Muslims.” Kuftaro also praised France’s stand in support of Arabs. Many Arabs see France as an important ally in the Arab-Palestinian conflict.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab television station, broadcast a stream of criticism from voices including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

In a statement issued by the Palestinian news agency WAFA, Arafat urged the journalists’ “immediate release,” calling France a friend of the Palestinian cause. Egypt’s largest Islamic opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also condemned the hostage-taking.

Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for Iraq’s Muslim Scholars Association, appealed for the Frenchmen’s release during a Baghdad news conference Tuesday, saying while the head scarf ban was “painful for every Muslim,” threatening French journalists was no way to solve the problem.

Killing the Frenchmen, he added, could lead to Iraq’s international isolation.

A shift in the agenda
Dan Bymen, assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, noted that the focus on a French domestic issue was a change in the militant agenda and does not compare with more pressing issues for Muslims, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or charges the United States has “crusader” intentions for the Middle East.

Still, “it wasn’t shocking to me,” he said. France has long been a target of Muslim militant movements, especially those with links to Algeria. Also, kidnappers may be aiming to send a message to everyone, including countries that do not feel they are a target, that “any non-Iraqi in the country or anyone working with the Iraqi government is not wanted,” he said.

“A successful strategy against an occupation is to make it inhospitable to anyone,” he said.

The abductions have been condemned worldwide, and with denunciations from unexpected quarters: Islamic militant groups, such as the Palestinian Hamas faction, and even French Muslim women who oppose the scarf ban.

On the front page of Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar daily, Sahar Baa’siri wondered what the abductors sought to gain and why they were making demands that have nothing to do with Iraq.

The journalists’ kidnapping “is an exception ... to what has become the rules of the kidnap game in Iraq,” she wrote. “What’s certain is that the liberation of Iraq ... does not come by alienating the rest of the world.”

‘Dead-end confrontation’
Emad Eldin Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo who has studied Muslim political groups, said the Frenchmen’s’ captors are taking the kidnap crisis in Iraq to “a very dangerous level.”

“It’s a dead-end confrontation ... an act of complete miscalculation,” he said. “It will put groups like these at the losing end, not at the winning end, because any sympathy they might have ... they are losing.”

In fact, the kidnappers may have presumed the two men were connected to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq when they abducted them,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments magazine in London.

When they discovered the journalists were French, the militants “found a grievance with which they could try and leverage,” he said.