Islamic group: France abusing religious law

/ Source: The Associated Press

A powerful Islamic organization alleged Thursday that officials were abusing a new law banning religious symbols from schools by expelling Muslim girls who were wearing printed bandannas — not Islamic head scarves.

The head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, or UOIF for its initials in French, urged girls expelled for wearing bandannas to take their cases to court. Seven girls have been expelled from school this week for breaking the ban, including two on Thursday.

UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze, denouncing some schools’ interpretation of the law, also said his group would no longer be “blackmailed” into silence by concern over the two French hostages held in Iraq.

The kidnappers have demanded that France abolish the law, forcing French Muslim leaders into a low profile so as not to endanger the hostages’ lives. But that wall of silence began cracking amid a rash of expulsions of Muslim girls from public schools this week, at least three for wearing bandannas.

“We refuse blackmail against France from overseas,” Breze said, referring to the demand by the Islamic Army of Iraq, which claims to hold the hostages, to abolish the law.

“They tell us to be quiet because of the hostages. ... But we also refuse blackmail against the Muslim community. They are depriving us of our rights.”

‘You see the real motivations’
The law, which came into effect with the start of school in September, bans conspicuous religious symbols in school, including Jewish skull caps, large Christian crosses and the turbans worn by some Sikh boys. But Islamic head scarves were the main reason for the law.

The UOIF had counseled girls to wear stylish bandannas, instead of the more traditional large, plain-colored scarves usually used, in an attempt to circumvent the law. But some schools reject the printed cloth, too.

“Be it a head scarf or a bandanna, for us it’s not a big thing. ... You have a cloth warn for religious reasons,” said Rodolphe Echard, assistant principal of Louis Armand high school, which expelled one girl, Manele Boufrioua, for wearing a bandanna.

During the period of dialogue that precedes expulsions, “you see the real motivations of the young girl,” Echard said in a telephone interview.

About 10 expulsions were expected before the week was out. The Education Ministry said 62 other pending cases would go before school disciplinary councils in November.

Girls’ father to appeal ruling
Manele, her sister Dounia and a third girl were wearing bandannas when they were expelled this week.

“We think this is a law of discrimination, a law against a community,” said their father, Abdelhakim Boufrioua. He said he would appeal to the local school district, hoping for a change of heart.

“We’ll use all means and tools at our disposal ... to claim our rights, and we’ll go as far as the European Court of Human Rights. That’s clear,” Boufrioua said.

The Education Ministry has proceeded cautiously with the expulsions out of concern for journalists Christian Chesnot and Christian Malbrunot, who entered their third month of captivity Wednesday. A required period of dialogue with recalcitrant students was extended until this week when the first expulsions began.

However, Breze, the president of the UOIF, which groups hundreds of Muslim fundamentalist associations, said his organization could not remain silent because some expulsions were “unjust.”

“The law forbids conspicuous signs, and schools are now banning visible signs,” he said in a telephone interview. “Schools are making their own laws.”

Hearing for Sikh boys
A court was expected to decide Friday whether three Sikh boys excluded — but not expelled — from their school should be returned to class or a disciplinary hearing convened.

Recalcitrant students are sent before a disciplinary council when it appears clear that they cannot be persuaded to conform to the law. Most are Muslim girls.

Critics contend that the law contravenes fundamental rights and risks stigmatizing France’s 5 million Muslims, western Europe’s largest Muslim population.

Muslim opponents of the law hope to gain ground by questioning the legal soundness of a set of instructions on how to apply the measure.

The law is intended to uphold France’s constitutionally guaranteed principle of secularism, which is considered undermined by a growing number of Muslim girls wearing head scarves in classrooms, and to fight Muslim fundamentalism.

Boufrioua claimed that his daughters were isolated from the student body and were even accompanied when they went to the bathroom.

“This isolation was a real nightmare for my girls,” he said. “They lost their innocence.”