Death to Chirac the Zionist? When thousands of Muslim worshippers gathered for the Friday communal prayers in Tehran on Jan. 2, they heard a stem-winder of a sermon by Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, reports Agence France-Presse. In the course of it, Janati denounced France's President Jacques Chirac for his endorsement on Dec. 17 of a ban against "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools, including the hijab, large crucifixes, and skullcaps. Janati called on Muslim countries to "threaten France with canceling contracts and to reconsider their relations with France," promising them that Muslims need only roar, "and the French would back off."
"Death to France!" came the response.
This follows an incident on Dec. 29 when protestors at the French Embassy in Tehran shouted not just "Death to France!" but also "Death to Chirac the Zionist!"
These imprecations prompt many thoughts, but one will suffice: Given the French government's friendliness to Tehran and its hostility to Israel, this hostile reaction points to the possibility that the condition of Muslims living in Western states might in the future define Muslim attitudes more than that state's foreign policy. (January 3, 2004)
Jan. 23, 2004 update: Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, points out in an e-mail he circulated that 'Ikrima Sa'id Sabri, the Palestinian Authority's mufti, declared in his Friday sermon today that "French laws banning the hijab constitute a war against Islam as a religion." This amounts to quite an escalation in rhetoric; will others pick it up?
Jan. 27, 2004 update: The Saudi religious establishment has weighed in against the French hijab ban, considering this issue to be within its purview – which has interesing implications. The grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, announced in Mecca that "Interfering in the affairs of Muslims regarding the headscarf is an infringement on the human rights that they [the French] say they are defending." He derided the French for being more willing to defend the rights of nudists than women wanting to wear the headscarf.
Feb. 25, 2004 update: As the French government approaches a legal ban on hijabs in schools and universities, a voice attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top aide, aired yesterday on Al-'Arabiya, the Arabic television station. In it, the supposed Zawahiri interprets the forthcoming French law in an ominous way: "The decision of the French president to issue a law to prevent Muslim girls from covering their heads in schools is another example of the Crusader's malice, which Westerners have against Muslims." Those sound like fighting words to me.
Aug. 29, 2004 update: They were. On Aug. 19, two French journalists in Iraq – Christian Chesnot of Radio France and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro – disappeared and today the "Islamic Army in Iraq" indicated that they would be executed unless the French government revokes the ban on hijabs in state schools and universities, scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 2, when la rentrée (school opening) takes place across France. As the kidnappers put it via a statement read out on Al-Jazeera television, the law banning religious apparel in public schools is "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms."
In a commentary on these developments, Agence France-Presse reports that although "kidnappings of journalists and other foreigners have become common in Iraq, … the journalists' employers and Sunni Muslim scholars had earlier expressed faith that if they had been kidnapped they would be safe because France had staunchly opposed the US-led war against Iraq." As noted eight months ago in this entry, it does appear that "the condition of Muslims living in Western states might in the future define Muslim attitudes more than that state's foreign policy."
Aug. 30, 2004 update: "The plight of two French journalists abducted by Islamic extremists in Iraq dominated French public life today," reports the talented Sebastian Rotella in the Los Angeles Times. He then explains the confusion among the country's appeasement theorists:
The hostage ordeal has hit France hard. It is a gloomy rebuttal of the theory held by some - though not by most French government officials or those knowledgeable about Islam - that France's anti-war, pro-Arab policies had inoculated the country against such aggressions.
No less interesting is how the hostage crisis is affecting the politics of the hijab ban, about to go into effect in a few days:
And the militants' demand that France scuttle its new law banning Islamic headscarves in public schools has suddenly altered a debate over the impending debut of the ban this week. French Muslims closed ranks in support of the hostages and muted their criticism of the law, a sign that only the most fervent pro-veil radicals would risk being associated with the Iraqi hostage-takers, who are suspected in the recent killing of an Italian journalist.
Over in Iraq, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi used the occasion, via an interview in Le Monde, to make a point that the French might now take to heart:
Nous avons toujours dit que la guerre en Irak opposait les forces du mal au peuple irakien et aux nations civilisées. C'est une guerre rude. Vous ne pouvez pas vous contenter de demi-mesures. La France ne sera pas épargnée.
We have always said that in the war in Iraq, the forces of evil confront the Iraqi people and civilized nations. It's a primitive war. You can't get away with half-measures. France will not be spared.
Nov. 6, 2005 update: As Muslim youth riot, burn cars and buildings across France, and declare war on the interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, Muslim governments jump into the act. Yesterday, the official Libyan news agency, JANA, quoted Muammar Qaddafi expressing to Jacques Chirac in a telephone conversation his "disquiet" about the developments in France and his offer to help deal with them. No less noteworthy is Chirac's assuring Qaddafi that everything is "under control" (when it plainly is not).
The spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hamid Reza Assefi, issued a statement today also expressing "disquiet" and adding with a touch of menace: "We hope that the French government will respect the rights of its people and respond to their demands non-violently. We hope that we will not witness the violation of human rights in that country." He added that "the French government and police should treat their minorities with respect."
Nov. 7, 2005 update: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, has jumped into the fray too, but characteristically with greater caution. He blamed the French authorities for ignoring his call for tolerance and blamed the violence on the ban on head scarves in public schools. "We've always told our friends in Europe that they should not lead to a clash of civilizations in order to prevent such incidents. We should work for an alliance between civilizations. There is a great duty which falls on the Christian and Muslim world. Europe should have evaluated this. We said it. But France did not take it into account. It did not listen to us."
Feb. 3, 2006 update: Following the publication by France-Soir of the Danish cartoons, cries of "Death to France" have rung anew, this time by 300 Islamic students in Pakistan.
July 20, 2009 update: In Iran, these days, the slogan is "Death to Russia."