Wednesday, January 7, 2004

When President Jacques Chirac delivered his televised speech about the hijab (female Muslim scarf) in France, I believed there would be an immediate Jihad against France.I anticipated a wide array of jihadist offensives against Paris. My primary analytical reason was the strategic importance of the scarf to Islamic fundamentalists worldwide.

According to religious radicals, the long scarf — which is supposed to cover the hair, and in some cases, the faces of Muslim women — is not just a tradition, but a religious duty called fard dinee. Per fundamentalist clerics, women have to cover. And by way of extension, those who do are complying with the will of Allah.

When women wear the scarf, Islamic fundamentalists consider it a pillar of their influence. They can deploy their statistical power and project it as a maker or breaker of their growth. If the hijab were used increasingly, the Islamists would feel on the ascent. If its use decreases, particularly by orders of a secular government, like France, the jihadists have no choice but to wage war.

Mr. Chirac projected a political trade. He would oppose the United States on Iraq, shield Saddam’s regime until the last day, stand firmly by the Palestinian Authority against Israel and continue to endorse Syria’s control of Lebanon. In return, he expected an “Arab understanding” of France’s domestic needs regarding secularism. He failed.

Although Paris refused to cooperate with Washington, and with others on uprooting the al Qaeda’s networks, the Sunni radicals did not grant Mr. Chirac a hijab removal license either. To the contrary, they punished the French “infidels” for their scarf sin. On the other side of the fundamentalist aisle, the French government tried hard to court the Shi’ite Jihadists, but in vain. The master of the Elysee attended a Beirut-Francophone summit, shook the hand of Hezbollah’s commander, and constantly identified the pro-Iranian organization as a freedom-fightingforce.He would have expected a respite from Tehran, when the “hijab affair” was settled by his speech. Notatall:Thespokespersons for the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami blasted the French president for his “anti-Islamic” war.

The anti-French holy campaign started one minute after Mr. Chirac finished his speech, carried live and instantly translated into Arabic on al-Jazeera TV. The anchors, analysts and obviously the resident-clerics had no mercy on the man who opposed America. On fundamental issues related to infidel-politics, there is no such thing as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sheikh Youssef al Qardawi, the senior cleric in the Qatar-based station, was clear: “This is not an issue of adapting to domestic or international politics or circumstances, this is a matter related to the essence of our existence.”

But Mr. Qardawi takes the issue beyond the debate: “By all means and in all that we can do, we must resist and fight. The Arab world, the Muslim world and all Mujahedin around the world must help their brothers and sisters in France.”

So far, this incitement can be transcribed under “freedom of speech.” But in jihadist language, it is more. It is a license for “freedom of action.” It will be absorbed by the several shades of militants in as much as they understand the “urgencies” of the call for holy duty. Some will hire lawyers, while others will threaten with vote sanctions. Some will take it to the streets, while others will boycott French goods in the region. A myriad of jihads can and will take place. But there are some who will take it to the Osama level (i.e., mass killing) when needed.

But the worse may be happening now. A press release issued this week by an al Qaeda affiliate out of Yemen claimed responsibility for the “downing of the airplane” with hundreds of French passengers and lost over Egypt. The claiming party, a man with an Egyptian accent, said he represents Ansar al Haq, an off-shoot of bin Laden’s organization. But worse is that the man threatened more strikes if “Paris continues with its anti-hijab policy.”

Regardless of the veracity of the claim, one thing is sure. Those who would take the scarf crisis to mass destruction exist. And France will have to make the mother of all choices.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East studies and a Middle East and terrorism analyst for MSNBC.

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