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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 19   01-15 April 2012

Professor A. R. Momin

France: A Lone Terrorist, Politics and Islamophobia

In a gruesome incident that sent shock waves across France and much of Europe, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent, shot dead a Franco-Israeli rabbi and his two sons and the daughter of the headmaster outside a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19, 2012. A few days earlier, on March 11, Merah had gunned down three French paratroopers, one in Toulouse and two others in Montauban. The victims were Muslims of North African origin and were part of the parachute regiments that had served in Afghanistan.

As soon as the French police tracked Merah, they stormed the building in which he was hiding and after a 32-hour siege he was shot down by the heavily armed elite forces. Merah’s father wanted him to be buried in his native Algeria, but the Algerian government refused the request. He was buried in his hometown Toulouse.

The brutal and mindless killings shook France and it looked like the incident would inflame passions and further polarize French society. The French media initially suggested that the incident was part of a terrorist plot engineered by Al Qaeda. However, the facts that subsequently came to light tell a different story. Merah’s parents separated when he was five. In his youth he took to petty crimes, which landed him in jail twice. He liked to party and was seen dancing in a nightclub a few days before he started his shooting spree on March 11. Though Merah bragged about his links to terrorist groups, the French police have not discovered any such links.

Merah did not belong to any religious congregation or any Islamic movement, nor was he affiliated to any militant or terrorist cell. He lived in fact on the margins of not only French society but also his own Algerian Muslim community. In a perceptive article in The New York Times, Oliver Roy wrote that all the evidence suggests that Merah was acting alone, and that he was ideologically drawn to Al Qaeda by watching videos on the Internet. He was in fact far closer to lone terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik, who recklessly gunned down 77 people in Norway in July 2011. Roy draws attention to the fact that the actions of terrorists like Merah are often misconstrued. “Whereas non-Muslim lone terrorists like Breivik tend to be called mentally ill, Muslim lone terrorists like Merah are seen as embodying ‘Muslim wrath’”, says Roy (Oliver Roy: Loner, Loser, Killer, The New York Times, March 23, 2012).

Merah reportedly told the French police that he wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children who are being killed by Israeli forces and to attack the French army because of its involvement in the NATO-led intervention in Afghanistan. He saw the Muslim soldiers he killed as traitors, because they were fighting fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. Though Merah’s brutal, impulsive and irrational killing spree seems to betray a disturbed mind, it also points to certain harsh realities: the pernicious consequences of the ‘war on terror’ and the unspeakable suffering of the Palestinian people.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose virulent dislike of Muslims is well-known, dealt with the crisis with commendable restraint and statesmanship. In his public statements, he vowed to deal with the threat of terrorism with an iron hand, but steered clear of controversial issues like immigration. He met Jewish and Muslim leaders at the Elysee twice in 24 hours shortly after the incident, amid concerns that France might again be torn apart in consequence of the shocking killings.

France has a large Jewish population, estimated at 488,000, the third largest after Israel and the US. Relations between French Jews and Muslims—who number nearly 6 million—have generally been cordial. There are established channels of communication between the two communities. The city of Toulouse in southwestern France, where Merah was born and brought up and where the horrifying killings took place, has a population of 440,000. Toulouse’s multiethnic population includes around 35,000 Muslims, mostly of North African origin, about 2,500 Jewish families and thousands of Spaniards who fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Relations between Muslims and Jews in Toulouse have generally been free from rancor and antagonism. Soon after the killings, Jews and Muslims marched together, hand in hand, to mourn the death of the victims, to show solidarity and to send a message to the wider French society that the dastardly act of a lone terrorist would not be allowed to shatter inter-community peace and harmony.

The Muslim community lost no time in condemning the killings. Mohammed Moussaoui, chairman of the French Council of Muslims (CFCM), said that Muslims in France were offended that the suspect behind the killings in Montauban and Toulouse claimed to be acting in the name of Islam. “These acts are totally against the foundations of our religion,” he declared.

France is in the midst of a highly divisive presidential election campaign. The main contestants are Sarkozy, who is seeking a second term, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front and daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Before the Toulouse killings, Sarkozy was trailing behind Hollande in opinion polls, but the incident and manner in which the culprit was apprehended and executed by the French elite forces have boosted his ratings and have refurbished his image as a “security” president. On March 30, the French police arrested 19 people suspected of belonging to terrorist outfits. With an eye on the presidential elections in April-May this year, Sarkozy has banned the renowned Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has unequivocally and consistently denounced terrorism, from entering France to participate in an Islamic conference organized by the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) in April.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, openly capitalized on the prevailing anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. She has a virulent dislike for what she calls the “Islamification” of France and dubs the holding of Friday prayers on streets as “occupation.”

At a weekend election rally, Marine Le Pen openly conflated terrorism with immigration and thundered, “Mow many Mohammed Merahs in the boats, the aeroplanes, that arrive each day in France?” But her rhetoric was not only suffused with misrepresentation but was also out of touch with the nation’s mood. Merah was not an immigrant but a French citizen born and raised in the country. Three of the soldiers killed by Merah were of North African origin, two of them Muslim. All were French citizens who served in an elite unit of the French army. Like them, there are thousands of Muslims in the French armed forces who fight under the French flag.

Cervical Cancer and Circumcision

Cervical cancer is one of the leading and most deadly forms of cancer among women. The cervix is the lower part of the womb that protrudes into the vagina. Cervical cancer is the outgrowth of malignant cells that exist in the cervix. Worldwide, cervical cancer affects about 16 per 100,000 women per year and kills about 9 per 100,000 each year. In 2008, it was estimated that there were 473,000 cases of cervical cancer and 253,500 deaths per year worldwide. Approximately 80 per cent of cases of cervical cancer occur in developing countries. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most important factor in the development of almost all cases of cervical cancer. Women who have many sexual partners or who have sex with men who have multiple partners are at greater risk of cervical cancer.

A growing body of medical research points to the bearing of cultural, behavioural and lifestyle factors on the aetiology of disease. A number of researchers in many countries have noticed that the incidence of cervical cancer is much less among Jewish and Muslim women on account of the practice of circumcision among Jewish and Muslim men. The correlation between lower levels of cervical cancer and circumcision has long been suspected, and several studies in various countries have confirmed this linkage. Several studies have found that circumcision cuts cervical cancer rates. A study found that human papillomavirus was present in almost 60 per cent of uncircumcised men, but in less than 6 per cent of circumcised men. Some studies suggest that a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer was at least 58 per cent less if her partner was circumcised.

About 17 per cent of the total cancer deaths in women (33,400) per year in India are caused by cervical cancer. The cervical cancer death rate in the country is 16 per 100,000 women. A recent study carried out by the Centre for Global Health Research, Toronto, in collaboration with Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, published in Lancet on March 28, 2012, revealed that the incidence of cervical cancer was about 40 per cent lower among Muslim women than Hindu women, largely due to the practice of circumcision among Muslim men, which reduces the sexual transmission of the human papillomavirus. The study found that the mortality rate due to cervical cancer was much lower in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, where the population of Muslim women is higher, than in the general population. While 16 out of 100,000 women between the ages of 30 and 69 in the general population die of cervical cancer, this figure is 2.3 in Jammu and Kashmir and 3.5 in Assam.

There is growing medical evidence which suggests that the removal of the foreskin through circumcision can effectively prevent a number of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Three randomized controlled trials in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda between 2005 and 2007 demonstrated that circumcision reduced the risk of contracting HIV by 50 to 60 per cent.

Football-friendly Hijab

Football or soccer is the world’s most popular game, played by over 250 million people in 200 countries. Though it is largely male-dominated, a fairly large number of women and girls around the world enthusiastically play the game. According to the International Federation for World Soccer (FIFA), the world football governing body, more than 29 million women and girls—and their numbers are constantly growing--play the game.

In 2007 FIFA banned women wearing headscarves from playing football for safety reasons and because of rules that stipulate that religious or political symbols should not be allowed on pitch. The Iranian women’s football team had to forfeit a match against Jordan in June 2011 because they refused to remove their headscarf.

The ban on the wearing of headscarves on pitch has been contested by many Muslim and non-Muslim athletes, who have argued that the ban promotes inequality in the world’s most popular game and inhibits the potential for it in Muslim countries. A Facebook page called “Let Us Play,” which supports the right of players to wear a headscarf, has already generated more than 60,000 likes. The United Nations joined the calls for lifting the ban. Wilfred Lemke, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on sports for development and peace, wrote to FIFA president, Sepp Blatte, saying, “It would give the opportunity for remarkable female athletes to demonstrate that wearing the headscarf is not an obstacle to excelling in life and sports, and would contribute to challenging gender stereotypes and bringing about a change in mentalities.” In 2011, a group led by FIFA’s vice-president, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, successfully convinced the International Football Association Board (IFAB), of which FIFA is a major member, that the hijab was a cultural rather than a religious symbol and therefore the ban on it on pitch was unjustifiable. At a meeting in London in March 2012, the IFAB agreed in principle to overturn the ban. A meeting of FIFA officials scheduled in London in July this year will take a final decision in this matter.

In the midst of this controversy, a Dutch designer, Cindy van den Bremen, has designed a new, football-friendly hijab—called “Capsters”-- that looks trendy and meets the requirements of safety. Capsters are basically a plastic wrapper of white fabric with some stitching and a Velcro closing. It requires no knots or pins to tie it around one’s head. It is made in stretchable materials so as to make it comfortable to wear. The Velcro fastening is designed in such a way that if an opponent grabs the hijab from behind, it will easily come off, thereby minimizing the risk of choking or strangulation.

Sitting in her studio in the southern Dutch city of Eindhoven, surrounded by hijab-wearing mannequins, Bremen says that the hijab she has designed are meant to empower women and to give them the freedom to choose. “In the West, there is so much connected to this piece of fabric (hijab) that it is not fair any more. We think it’s a woman’s choice whether they want to cover themselves, and not anyone else’s choice—including FIFA’s,” she says. FIFA seems to be inclined to approve the design of the football-friendly headscarf crafted by Bremen.

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