CAIRO AND PARIS
A kidnapping campaign originally focused on terrorizing foreign companies and countries into leaving Iraq has now turned on France, one of the foremost Western critics of the US invasion of Iraq.
But the militants, who have effected some recent retreats, may have miscalculated this time. Their latest move has sparked anger across a broad spectrum of the Muslim world, from French moderates to militant groups like Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq threatened to kill two French journalists unless France agrees to scrap a controversial ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in schools.
The ban, which forbids all conspicious religious garb in the name of secularism, was passed earlier this year amid French concerns that Islamic militancy could change the character of the country. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe apart from Turkey.
Yet many of the Muslim groups inside France that oppose the ban are mobilizing to try save the men's lives, particularly since the kidnappers' threats play into the negative stereotypes that fed French concerns in the first place.
The Union of Muslim Organizations in France (UOIF), a top opponent of the ban, issued a statement saying it "vigorously condemned the taking of hostages" and said that foreigners shouldn't intervene in internal French affairs.
"We are living in a democracy and we as Muslims participate in that, in our own responsible way," says Bachir Boukhzer, spokesman for the UOIF. "We don't want any political or terrorist pressure from outside. Taking people hostage in Iraq can never be a means to influence French affairs. As far as that is concerned, all Muslims in France agree."
Indeed, on Sunday, Interior Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin met with leaders of France's major Muslim organizations and all were unanimous in their condemnation of what some called "blackmail" by the kidnappers.