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.
The Arab League, as well as European Muslim groups, have also condemned the kidnapping.
"We categorically reject and deplore the practice of kidnapping and murdering innocent civilians and regard these acts as repugnant and wholly contrary to basic Islamic principles," Daud Abdullah, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said in a statement. "The two French journalists are professional workers dedicated to conveying the truth about what is happening in Iraq to the world."
Rejection of the kidnappings has come from even more unlikely quarters. The Palestinian militant group Hamas - which claimed responsibility Tuesday for twin bus bombings in Israel that killed at least 16 passengers - had just the day before called for the men's release, describing France as a "supporter of the Iraqi cause."
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has used violence in the past, is also calling the kidnappings - and the apparent murders of 12 Nepalese laborers held hostage in Iraq - "un-Islamic."
"Civilians who have done nothing wrong shouldn't be killed. It's immoral," says Gemal Heshmat, a member of the Brotherhood. "There are people who want to believe Islam is a religion of terrorists. Nothing could be further from the truth, but these incidents work in their interests."
Indeed, many Muslims say they're frustrated that groups who carry out such attacks tarnish the whole image of Islam in the West. While most complaints center on the Western press, which they accuse of focusing too much on fringe terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ignoring the peaceful majority, there is also a growing awareness that the most extreme militants bear at least part of the blame.
Even among Islamist groups that use violence, there is a continuum of beliefs on whether it's "Islamic" to attack civilians, ranging from groups that reject such attacks in all cases, to ones that view them as acceptable collateral damage in attacks on armed combatants, to still others that argue that all civilians from countries deemed to be enemies are fair game. Hamas' condemnation of the French kidnappings one day, followed by an attack on civilians the next day, is an illustration of the disagreements among militants over who constitutes an enemy.
When jihadists around Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan began urging a terror campaign across the world after the Soviet Union was driven out of that country, many militants balked - saying it was one thing to wage war on troops who had invaded a Muslim country, but far another to strike out at civilians in far-off lands.
While a number of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Turkish companies have agreed to stop doing business in Iraq for the release of their employees, it's far less likely that governments will allow their policies to be rewritten. Though the Philippines bowed to the demands of a terrorist group two months ago in exchange for a citizen's life, most other countries have disavowed that approach, arguing it would make their citizens more vulnerable to attack around the world.
Last week, an Italian journalist was killed after Italy refused to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
While French President Jacques Chirac has dispatched his minister of foreign affairs, Michel Barnier, to Muslim countries to appeal for assistance in obtaining the two men's release, he has also vowed the law will not be changed.
The law goes into effect when the new school year starts Thursday, and will also ban Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses. Minister Barnier has told Muslim leaders in Egypt and Jordan that the law is designed to draw all faiths in France closer together, not to divide them. Small, discreet religious signs are allowed, but the government has yet to define the word "small."
Many Muslim leaders in France assume that Muslim girls will return to school, leaving their head scarves at home. One Muslim committee, however, claims girls will resort to private schools, because the rules don't apply there. Others have shifted to courses at home.