New row erupts over the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public in France

Sigh… Hopefully Quebec politicians won’t pick up on this, applying a ban to mothers on school field trips:

The debate around women wearing the Islamic headscarf has divided French politicians again, with France’s right wing Senate leader Gérard Larcher calling for President Emmanuel Macron to revise the law when it comes to religious neutrality in schools.

“It’s without a doubt a difficult subject,” Larcher said in an interview with France 2 Televisionon Tuesday night.

“But it is an essential subject, and we expect the President to federate and to make people of Muslim origin and religion feel just as much as part of the Republic as atheists, Catholics and Jews,” he said.

A bill sponsored by Les Republicans on maintaining religious neutrality within staff in the public school sector is up for a vote in the Senate, as early as next week.

“There is a need to discuss neutrality in public schools, without hate, without weakness. The subject has not been dealt with sufficiently,” he stressed.

During question time on Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe addressed the National Assembly, rejecting accusations that the government had an ambiguous stance when it came to religion in schools.

Philippe said the government preferred to focus on avoiding radicalisation, and school absence because of religious community pressure.

He was attempting to head off a new controversy over the question of secularism and whether or not to allow mothers wearing the Islamic headscarf to accompany their children’s classes on school outings.

Ruling party divided on issue

The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.

In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab, a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed, from classrooms and government offices.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer stressed on Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children”, referring to a state council ruling from 2013.

But he also indicated that “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity”.

Minister suggests Islamist provocation

Two incidents in the past week have lead to a further revival of this debate.

Last Friday, far-right National Rally (RN) minister Julien Odoul provoked widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.

Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalised convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.

Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation”.

Fatima E., speaking to the press for the first time since the incident told France Info on Tuesday that she thought it was a joke until she saw how the students were reacting.

“They were really shocked and traumatised,” she said, and even though she didn’t want to give in, she eventually realized it was better if she left the room, only to be confronted in the corridor by another former member of the National Rally party.

“I was shaking from head to toe,” she said, going on to say that she now has a bad opinion of “what is called the Republic”.

Regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticised Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.

Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behaviour” on the part of a lawmaker.

Fire station refuses school visit

Then on Monday, a visit by a group of school students to the main fire station in Creil, north of Paris, was cancelled outright because two of the mothers accompanying the group were wearing an Islamic hijab.

The director of Regional Fire and rescue service (SDIS) said it was a simple case of misinterpretation on behalf of the fire station chief and that it was regrettable that it had happened.

“The women were wearing a simple headscarf, known as hijab,” Eric de Valroger President of the SDIS told AFP.

“I think the chief was just trying to do his job, and apply the law,” he went on.

One of the women made a complaint to the fire service, saying she was “shocked” over their refusal to allow her to enter the building.

Valroger, who is also the vice-president of the Republicans party in the Val d’Oise region later said the woman had since spoken to the fire station chief and he had apologized and things had calmed down.

Source: New row erupts over the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public in France

Europe wonders whether to bring back children raised under Islamic State

Not unique to Europe.

Hard to feel any sympathy for the mothers who went to fight for the ISIS. The children are another matter but the integration challenges, with or without their mothers, will be significant:

The children’s voices crackled through the phone and into Fatiha’s gray-walled living room.

“When are we going to grandma’s?” one implored in the background, and then into the phone: “Are you coming to get us?”

In the hallway, six coat hooks were fixed in a row at child’s height. A backpack hung on each one. Up a steep stairway, sheets with characters from Pixar’s “Cars” were carefully tucked into bunk beds, awaiting the children’s return.

But Fatiha, a Belgian whose grandparents emigrated from Morocco, didn’t know when her six grandchildren — who range in age from 10 months to 7 years – would be back. They are among the hundreds of children born to European citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State. Now that the caliphate has collapsed, and the planned U.S. withdrawal has compounded regional instability, grandparents across Europe are pushing to save children whom in some cases they’ve seen only in photos, looking up at them from the dusty desert floor.

“We’re waiting for them, everything is ready for them,” Fatiha, 46, said in an interview at her home outside Antwerp, in a bucolic village where backyards give way to hayfields. The children’s fathers are dead, and their mothers – Fatiha’s daughter and daughter-in-law – would face prison sentences if they return to Belgium. So Fatiha has prepared to care for the children herself. To protect her grandchildren, she spoke on the condition that her last name not be published.

For Belgium, France and other countries that saw some of their nationals gravitate toward Islamic State territory as it expanded across Syria and Iraq, the plight of children who have claims to citizenship has ignited questions that would test the most Solomonic of judges.

Governments are grappling with how much responsibility they bear for the safety of these small citizens, most of them younger than 6, in a region where fresh conflict could erupt. Courts are weighing whether the rights of the children extend to returning with their Islamic State parents. And a bitter public debate is underway about whether grandparents whose own children ran away to the Islamic State can be trusted to raise a new generation differently.

The Kurdish authorities who control the territory in northeastern Syria where many of these families ended up estimate they have more than 1,300 children in their refugee and prison camps. Russia repatriated 27 children last week. France is considering bringing back more than 100 fighters – who would face trial – and their families. But until now, most governments have calculated that the political downside of retrieving parents who may pose security risks outweighs any need to bring back the children.

In Fatiha’s case, a judge ruled that Belgium must repatriate her six grandchildren, along with her daughter and her daughter-in-law – Belgian citizens who joined the Islamic State and now want to come back. The two women were convicted in absentia of joining a terrorist organization and would each face a five-year prison sentence upon their arrival on Belgian soil. But the judge ruled that bringing the children home and leaving their mothers in Syria would violate the children’s human rights.

The Dec. 26 ruling has spurred a furious response from Belgian leaders, and the government plans to appeal in court on Wednesday. Authorities expect whatever precedent is set to affect decisions about other Islamic State families. At least 22 Belgian children are in Syrian camps, and more than 160 are believed to be in the conflict zone.

The most vociferous objections relate to the return of the parents.

“We won’t punish young children for their parents’ misdeeds,” Belgium’s migration secretary, Maggie De Block, said in a statement last month. “They have not chosen the Islamic State. That is why we want to make efforts to bring them back to our country. For the parents, the situation is different. They themselves have deliberately chosen to turn their backs on our country and even to fight against it. Repeatedly.

“Solidarity has its limits,” she said. “The freedom you enjoy in our country to make your own decisions also means you bear responsibility for the consequences.”

Spokesmen for De Block, the justice ministry and Belgium’s prime minister all declined to comment for this report. They would not confirm whether the government was paying the judge’s prescribed penalty of 5,000 euros per child per day if they weren’t returned by Feb. 4.

Even for the children, Belgian sympathy goes only so far. Many people are anxious. Belgium contributed the largest number of Islamic State fighters to Syria per capita of any European Union nation, and the country remains scarred by the attacks of 2016, when Belgian citizens with Islamic State connections targeted Brussels with deadly bombings. Discussions on talk shows and in editorial pages have stoked fear about what the children may have learned from their parents or from Islamic State training camps, which targeted children as young as 6 for indoctrination – although little evidence exists that any of the Belgians were exposed.

Belgium needs to protect “these children as well as our children, and to protect the parents of our children,” said Nadia Sminate, a lawmaker in the regional parliament for the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium who has been a vocal critic of plans to bring back the children. “These children have been raised with different values and norms than our children. We don’t have to be silly about that. They’ve seen the cruelest things in the world.”

When Fatiha needs to cheer herself up, she plays a video her daughter sent last summer of her grandchildren raucously singing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Dutch – their first and only language.

Her days are a blur of frustration. A visit from the police, interviewing her yet again to determine whether she would raise the grandchildren in a radicalized home. A phone call with her lawyer, who is battling the Belgian government to carry out the judge’s order. A rattling train trip to Brussels alongside other grandmothers who are pushing policymakers to repatriate their toddlers. An anxious internet search of prison conditions in Deir Ezzour, Syria, where she was worried her daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren had been taken after they dropped out of contact for more than two weeks last month.

When they resurfaced, they reported that Kurdish authorities had blindfolded them and transferred them not to Deir Ezzour, but to a more brutal camp than they’d been in previously. One of Fatiha’s grandsons has chronic diarrhea, and now he has only a single pair of pants, his mother said. Another has asthma, but no medicine.

“Everything keeps getting worse,” Fatiha’s daughter, Bouchra Abouallal, 25, said in an interview with The Washington Post via a messaging service. “I keep telling the children, ‘Don’t be afraid. Nothing is going to happen.’ But they’re not stupid anymore.”

After the December court order, “we told our children, ‘We’re almost home. We’ll be there in a month,’ ” Abouallal said, her voice cracking.

A boy’s voice interrupted. “Why are you crying?”

“It’s now they who are calming me down, not the other way around,” Abouallal told The Post.

By Fatiha’s account, her family’s problems started with her 2009 divorce from her children’s father, which sent them searching elsewhere for support.

The family had worn its faith lightly. Fatiha said they practiced “modern Islam.” But her eldest son, Noureddine Abouallal, fell in with an Antwerp group called Sharia4Belgium — which would later be connected to 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Noureddine Abouallal shaved his head and grew a beard. He and his wife — Tatiana Wielandt, who converted to Islam to marry him in 2010 — marked their son’s birth with an announcement that included images of a fighter and a gun.

Bouchra Abouallal and her husband also joined Sharia4Belgium.

In 2013, when eager adherents of jihadism were streaming toward the fighting, the two couples went with their babies to Syria. The men were killed within a year. Abouallal and Wielandt – each pregnant with her dead husband’s child, and each with an older son in tow – returned to Belgium in 2014. The state didn’t seek to prosecute them then.

Fatiha said she was furious that they had run away, but she let them back in her life. Abouallal and Wielandt crammed into a bunk bed. Two baby boys were born. Their toddler sons settled in at a school two doors down.

Once, at a backyard barbecue, one grandson dived under a table as a plane flew overhead – perhaps a reaction ingrained from bombings. But otherwise the boys showed little evidence of what they had been through, Fatiha said.

Then, one day in 2015, they all disappeared, leaving Fatiha with a house full of toys and a child-size Nutella handprint on the door to the backyard.

“I felt like I was stabbed in my back. I felt like I didn’t want to have anything to do with them,” she said. She left the handprint.

In the end, she said, she decided it was better to keep in touch. The young women made it with their children to the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. They remarried, but their second husbands were killed around the time Wielandt gave birth to her third child. After Western forces bombarded the city into submission in late 2017, they fled into Kurdish-controlled territory and eventually to the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria.

Her daughter and daughter-in-law ask Fatiha for reminders about what Belgian primary schools teach, so they can try to replicate the lessons. In video clips, the kids show off their somersaults and tumbling. Recently, Abouallal sent a video of Fatiha’s newest granddaughter, born last April, wearing her first headband and plucking at the unfamiliar white elastic as it slipped over her eyes.

“I told them I want to see everything as they grow up,” Fatiha said. “I don’t want to miss a thing.”

But as the Belgian government stalls, and as the security situation in Syria becomes increasingly uncertain, Fatiha and the other grandmothers are growing embittered.

Nabila Mazouz — whose son was caught at the airport as he tried to make his way to Syria – started a support group called Mothers’ Jihad to help fight for the return of Belgians who spent time in the caliphate.

“I understand the government. I understand the security issues,” Mazouz said. “But I guarantee they’re going to come back, and if they come back in 15 to 20 years, what kind of mood are they going to come back in?”

She said that after being repeatedly spurned by Belgian authorities, she now better understands her son’s disaffection.

“I never asked myself, ‘Am I Moroccan or Belgian?’ I said I was Belgian,” she said. “I was born here. I work here. I pay my taxes here. But now I ask myself. Now the parents understand the perspective of the young adults.”

Advocates for the children in Syria have been targeted with bile.

“Normally, everybody likes what we do,” said Heidi De Pauw, the director of Child Focus, a Belgian organization that is modeled on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States. But for pressing Belgian authorities on this case, she has received death threats and been told that the children should be “drowned like kittens.”

De Pauw and others say the children should not be condemned because their parents made bad decisions.

One psychologist who traveled to Syria in October to assess Belgian children in the camps, including Fatiha’s grandchildren, said despite everything they have been through, their play and development were relatively normal.

“We were really surprised about how these children were doing,” said Gerrit Loots, a child psychologist at the Free University of Brussels. “Once these children have adapted, they can go to school, they can be with others.”

Loots said his greatest concern was how attached the children were to their mothers. “They’ve never spent a day apart,” he noted.

He said taking the children back to Belgium without their mothers would be “psychologically disastrous.” Bringing them all back together, even assuming the mothers go straight to prison, would be easier to manage, Loots concluded.

The mothers say they want to return, but they are ready to stay behind in Syria if that’s the cost of getting their children back to Belgium and safety.

“I have no problem with that,” Abouallal said. “I just want my children to have a secure life, and have a normal life, and that they don’t punish them for the mistakes we’ve made.”

Fatiha sucked in her breath, then dabbed a tear, as her daughter described conditions in their new camp.

“Try to keep them busy,” Fatiha urged her daughter. “Tell them a story.”

“I love you,” the grandmother told them all, before she hung up the phone and slumped into her couch.

Source: Europe wonders whether to bring back children raised under Islamic State

Mothers the latest weapon in U.K.’s fight against terrorism

Another UK initiative to reduce radicalization and extremism:

Now British police are hoping to tap into that mother’s instinct to protect her children. In April, they launched an unprecedented program to encourage Muslim women to contact authorities if they suspect their loved ones are planning to travel to Syria or have already gone.

Women are often best placed to intervene, says deputy assistant commissioner Helen Ball of the Metropolitan Police, one of three senior female police officers running Britain’s counterterrorism operations.

“This is very much about prevention and protection,” says Ball, who devised the program. “It is women who . . . notice a change in behaviour very quickly. We want women to feel confident to come forward, whether it is to police, or a community member they trust or a school teacher.”

Such initiatives — from the benign to the extraordinary — are being taken by governments as they struggle to reduce the number of western Muslims joining the war in Syria for fear they return to cause carnage on the streets of their homelands.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the issue a “global crisis in need of a global solution.”

“The Syrian conflict has turned that region into a cradle of violent extremism. But the world cannot simply sit back and let it become a training ground from which our nationals can return and launch attacks,’” Holder said in a speech to Norwegian diplomats and national security officials in Oslo.

… But as Einas Deghayes [mother of an extremist killed in Syria] insists, it is often the mothers who are the last to know what their children are up to.

Mothers the latest weapon in U.K.’s fight against terrorism | Toronto Star.