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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Europe moves against radical imams
By Nathalie Malinarich
BBC News Online

Not for the first time, France's relationship with its Muslim community has hit the headlines - this time due to government attempts to expel radical clerics.

Abdelkader Bouziane, expelled from France last Wednesday
Bouziane: Expelled from France after advocating wife-beating
But such a crackdown on radical Muslims is not exclusive to France.

Several western European countries - among them Spain, Italy and the UK - have recently stepped up efforts to curb the preachers who they say provide the ideological justification for terrorism.

Such moves have faced legal obstacles, raised concerns about freedom of speech and divided opinion among so-called mainstream or moderate Muslims.

'Government ignorance'

The latest European country to propose curbs to the activities of radical preachers is Spain.

There the recently elected socialist government is looking for new ways to combat militant Islamic extremism in the wake of the deadly 11 March train attacks.

The rationale behind the French move is that Salafism may push some youths towards radical Islam and possibly terrorism
Olivier Roy
French expert on radical Islam
Part of that effort, the interior minister told a newspaper on Sunday, should include more controls on the imams preaching in small mosques and checks on the content of Friday sermons.

While the proposal was welcomed by the leader of Madrid's main mosque, it was broadly rejected by most of the country's Muslim leaders, Catholic bishops and the opposition.

"It stems from absolute ignorance of the thinking and practices of Islam and of the Muslim community," Mansur Escudero, head of the Muslim community's main interlocutor in Spain, the Islamic Council, told BBC News Online.

"It's not constitutional and it contravenes fundamental rights. Bad influences can come from all sorts of places. Mosques do not provide refuge to terrorists and the government should not demonise a whole community."

And what if an imam breaks the law?

"Then he should face the consequences," says Mr Escudero.

Ideological framework

In France, the government already deports foreign imams seen to be advocating violence - the most publicised case being that of a preacher who last month condoned the beating and stoning of wives in an interview.

Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin ordered his deportation on the grounds that he used his mosque to advocate violence.

2004 - At least five foreign imams expelled, arrested or threatened with deportation. Government is reviewing law to facilitate deportations.
2001-2003 - More than 20 imams expelled.
2004 - Abu Hamza stripped of citizenship - he is appealing.
2003 - Jamaican-born imam jailed for soliciting murder - he faces deportation.
2004 - Government proposes to monitor religious sermons.
2003: Imam deported to Senegal.
The order was suspended temporarily by a court which expressed "serious doubt" about its legality. But that has not stopped Mr De Villepin from trying to expel other imams.

On Saturday, the Turkish leader of a Paris mosque accused of leading an extremist movement was placed under house arrest pending review of a deportation order against him.

According to Olivier Roy, a French expert on political and radical Islam, the issue is not whether these men belong to what are widely considered to be terrorist groups - he says they do not - but the spread of extremist messages.

"There are no terrorist groups operating in mosques - neither in France nor elsewhere. Al-Qaeda does not organise itself in mosques," he told BBC News Online.

"The rationale behind the French move is that fundamentalism, or Salafism, may push some youths towards radical Islam and possibly terrorism. Radical imams are seen as providing the ideological framework for terror - so as well as a political perspective, there is an issue of security involved.

"Without Salafism, there are many people who would not have joined militant groups."

'Clear message'

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, and recent figures suggest that the majority of its estimated 1,500 imams come from abroad. Less than half speak French.

Abu Hamza
Abu Hamza's case in the UK could take years to resolve

That is why the government is looking to train its imams and promote "French Islam", defined as a moderate Islam that respects human rights and the republican code.

While many Muslims leaders broadly support the idea of training, the expulsions have proved more controversial.

The president of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, Lhaj Thami Breze, has dismissed them as a "theatrical stunt".

But Mr Roy argues that what the government is doing, is sending out a clear message: "If you preach radical theory, you will be expelled."

The expulsion of radical imams is nothing new in France, he adds. "It has been going on for the past 10 years. What is new about it is the publicity," Mr Roy says.

And the government has made clear it is not about to stop, saying it will review the law to make expulsions easier if necessary.

Muslim concerns

Expulsion was also used last year by the Italian authorities against a Senegalese preacher and is one of the options the UK government hopes to use against one of its more controversial radical preachers.

There is no doubt that Abu Hamza has engaged in offensive rhetoric which is designed to be inflammatory - but it is unclear to me whether he has actually broken any laws
Inayat Bunglawala, Muslim Council of Britain
Egyptian-born Abu Hamza has been stripped of his British citizenship, accused among other things of providing support and advice for militant groups, including al-Qaeda, and encouraging participation in jihad (holy war).

But Mr Hamza's appeal will not be seen until January and experts say the deportation case could drag on for more than 10 years.

Meanwhile, the imam continues to preach outside a London mosque from which he is banned, and the government is finding itself under increasing pressure from MPs and part of the media to expel him.

But some British Muslims - who say Mr Hamza is a very marginal figure - warn that any such move could trigger discontent among members of their community.

"Attempts to deport imams can only contribute to the feeling of persecution many in the Muslim community have since 11 September 2001," warns Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain.

"There is no doubt that Abu Hamza has engaged in offensive rhetoric which is designed to be inflammatory. But it is unclear to me whether he has actually broken any laws.

"If he or others have actually influenced violent acts, it needs to be proved in a court of law. There is a feeling that the threshold of evidence has been lowered since the 11 September attacks," he told BBC News Online.

Others in the Muslim community, however, disagree.

"This man needs to be removed. The law needs to act. There should tougher action and faster against him," the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, Dr Mohammed Naseem, has said.

Madrid imam hails preacher curbs
05 May 04  |  Europe
Prosecutors study cleric's file
29 Apr 04  |  London


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