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Last Updated: Monday, 31 January 2005, 18:00 GMT
Headscarf hate mail shocks Belgium
By Alan Quartly
BBC News, Brussels

Naima Amzil in a headscarf
Naima Amzil is fully integrated in Belgian society
"You are a bad Belgian and you have signed your own death warrant."

That was the message to factory owner Rik Remmery when he opened his mail one morning just before Christmas.

For ex-policeman Rik it was only the start of an angry and chilling tirade of threatening post.

Further letters put a 250,000 euro ($326,000; 173,000) price on his head and a final package contained a bullet.

By now the letters were coming to his family home as well as his factory. "December," another letter read "will be a nightmare." The death threats against Rik were caused by one simple fact - he employed a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf to work.

Somebody, somewhere in the small town of Ledegem in West Flanders did not like that and was prepared to take extreme action unless Rik sacked Naima Amzil.

But Rik stood firm.

"She's worked here for eight years. I accepted her with a headscarf and I will not change my mind because of one sick person," he said.

Removing the scarf

Naima was horrified when she found out about the threats. She could not believe someone would react to her simple white headscarf in such a manner.

Originally from Morocco, she had done everything possible to integrate into Belgian society - speaking French and Dutch and carrying a Belgian passport.

Hate letter
Police have failed to find the author of the hate letters
Her work colleagues rallied around her. The Unizo union of independent employers organised an internet petition of support which eventually racked up more than 25,000 names.

But as the letters kept coming, the pressure and fear grew. In the end, with the police at a dead end in their investigation, Naima decided to act.

She removed her headscarf to work on the factory floor. Health and safety regulations meant she wore a hairnet at work anyway and that allowed her to stay true to her religious beliefs.

Royal sympathy

It was a traumatic action to undertake. She cried for hours that day.

"It was very, very difficult. It was like a piece of me was taken away. The whole day I felt bad," said Naima.

Naima Amzil in hairnet
Naima wore a hairnet instead of the headscarf at work
Belgium's King Albert was on holiday in France and saw a report about events in Ledegem on television. He contacted the factory and invited Rik and Naima - in headscarf - to the royal palace for a televised audience.

For the king, it was important to send a message out that religious intolerance was unacceptable.

Naima and Rik's story is symptomatic of the suspicion and extremism rearing its head against many of Europe's Muslims.

In other parts of Belgium, political pressure is forcing local police to enforce rules that are hard to explain to the Muslim community.

Police vigilance

In Antwerp - a city with a 50,000-strong Muslim community - police can now reprimand, or even imprison, women found dressed in the burka (full body covering) on the streets of the city.

The police stress that this is an old regulation - originally designed to stop people covering their faces completely in masks at carnival time. It is all about public safety.

"When you're patrolling as a police officer, you should see the faces of people. Because if you can't see the faces, you don't know who it is, what they want to do," said commissioner Francois Vermeulen of Antwerp police.

"If you put on a Mickey Mouse mask and you start walking around in Antwerp, you will be stopped by the police. It's that simple. It's not only women in a burka or a headscarf and a veil."

But the police admit that the women they have stopped for this reason do not know about, or do not understand, the statute.

Back in Ledegen the police are still at a loss. The threatening letters have stopped for the time being, but the unpleasant feeling of a home-grown extremism remains.

"In a small town like this, everybody knows everybody. I think it must be a skinhead, a neo-Nazi, a neo-fascist, someone like that. I really don't know," said Rik.

On the factory floor, Naima is hard at work packing prawns and other delicacies produced by the factory.

She is still putting on a brave face.

"When I arrived here in my headscarf Rik said it was no problem. I never thought there would come a time when I would take it off. Now I just hope there'll be a day when I can come back to work with my headscarf on again."


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