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Western Press Review: France's Ban On Religious Symbols, Aid To Afghanistan And Comparing Saddam, Milosevic

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of commentary and analysis in the press today finds much discussion of France's controversial decision to ban "overt" religious symbols such as headscarves, yarmulkes, and crucifixes from schools and other secular state institutions. There is also talk of the international community's broken promise -- and its continuing responsibility -- to Afghanistan, the presidential election in Russia next spring, and a comparison of the crimes of Saddam Hussein to those of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.


A visit to "The Boston Globe" by former NATO commander Wesley Clark, now a U.S. presidential candidate for 2004, saw the retired general discussing some of the parallels between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. Clark commanded NATO forces during the 1999 bombing of Serbia, which sought to end Milosevic's campaign to expel Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority from the province.

The paper's Joanna Weiss remarks that a key distinction between the two government strongmen may be that Saddam Hussein "slaughtered and tortured so many more of his own people."

But Weiss says General Clark noted another crucial difference between the two men: that Serbia's Milosevic "had been an imminent threat to his region while Saddam was no longer an imminent threat when U.S. forces moved in to depose him." She cites Clark as saying that Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was having a destabilizing effect on Europe, costing Germany millions to care for refugees from the Balkan wars.

Clark is now testifying against Milosevic at The Hague. And because Serbs are following the trial on television, Weiss says "they are being inoculated against a recurrence of Milosevic's ethnic demagoguery."

Saddam Hussein awaits his own trial as the details and venue are worked out. In both cases, says Weiss, "the outside world pretended for too long not to be responsible for saving the victims of these two killers with state power. At The Hague and on the lintel of the courtroom where Saddam is tried should be written: Never again."


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" discusses the international community's continuing responsibility to Afghanistan. Support for the U.S.-led war against the Taliban for sheltering suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden "was nearly unanimous." Bin Laden is believed to have been behind the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. But once the world pledged billions to rebuild the shattered and war-torn country, "Afghanistan dropped off the radar screen."

The paper cites the findings of the Center for International Cooperation in New York, which reports that although $2.1 billion was promised in the first year after the Afghan donors conference, a year and a half later less than $200 million has been spent.

Most of the money went to emergency aid such as feeding and sheltering refugees. But funds for reconstruction have been very slow to arrive. Washington pledged over $1 billion this year, and the paper says it should urge other nations to increase their funding as well.

"Even when money is available, projects are delayed by the lack of security," says the paper. It suggests the UN should convene a new conference on Afghanistan "to remind nations of the progress in the last two years, the continuing danger and the need for money and security forces. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to slip back into chaos lest it again become a spawning ground for terror."


Writing in the "Financial Times," Philip Stephens takes a look at the current geopolitical order, saying what is more worrying than any of the globe's particular "trouble spots" is "the absence of anything that could be called an international security architecture."

The post-World War II order "of enlightened U.S. self-interest" collapsed in the wake of Washington's confrontation with the UN over war in Iraq. Cold War-era geopolitics saw U.S. leadership "embedded in an international rule of law that constrained the powerful as well as the weak. The paradox was that by accepting constraints, America enhanced its authority." This system was institutionalized in the UN, NATO, and "a panoply of multilateral treaties."

Under U.S. President George W. Bush, Washington's national security strategy is now based on "unfettered U.S. power," replacing "rule-based leadership with imperial hegemony."

But Europe "cannot be absolved of blame," says Stephens. It has been slow to recognize the threats posed by terrorism, rogue states and weapons proliferation. And so far, the realization has drawn only an "incoherent response."

Perhaps "the current international disorder is a transition." The "geopolitical plates took time to settle" after 1945 as well. "Now they are shifting again. The polls suggest that more Americans want to rebuild the multilateral system than rejoice in the destruction of the old order. Europeans have sobered up after the intoxicating confrontation over Iraq." But this "is probably the best we can say: the world is in flux. No wonder it does not feel safe."


A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reacts to Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement on 18 December that he will run in the March 2004 presidential election, made during a televised question-and-answer session.

The paper says only the opposite announcement would have come as a surprise: "He simply put in words what was clear to everyone long ago. Now it is only a question of whether the liberal opposition as well as the Communists will boycott the election altogether by refraining from putting up a candidate."

Another, more worrisome, problem is voter apathy. How many Russians will bother to go to the polls considering the outcome is close to assured? No one doubts that Putin will win another term.

The commentary says, "since there is no hope of Russia holding fair elections, Putin's 'managed democracy' will be revealed for what it is -- a semi-democratic voting ceremony." The paper says it is clear "there is only one thing that would alter people's indifference: the offer of free beer after ballots have been cast."


Karl Grobe in "Frankfurter Rundschau" takes another look at the debate surrounding bringing former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to justice. Grobe says brutal, "wild West"-style justice should be a thing of the past. Yet U.S. President Bush has already declared his support for Saddam paying the "ultimate" penalty for his crimes. Meanwhile, which court will view the charges, the venue for the trial, and which laws should serve as a basis remain unknown.

Grobe says the criticism Bush's comment has garnered is just. Saddam Hussein's trial is not just a formality -- the future of Iraq is open for question, as well as the dubious history of Washington's relationship with Baghdad.

Grobe says if the Iraqi people are deprived of the opportunity to conduct the Hussein trial, "the country's sovereignty and its capacity for establishing a democracy are damaged from the start." An international tribunal, on the other hand, might well reveal the fact that the U.S. administrations under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush are accessories to Hussein's crimes, since during their time in office they delivered materials for the production of poison to Iraq. An accusation concerning Saddam's wartime conduct could also backfire on the United States and Britain, since they launched this latest war in Iraq against the declared will of the United Nations.

Grobe says "political necessity does not absolve [Hussein's] accomplices."


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says French President Jacques Chirac "made the wrong decision" when he announced his support [on 17 December] for a legal ban in state-run schools on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. While Muslim headscarves, oversized Christian crucifixes, and Jewish yarmulkes were all offered up as examples, the paper says Chirac has, in reality, walked into a debate "about the scarves worn by devout Muslim women and girls."

Chirac attempted to cast his support for the ban as, in the editorial's words, "a reaffirmation of France's commitment to a rigorous separation of church and state." But "it is not that at all," says the paper. "Banning believers from following the discipline of their religion is, in fact, state-imposed secular fundamentalism."

The paper goes on to point out that a Muslim headcovering, a Sikh's turban, or a Jewish yarmulke are not analogous to a Christian wearing a cross. Wearing a crucifix is "a personal display of faith" and a matter of choice. "To observant Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, however, head coverings are obligations." Thus, observing these traditions "falls under the rubric of freedom of expression and conscience."


France's "Le Monde" also discusses President Chirac's 17 December speech, in which he stated his support for a ban on the wearing of overt religious symbols in secular institutions. Chirac's address professed to uphold all the lofty values of national unity, gender equality, equality of opportunity, the principle of secularism, and the values of respect and tolerance. And for his efforts, the French president has received widespread support from political and religious leaders and much of the public.

But "Le Monde" says it must take issue with all this unanimous support for the ban. Prohibiting Muslim headscarves and other religious practices would send a message of "cold, closed, and defensive secularism," the paper says. And it would inevitably "stigmatize, marginalize, and exclude" Muslims -- a portion of the population that France, now more than ever, needs to integrate.

The paper says all the rational arguments about the conflicts and pressures caused by headscarves worn at work or school do not shake its conviction that a part of the argument for the ban is irrational. While it is a social issue at root, the ban involves complex questions regarding religion, identity, and community. Far from being a move toward integration and reassurance, as Chirac appears to sincerely believe, the ban on the veil will send the opposite signal, says "Le Monde."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)