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World: Laws Regulating Muslim Practices Raise Dilemmas

By Don Hill and Alban Bala

The world's condemnation of Afghanistan's former ruling Taliban is based in part on the militia's insistence that the country practice Islam according to its particularly stringent rules. In recent weeks, Singapore, Albania, and even Germany have faced controversies over laws that also deny some Muslims the right to practice Islam according to their individual views. RFE/RL correspondents Don Hill and Alban Bala explore some recent confrontations between secular law and Islam.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's Muslim minority last month celebrated a court ruling allowing Muslims to slaughter beef and mutton in accordance with Islamic ritual. In Singapore, officials are embroiled in a controversy with the Muslim minority there because some Muslim schoolgirls wish to wear headscarves to school. A headscarves-in-school confrontation that broke out in Albania a year ago still is troubling that country, whose population is more than 70 percent Muslim.

And then, of course, there is Turkey, where officials act continuously to assure that Islam remains separate from government affairs. More than 99 percent of Turks are Muslims.

Since 11 September, authorities across Asia have begun moving against Muslim schools they say are centers of indoctrination for possible Islamic terrorists. The motives for legislating whether little girls wear headscarves or how butchers prepare meat, however, are less evident than the reasoning behind controlling suspected terrorist seedbeds.

Defenders of legal restrictions on Islamic practice often say their concern is less over religion than the social or political stances that prohibited practices symbolize.

Until last month, a law in Germany prohibited slaughtering meat animals as prescribed by accepted Islamic custom. Many Muslims -- like many Jews who keep kosher -- may eat beef and mutton only if it is ritualistically killed.

Germany-based Hakim Abdul Bari is an interpreter and an expert in Muslim ritual and practice. He says that a Constitutional Court decision allowing Muslims to kill unanesthetized animals and observe other ritualistic rules is good not just for Muslims but for all of German society. Germany is integrating its large Turkish Muslim community, he says, far more slowly than is desirable.

"Even German politicians have recognized that the isolation of Muslims in the long term is dangerous for the security of society. They believe if Muslims, who are a very big minority in Germany, are not free to practice their religious ritual, they will become easy prey for fundamentalists and radical groups."

Bari says that ritual slaughtering, in addition to killing animals without first anesthetizing them, involves such practices as assuring that the animal is facing Mecca when killed and saying the name of Allah at the moment of death. German restrictions, he adds, extend beyond the issue of slaughtering to other Islamic practices.

"In Germany, there are also some other restrictions on Muslims. For example, the voice of the loudspeaker of a mosque used for calling the worshippers [may be] heard only inside the mosque. It [must not] come out of the building. The Muslims argue that [the call to prayer] is the same as the gong of a church [bell]."

An incident in central Egypt on 10 February illustrated the other side of this coin. Egyptian authorities had to squelch clashes that broke out between majority Muslims and Coptic Christians after Muslims complained a new church bell was too loud.

Bari says that some Muslims take umbrage at a German prohibition against female Muslim teachers wearing their traditional headscarves while teaching in public schools.

However, most German Muslims come from Turkey, where restrictions on Muslim displays are widespread. Turkey became a republic in 1923 under the leadership of Kemel Attaturk, who abolished the Caliphate -- or spiritual leadership of Islam -- less than a year later. Since then, the military and most political leaders have strived to keep Turkey a strictly secular state. Regulations forbid workers and officials in public buildings from religious displays. In 1998, parliament adopted a law limiting the construction of new mosques.

Albania waded into the headscarf fray a year ago, when three high-school girls -- over the opposition of their parents and school authorities -- began wearing headscarves as symbols, they said, of Muslim modesty. The school's director barred them from classes.

The issue remains unsettled there. The girls protested against their suspension to public defender Ermir Dobjani. Dobjani called for an accord between the Muslim community and Albanian education authorities. But then the girls relieved the pressure by bowing to the requirement that they doff their headscarves in school and wear them only outside.

Ermir Gjinishi, deputy chairman of the Albanian Muslim Community, told our correspondent in the capital Tirana that the people's attorney erred in treating the case as merely an administrative question.

"This problem cannot be classified as an administrative error or administrative neglectfulness. This is a violation of human rights and a violation of the constitution. The human rights officer of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Colin Durham, has recognized the violation in this case."

Gjinishi said his community would like to take the issue to court but is hampered by the fact that no institution has made an official ruling that can be challenged.

The current case in Singapore is much like that of Albania. Three young schoolgirls early this month wore headscarves to school under the direction of their parents. School authorities suspended them from classes. In Singapore, most Muslims are ethnic Malays and the city-state's government is dominated by Chinese. Majority Muslim nations in the region -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Brunei -- have publicly scolded Singapore for its stand.