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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Wear a hijab, face death

Naima Amzil in a headscarf
Naima Amzil is fully integrated in Belgian society

Headscarf mail chills Belgian town
By Alan Quartly
BBC News, Brussels

"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 Ledegen 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 Flemish and carrying a Belgian passport.

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.

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.

"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."
"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."

Europeans are quick to lecture Americans about flaws in their society, but this is the kind of thing where the force of law makes it extremely difficult for someone to act this way and get away with it. In the US, this would get a state police or federal investigation as a matter of course.

New York has a similar mask law, but the idea it could be used to prohibit women from wearing a burka is unthinkable. You know, 9/11 unleashed a lot of ugliness in the West, this hatred of Muslims, which popped up in the US, but was quashed by Bush on down, migrated to Europe, whether as an excuse or a reaction, but the whole thing is stunningly offensive.

posted by Steve @ 1:36:00 AM

1:36:00 AM

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