Approval of French headscarf law sparks ire of Islamists in Arab world

The passage by France's National Assembly Tuesday of a bill to ban the Muslim headscarf from state schools has angered Islamists in the Arab world, who say the law will damage France's image in the region.

The number two of Egypt's influential Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Habib, warned that the adoption of the draft would "negatively affect the attitudes of Arabs and Muslims with respect to France and the French government.

"We would have preferred that the French parliament not adopt this bill and that the French government respect the feelings of Arabs and Muslims, as wearing the veil is an obligation in the Islamic faith," he said.

Habib, the deputy spiritual leader of the partly banned movement, noted that Paris had previously enjoyed a positive image in the region "due to its political positions, especially with respect to the Palestinian cause."

On Tuesday, the lower house of France's parliament, the National Assembly, adopted by a wide margin the first reading of a bill that would ban Muslim headscarves and other conspicuous religious insignia from state schools.

The initiative -- put forward by French President Jacques Chirac's ruling centre-right party and supported by the left-wing opposition Socialists after a compromise deal -- faced opposition from some Muslims and human rights groups.

It will now go on to the parliament's upper house, the Senate, for review and further amendments.

In a statement published Tuesday, students at Egypt's Alexandria University cautioned: "France's image will be severely altered if the law is passed."

Hundreds of students demonstrated against the draft at the university on Monday, calling for a boycott on French products, the French university in Cairo and French schools across Egypt following its eventual passage.

Mobile phones buzzed in Cairo on Monday with text messages calling for shows of solidarity with France's estimated five million Muslims.

In Jordan, a top official in the main opposition Islamic Action Front, Abdel Latif Arabiyat, condemned the vote, calling it an "act of aggression against the Islamic faith" and warning that France would "regret its decision".

Habib hit out at the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, who said France had the right to ban the Islamic hijab in schools.

Mohammed Sayed Tantawi "gave France what it wanted on a silver platter and proved himself to be more monarchist than the king for political reasons," said Habib, whose organization is seen as the strongest opposition group in Egypt.

"The veil is an obligation that no Muslim has the right to modify," Habib said.

During a visit to Egypt in December by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the sheikh said that while the veil was a divine obligation, women living in non-Muslim countries like France had to respect the laws of those states.

His moderate position angered many imams in the Arab world.

Last month, Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called France's proposed law an "infringement on human rights".

Syria's mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaro, wrote to Chirac in December to express his "surprise at the ban", saying: "The Muslim nation sees the veil as one of the foundations of its religion."

Lebanon's Sunni mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, went even further, saying the law amounted to "hatred of Islam".