French Muslim leader warns of racism

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FRANCE'S leading Muslim cleric warned yesterday that a crackdown on fundamentalists could lead the French to consider every Muslim a potential terrorist.

Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris mosque, commenting on the detention of 17 alleged fundamentalist leaders, said the introduction of police checks on North Africans in Paris did not surprise him. The measure was taken in response to a threat from an Algerian group to use violence to obtain the release of the 17. Yesterday the French government banned five Muslim publications and detained 36 more people after a third night of roadblocks.

Dr Boubakeur told Le Monde: 'It is doubtless the authorities' duty to imagine all possible scenarios and to make a show of strength so as, let us hope, not to use that strength.' He cautioned Muslims against violence in France, saying it would be completely mad.

The rector of the Paris mosque is traditionally chosen by pro- establishment Muslim leaders in Algiers, giving it the reputation of being close to the Algerian government. With civil war between the secular government and Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria, the position of Dr Boubakeur, a French national and medical doctor, is particularly delicate. He said he tried to maintain neutrality towards events in Algeria.

The rector said he feared that the murder of Frenchmen in Algeria would upset the fragile consensus that was beginning to form between the Muslim community and French society. A particular worry was that the tensions would prompt France to see a potential terrorist in every Muslim and that it would resort to 'racist and xenophobic reflexes, indulge in a witch-hunt and go for people on the basis of appearance'.

Since the weekend, police have stepped up patrols of the capital, stopping several thousand people of immigrant stock for identity checks, detaining some. One, an Algerian postgraduate student, was caught carrying bullets and tracts in the suburbs on Saturday.

The 17 who were put in detention in a military base north-east of Paris were mainly leaders of the Algerian Brotherhood in France, an organisation established in 1990 to represent the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, which was banned in Algeria after the government halted the 1991 elections, which the FIS was set to win.

The identity checks have aroused criticism that France is over-reacting. Some commentators said the threat by the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of FIS, was bluster. But the police say they have evidence fundamentalists had arms in France.