Headscarf row re-opens old wounds for Algerians

ALGIERS Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:29am EDT

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - A decision by Algeria's government that women should pose for passport photographs without their Islamic headscarves has re-opened wounds still raw after nearly two decades of Islamist militant violence.

Algeria's secular-minded government says that as part of the introduction of new biometric passports, all women should be photographed without the veil, a requirement that has angered the country's influential religious traditionalists.

"We are in an Islamic country and the state should not be issuing laws that contradict our religion," said Abderahmane Chibane, the head of the Muslim Ulema Association which groups leading Islamic scholars.

The issue has even caused disagreement inside the ruling coalition that backs President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with the moderate Islamist MSP party, a junior coalition member, saying women should be able to wear the veil in passport photos.

Algeria is emerging from a conflict that broke out after the military backed government in 1992 scrapped legislative elections that a radical Islamist party was poised to win. About 200,000 people were killed in the violence.

As part of efforts to end the fighting, Bouteflika made concessions to the Islamists, including offering an amnesty to rebel fighters, setting up religious television and radio stations and turning a blind eye to radical propaganda.

However, analysts say the row over passports risks damaging the truce between the government and the Islamists that has helped reduce the violence and usher in a period of relative stability.

GLOBAL TRAVEL RULES

Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, who is in charge of the new passports, has said the rules are needed to bring Algeria into line with international conventions.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set April 1 this year for all member countries to start issuing machine readable passports incorporating biometric data.

"The veil should be taken off in accordance with international regulations which require that the person's forehead and the ears should be visible on the photograph," Zerhouni said.

This has been received with anger in a country which is one of the most devoutly religious in North Africa and where the majority of women wear the hijab -- a veil which covers the head -- though very few cover their faces.

"I will never take off my veil, I would rather never travel," Nachida Belili, a 19-year-old student, told Reuters in the Algerian capital.

Bouguera Soltani, leader of the MSP party, said this point of view should be respected. "It is not the people that should follow the government but the government that should follow the people, " he was quoted as saying in the Algerian media.

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh -- who is a moral authority for many Algerian Islamists -- has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, on the issue.

"It is haram (forbidden) for a Muslim to ask a woman to take off her veil," two Algerian dailies quoted him as saying.

According to Mohamed Mouloudi, an independent Algerian scholar who specializes in Islamic issues, a compromise is needed to prevent the row causing even more tension between the government and the Islamists.

"It is up to Bouteflika now to solve the dispute between the two camps. He has enough authority to convince both sides," Mouloudi told Reuters.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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