By Chine Labbé
PARIS (Reuters) - A French Muslim won a court order on Tuesday lifting a travel ban she says was imposed due to her ultra-conservative Salafist beliefs, in a case exposing tensions between France's official secularism and its Muslim minority.
The 19-year-old, who was raised Catholic and converted to Islam two years ago, said she had wanted to go to Saudi Arabia to study but her mother alerted the authorities, suspecting her daughter had fallen into the hands of jihadist recruiters.
The travel ban on the young woman, who has asked French media not to use her name, was imposed on anti-terrorism grounds. The government feared she might try to join Islamist militant groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Its lifting is a victory for non-violent Salafists, who say they are unfairly tarred with the jihadi brush in France.
"I am a Salafist, but I am not Daesh", the jilbab-wearing teenager told an administrative court two weeks ago, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "There is a big difference."
The case highlights France's struggle to deal with many of its 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe, especially since a wave of deadly attacks inspired by Islamic State and involving militants born on French soil.
Bans on burkinis, a full-length swimsuit designed for modest Muslim women, followed a new set of attacks this summer, the most deadly of which took place in the beachside resort of Nice.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the bans, which were later ruled unconstitutional. He has since attacked Salafism as a tradition that sees women as inferior and impure, and was "winning the ideological and cultural battle" within Islam.
National identity, and especially the relationship between a fiercely secularist tradition and Muslims who display their faith, is a hotly debated issue ahead of April's presidential election, in which polls show the far-right anti-immigration National Front performing strongly.
SALAFIST BUT NON-VIOLENT
Salafism, the basis for Islamic State's ideology, says Muslims must return to the practices of early Islam and shun many aspects of modern Western life.
But analysts say most Salafists are non-violent. Religious leaders estimate there are about 15,000 Salafists in France.
Tuesday's court ruling said the young woman was a rigorous Muslim who had regular contacts with Salafists, but that was not enough to prove she supported radical Islamist terrorism.
"The Interior Ministry's decision is flawed because of an error of judgment," it said.
The original court order said the teenager had been swiftly radicalized and changed her behavior and dress. It also cited her contacts with Salafists and plans to leave France when she turned 18.
It said she ran away from her parents' home last year and was found in southern France with two suitcases and her passport. She was wearing a burqa, outlawed in France since 2010.
"I didn't want to go home, but that doesn't mean I wanted to go to Syria," she told the court on Oct. 4.
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who works to turn young Muslims away from militant Islamism, said her staff had identified the teenager as a "non-violent Salafist."
"Yet the government treated her as though she was pro-Daesh. That shows a lack of judgment," she said.
France is now in its eleventh month under emergency law, imposed after the November 2015 attack on Paris by Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers and then extended after the Nice killings last July, just as it was about to be lifted.
"In France, we distrust everything religious," said Samir Amghar, a senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy.
"It's dangerous because you point the finger at people who consider themselves innocent and you give them the impression that Islam is undesirable in the Republic," he said. "That feeds into the jihadist ideology."
French authorities say they have imposed 240 travel bans since a state of emergency was imposed last year. Only 10 of them have been overturned.
(Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Callus; Editing by Tom Heneghan)