Asking a devout woman to remove religious clothing borders on paranoia and discrimination; shall we next ask Hasidic Jews to remove their kippahs?

 

In Europe today, it is the nation of France that has suffered and been victimised more than most by the extremities of the Islamic faith. The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015, the systematic murdering of Parisians in November of the same year, and the most recent ‘truck ramming’ in Nice on Bastille Day are three horrific moments in France’s recent history which epitomise its struggle with Islamic extremism. These three events claimed 233 victims.

In reaction to these events, France has justifiably been in a state of emergency since November 2015 (which was extended for an additional six months at the end of July this year). In accordance with this decision, measures have been taken by French authorities to ban the ‘burkini’; an item of clothing worn by female Muslims when sunbathing in public spaces. Although the ban originated in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, it has since been replicated in other southern coastal towns, and most recently been imposed in Nice. To quote a recent article from the Guardian, the authorities of Nice justified the ban on the basis that such clothing, ‘overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target[s] of terrorist attacks’.

So there you have it. In a country with a population of 4.7 million Muslims, discriminatory measures have been imposed to, effectively, dissuade prominent features of the Islamic faith. The irony is that France was, and still is by many, considered a great bastion of democracy.

In the aforementioned Guardian article, two images are key. The first is of a woman — wearing a burkini — lying on a beach relaxing. The second is of her being surrounded by four police officers, appearing to inform her that she needs to remove the banned garment. Now, it is the second image, not the first, that is harrowing. As the woman removes her burkini to the gawping stares of her fellow sunbathers, she is probably not only intimidated by these four officers but also breaking an avowed and personally upheld religious belief.

She does not pose a threat to her surroundings, nor does she appear to provoke or antagonise either the officers or the people on the beach. Her burkini does not have an Islamic State flag printed on the back, nor does it display propaganda criticising the French nation or its people. Yet she is isolated and ostracised on that beach as ‘different’ compared to the other French sunbathers; some of whom, the article states, assert that she should ‘go home’.

Flouting Freedom

The actions of Islamic State affiliates in France are unequivocally inhumane. But the worry is that these bouts of barbarism by a minute proportion of the Muslim faith, are the oxygen for the racist, and dogmatic views which are becoming increasingly popular across Europe.

It is this sort of reaction by the authorities which suggests to others that it is okay to stigmatise and stereotype; that the burkini is an offensive item of clothing, and that, yes, it does represent the Islamic extremists our nation is fighting against. The matter-of-fact statement by the Nice authorities only exemplifies this attitude by implying that, obviously the burkini is somehow equated with the terrorist attacks.

The reality, however, is that democracy requires freedom. Moreover, with that freedom comes the ability to express yourself however you please. The other, scary reality, is that when inherently repressive policies like the ‘burkini ban’ are imposed, the ignorant among us treat it as an opportunity to be more openly discriminatory. ‘The government thinks burkinis are offensive, so they must be!’, you can hear them cry. But what about the situation in which a Muslim mother is denied the opportunity to bathe with her children in the sea because of her clothing, whilst simultaneously a non-Muslim woman is free to swim and sunbathe nude, free from police interference? Who is to say which example is more offensive to the general bystander?

The central problem is that the ban on burkinis makes a sweeping generalisation that suggests Islamic garments are associated with issues affecting national security, thus justifying the ban in relation to national protection. This type of legislation allows citizens to comfortably forget the importance of differentiating the moderate Muslim from the fundamentalist; of seeing the internal strife within the Islamic faith as between these two strands. All it leaves is a simplistic and unsound justification for the claim that Islam, generally speaking, is offensive and nothing more.

I admire the burkini-clad woman’s bravery in committing herself to a personal and religious devotion of covering herself, even if it was to no avail. And I sympathise with her because, even as a Muslim, she too has become a victim of Islamic extremism originating from the terror committed by those that call themselves ‘true’ Muslims.

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