The photographs taken on Nice beach that emerged yesterday are mind-boggling in their violence: four armed, fully-clothed, male police officers surround a woman who is lying down on the sand in a headscarf and blue, long-sleeved top. They make her remove her shirt before writing up a ticket.
The officers were enforcing a recently imposed ban on 'burkinis', the full-length swimming costume favoured by conservative Muslims (and some Jews, too), which has been the subject of much recent debate. But the woman pictured was not even wearing a burkini.
Nice adopted the ban last week, the latest French municipality to do so. A further 15 southeastern resorts and towns in other parts of France have already banned the bathing suit in an ill-advised bid to protect a nation understandably anxious after a wave of brutal terror attacks.
France has enacted bans to protect the nation’s secularism, enshrined by law, before. In 2004, it banned the headscarf and “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as crucifixes and the Jewish skullcap, in state schools. In 2010, it banned the wearing of niqab, a face-covering veil, in public.
According to the wording of Nice’s ban, the move bars anything that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” It specifically refers to the recent attack in the city on Bastille Day, which killed 86 people.
However, the sight of four armed men forcing a woman to remove her clothes in public should be a clear warning, not only of how ineffective banning a swimming costume will be in safeguarding against future attacks, but also of how dangerous the move is. It smacks of thoroughly illiberal hysteria.
Such incidents not only foment divisions at a time of fear and tension in France and Europe, they give succor to extremists who peddle an ‘us versus them’ narrative. For the likes of Isis, don’t these headlines – and an image of four men forcing a Muslim woman to undress – reinforce their narrative that the West is at war with Islam and Islamic culture, not with Islamists?
Even before yesterday’s shocking images from the shore, French public figures in favour of the ban had already provided Isis with a gift-wrapped propaganda opportunity. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that the desire of conservative Muslims to cover up “is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.” Christian Estrosi, President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, said in a letter to Valls that, “the preservation of our social pact and our nation requires the government to take all measures to fight against radical communitarian practices.”
Though many observant Jewish women are also partial to full-body swimwear, the Parisian Rabbi Moshe Sebbag said that the town mayors choosing to enact bans “understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic”. This is dangerous language.
French Muslim women are being targeted for merely symbolising a threat in the French imagination, and their desire to dress modestly is being criminalised. The rabbi went on to say that wearing a burkini was “not innocent, it’s sending a message.” Valls also railed against the burkini representing the “enslavement of women,” as if this were about saving them. But the ban scapegoats women, sacrificing them on the altar of public anxiety. That is another form of enslavement.
Attacking a symbol cannot protect from violence. Humiliating Muslim women in what looks at best like a farce and at worse like militant secularism which will only feed extremists such as Isis. Proponents of Islamist ideology will be rubbing its hands with glee at the short-sightedness of the French.
Alona Ferber is editor for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation
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