Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Hijab, Niqab and the Burkini | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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What distinguishes the west from the rest of the world is its respect for the principle of freedom; it believes in it as a culture and commits to it in constitutions that governments and citizens adhere to. For this reason, France’s highest administrative court, the State Council, intervened and considered the ban on burkinis being worn on beaches in municipalities in the south of France illegal.

The burkini is a new outfit designed to allow Muslim women to spend time on beaches and swim in public places if they wish to do so. The burkini faces three contradictory stances; mayors reject it because it is Islamic, Islamic militants reject it because it is un-Islamic, and a few practicing Muslims approve of it.

The State Council, France’s highest administrative court, considered the case that was brought before it and judges said the ban on the burkini “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty.”

It is possible to understand the problem of differences in cultures and bear in mind the growing fear and hatred that the local population feel. For example, Nice is one of the French coastal cities that banned the burkini, and we should remember that it was attacked by a man affiliated to ISIS who deliberately ran over more than eighty people in one of the most cruel, brutal and frightening attacks. In this frenzied atmosphere, it is natural that most French people said that they were against “Islamic” swimwear in a recent referendum.

There may not be more than a hundred Muslim women who want to wear the burkini and they would be part of the Muslim liberal minority. However, it reflects the state of the cultural clash and the increasing challenges faced by Muslims in the West with regards to the workplace, clothes and schools. This path of suffering was previously walked upon by Europe’s Jews who have co-existed and integrated into European Christian culture whilst keeping a part of their traditions without excessively differentiating themselves. Despite the moderate approach that the Jews of Europe took, this did not prevent the existence of hostile groups that are fuelled by religious hatred. However, they remained limited in countries that are ruled by law and where offenders are punished.

The freedom to practise one’s religion is a right that is protected by the constitution, and this is what makes Europe attractive to millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even to Christians of other denominations that used to suffer from rejection and discrimination in the past. The west is the land of freedom, but it is only protected as long as it does not infringe on the freedoms of others, like extremists do. For example, Omar Abdel-Rahman was an extremist preacher who preoccupied the British media because he insulted British society and the system that took him in when he arrived as a refugee who was wanted and had been given a death sentence in Egypt.

The British police guarded him and his home from racist attacks for years. He was then extradited to the United States on charges of being involved with an Islamist group that was behind the bombings in New York in the nineties. Due to clothing, food and freedom of expression against religious symbols, the limits of freedom in Britain, France, Belgium and other countries have become a hotly debated topic that is being fuelled with the large number of Muslim refugees. In addition to this, terrorist operations are pouring oil on the fire of hatred against the majority of Muslims who are peaceful.

The municipal authorities that manage the beaches of Nice, Frejus and other areas are trying to flout the decision and forbid Islamic swimwear, whilst much of the French media praised the judicial decision and considered it a victory for freedom and the laws of France. However, the burkini is one item of clothing amongst many. A previous judicial decision banned the niqab and implementing the ban is still a big problem for the authorities. We must understand why the law bans the niqab and does not ban the hijab which only covers the hair. The niqab is banned because it covers the entire face and is therefore considered a threat to security at a time when streets and squares are filled with cameras and detectives who scrutinise faces in search of people who are wanted.

We must also notice the social changes that have occurred in the Muslim community in Europe. In the recent past, the vast majority ate, drank, dressed and studied like the rest of the population. However, militancy has entered into the community just as it previously spread in Muslim countries. Muslims in Europe want to distinguish themselves with halal meat, Islamic banking, private Islamic schools, the hijab and the burkini. All of these things are consistent with laws that protect individual freedoms. It would be difficult for the majority of Muslims in Europe to become militants and live isolated from communities whilst Islam itself facilitates their lives according to their circumstances, and there are many different interpretations of this.