The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Lucy Anns, Europe Advocacy Intern at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Nice, France is in its third extension of the state of emergency. While some may doubt the effectiveness of this ‘état d’urgence’, there can be no doubt about French defiance in the face of Islamic extremism. In the days following the attack, Hollande stated that he would increase action in Iraq and Syria to strike those who had struck France. However, with the ban on ‘burkinis’, a swimsuit that covers the arms, legs, and head, now in place in Cannes and a few other coastal towns, the defiance may have gone too far.

Although the authorities have referred to it as a symbol of Islamist extremism, the item itself looks to be nothing more than a way of enjoying the seaside modestly; a value that is deeply important to many Muslims. Human Rights Watch have called the ban sexist and discriminatory, and other French Human Rights and Muslim organisations have declared they will take the ruling to court. Not only will it now be necessary to distinguish between a burkini and a wet suit, but it means that many Muslim women living in the French Riviera, Muslims being a considerable minority in many of the Southern cities, may no longer feel able to go to the beach. This law prevents them from exercising their religion in public, and thus denies them their right to freedom of religion, Article 10 in the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights of the European Union. Is this not just as important as freedom of the press and yet the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement following the attack on the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, which stormed social media, had a national backing.

In a country that prides itself on its commitment to integration, assimilation, and secularism, this policy is paradoxical. It will not make French society more cohesive nor improve national solidarity. Neither should it be considered a success for secularism. The courts have said that banning burkinis falls into the bracket of the 2004 law, which banned conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in accordance with laïcité – the French policy of secularism. However, the beach is not a government-operated institution; it is an inclusive, open, public space. This is laïcité beyond its remit. In order to prevent the further fragmentation of French society, France may need to rethink its strict secular policy, even as it suffers at the hands of Islamic extremism. Such laws will only worsen the already troubled relationship between its Muslim and non-Muslim communities; one cannot fight fire with fire. Moreover, the EU should not tolerate such an implicit breach of human rights. If we are going to retain our reputation when it comes to such values, and to our commitment to ‘Unity in Diversity’, we will need to think more carefully about how we treat our diverse minority groups.

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