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Mon 22 Aug 2016 12:13 PM

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Who fears the lady in the burkini?

Burkini is a linguistic cross between a burka and a bikini, has been banned on some beaches in France because is not compatible with its values

Who fears the lady in the burkini?
A Tunisian woman wearing a burkini, a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women, walks in the water with a child on August 16, 2016 at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital Tunis. / AFP / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

In Europe, however beset by the continued weakness of the euro, Britain’s vote to defect from the European Union and the rise of the far right, a vacation is a right for oneself, a duty to one’s family. In Italy, especially, the beach doesn't just beckon - it commands attendance.

On the beach, Italians and tourists doze, chat, leaf through magazines, minister to the old folks, play with, or shoo away, the kids, and at times take a dip in an almost-warm sea.

But, as Corriere della Sera's commentator Beppe Severgnini observed, it's a summer composed of sun and insecurity, fun and fear. Italy's peninsula isn't just seductive for natives and visitors; it is also for the migrants who continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to get to a country that has, till now, remained relatively calm about the influx. It even welcomed them - perhaps heeding Pope Francis' passionate plea for tolerance toward immigrants.

That toleration is breaking down now, however, out of a growing fear that agents of ISIL lurk among the migrants, ready to unleash more terror on a European state that has suffered relatively little. That last fact allowed Interior Minister Angelino Alfano to declare that he would not go down a road that, were it not so serious, would have otherwise seemed a product of the August silly season: a ban on Muslim women wearing an article of clothing called a "burkini."

A burkini is a linguistic cross between a burka and a bikini. But it is most of the former with none of the latter. Likely invented in 2004 in Australia - another beach-worshipping nation - it is a one-piece swimsuit that covers the body, with only the face, hands and feet exposed.

It seemed to cause no great fuss in Australia. But it did in Paris in 2009, when a woman wearing one was banned from swimming in a public pool. Now some French resorts, starting with the classiest, Cannes, have ruled the burkini against the law and levied fines on those defying the ban.

It hasn't stopped at the beach resorts. Looking a little embarrassed (as well he might), French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last week that he supported mayors who had banned the garment because it is "not compatible with the values of France". He did not announce a national ban, though.

Valls and the various mayors are appealing to France’s strict secularism, which bans all wearing of religious symbols in public institutions, though not, until now, on beaches. Secularism has been a national choice for a century. But applying it to Muslim women who wish to remain modest, as seems to be the case, tips into legal extremism and makes the state look ridiculous.

Critics say the ban could provoke a violent reaction from Islamist terrorists, in a country that has had more than its share of attacks. Indeed, that was the main reason Alfano, the Italian minister, gave for rejecting a burkini ban. He received a justified rebuke from centre-right Senator Lucio Malan, who said that laws should not be adopted, or not adopted, based on presumed threats.

Both the far right and centre right are beating hard on the drum of fear. The French mayors who have banned the burkini are largely centre right. In Italy, the most right wing of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's TV channels, Canale 4, broadcast on Tuesday a program that featured the town of Mirandola, which was the epicentre of a serious earthquake in 2012 and where a beloved church remains unusable.

Yet a new mosque has opened in the town, built with public funds, as well as money from Qatar. Citizens, massed in the square, screamed “Shame! Shame!” at the lonely spokesman from the governing centre-left Democratic Party, whose plea for understanding seemed to enrage them more.

The miasma of fear spreads across the West, prompted by massacres in France and the United States, by the continuing official police warnings of the "not if but when" variety, by the evident enthusiastic ruthlessness of ISIL and other terrorist groups, as well as freelance murderers who act in their names after brief exposure to their methods on the Internet.

There seems no point in saying that more victims die in highway accidents in a month than terrorism in a year, nor that ISIL is losing territory in Syria, Libya and Iraq.

The fear of evil hidden in the community is too great for that kind of reckoning. It has become a political fact on the ground, which causes leaders who probably know better to back futile and perhaps illegal bans.

Donald Trump has long known the power of the fear of terrorism, and his speech this past week on immigration was one of his most carefully constructed. That isn't saying much because many of his remarks seemed streams of reactionary consciousness. But one proposal was actually doable - if still extreme. Trump pulled back from his blanket temporary ban on all Muslim visitors to the United States and called instead for a ban confined to nations where terrorism was out of control and for an "ideological test" on those who did seek to come to the United States.

Peter Feaver, a former George W. Bush official who signed a letter along with 50 top Republican former national-security officials saying they would not vote for Trump, said it was a “surprisingly serious” speech. He added, though, that "the good parts are not new and the new parts are not good."

It was serious, though, because Trump knows he has to be credible on the issue. This is what people beyond the roughly 30 percent of the population who strongly believe in him are fearful about - and fearful for their children.

This is big politics, which can make a centre leftist like Valls endorse nonsense because, if he doesn't, his already unpopular government may slide into toxicity. This is the largest element that created the majority in Britain for Brexit. This is a defining period in the West's relations with the Muslim world.

One that fear, even on sunny beaches, makes it very hard to manage.

About the author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics.

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JadeJan 4 years ago

If Middle East countries have bans for certain dresses in their countries, France is well in its right to levy such bans in their country that align with their values. Not sure whats the big fuss here?

MT3 4 years ago

Depends why they are doing it, surely - what is their specific objection; what are they trying to achieve? Laws in the Middle East on conservative dress reflect the place of religion in this region's culture. Perhaps the French are trying to reinforce the point France is a secular country but they haven't banned Sikhs from wearing turbans as far as I know, so that doesn't really work. The security point - relevant for Hijabs - isn't valid as facial recognition is still possible. Some argue from a feminist stance but if that really is the issue this is a pretty ineffectual way to counter it. Is it fear? I don't think so, I think it's more like spite. I agree any country is entitled to make its own laws, no matter how repugnant they may be to the rest of the world, but it doesn't mean we have to agree with why they did it.

Rachel 4 years ago

Presidential and General elections are getting closer and closer. Those politicians have not found any solutions to properly address unemployment (roughly 6M people), extremely low pensions, school failures... Those are political tactics to focus on fake issues. By the way both political parties are corrupted and protect each other in the shadow. They are conducting exactly the same policy.

Many friends (Muslims:30% and non Muslims: 70%) are just removing France from their destinations. They are favoring the UK, Spain, Italy and to some extent Germany and Switzerland.

Fentoni 4 years ago

This sort of knee jerk reaction plays right into the hands of Islamic fundamental groups. France should realise that future attacks are more likely to be prevented by moderate Muslims tipping the police off about suspected rogue individuals within their community. What does this ban really achieve?

Vix 4 years ago

I think it is more to do with the general perception of what the dress is increasingly beginning to symbolize in the recent times, than the dress itself. Burkini wasn't evoking such strong sentiments sometime ago, people didn't have strong reactions as they have now, for obvious reasons. If the local population is becoming nervous and fearful, it is wiser to go easy on open and forceful statements of one's cultural / religious assertions and try to assimilate with the milieu. It is positive on the longer run. Contrasting outward expressions by outside faiths/cultures are not taken kindly in many Near Eastern and African countries and I believe it is not really hard to understand the discomfort of France.

WHJ 4 years ago

I don't know Vix. The poor woman was only swimming...not expressing any "forceful statements" of her religious assertions. It's not like she was reading religious verses through a loudspeaker. Someone's modest attire is hardly an object of fear or discomfort.
Having said that, every country has the right to enforce any law it deems necessary. I can only wonder how this law will help French authorities improve their national security.