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A picture taken on Nice beach and released Wednesday has become the public face of France’s current policy towards Islam.
A woman, who appears to be in her forties or above, is surrounded by armed police officers. She is wearing not the now-famous modest swimwear known as the burkini, but just clothes—trousers, a top and a scarf around her heard, worn by many non-Muslim women for fashion reasons, or just to hide a bad hair day. She is taking her tunic off.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions from pictures.
What we do know, however, is that in nearby Cannes a mother-of-two had previously been fined for sitting on the beach wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. We know that 15 towns in France have made it official policy to ban burkinis.
This follows a decade of steady hardening towards any display of religious identity in public in France. Since 2004 it’s been illegal to cover your face in public, a piece of legislation that had clearly been designed to clear the streets of niqab wearers. Attempts to narrow options in school canteens so all pupils would have to eat pork feel like a petty swipe at children, but the idea is enthusiastically supported by boomerang presidential candidate for 2016, Nicolas Sarkozy. These moves build on the century-old French policy of laicité —a hardline form of secularism.
And so here we are. A lone older female is publicly humiliated on a beach by representatives of the state carrying weapons. All because she was wearing clothes.
A nervousness about clericalism rooted in the French Revolution has grown into a stick with which to beat a minority living with disproportionate levels of economic and social hardship, and in particular the women of that minority. In this case, women who may well be covering up for religious reasons, but look no different from me on a beach when I’m having a “fat day,” or feeling particularly paranoid about skin cancer. No different, except for the color of their skin.
It’s not helpful, however, to just shriek and stamp our feet and point out the hypocrisy and racism. The instincts behind policies like this are becoming more visible everywhere—whether in Trump’s “extreme vetting” or British far-right group Britain First’s picketing of mosques. How we live together well with our increasingly deep differences is an understandable and valid source of anxiety. Security concerns are real, and, awkward as it feels to say it, not entirely separable from Islam. The instinct to deal with our differences by enforcing homogeneity looks, at least superficially, more appealing than allowing public space to descend into a competition between fractious and visible tribal identities.
The problem with this “muscular liberal” approach is a pragmatic one—it doesn’t work. Difference is a fact of our 21st-century, globalized world and it isn’t going anywhere.
So we must make a choice. Is our desired end state achieved by enforcing a worldview, or by building a society where despite some pretty fundamental disagreements everyone feels they have a stake, are welcome and want to participate as good citizens?
If it’s really the latter, the victimization implicit in policies like these will have the opposite effect. It’s basic psychology. Why would you want to join a group where your deepest convictions are so clearly unwelcome? Why would you want to be in dialog about what our shared values should be with someone who so obviously dislikes you?
The Islamic State militant group [ISIS] and groups like them are delighted every time policies like these hit the headlines, because they give credence to an us-vs-them narrative, in which Muslims will never be truly welcome or free anywhere except the so-called caliphate. This humiliated woman will be on recruiting posters by tomorrow. Let’s stop playing into their hands.
Elizabeth Oldfield is director at Theos.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.