Burkinis, crosses, and bombs

So, France’s top administrative court has found that the town of Villeneuve-Loubet’s ban on the wearing of burkinis “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms“.  But the dispute about the ban hasn’t gone away. Apparently, a number of mayors have said they will continue to apply it.

The burkini ban is of interest for two particular reasons.

The first arises from an incident that took place at Nice last week, in which armed police officers approached a woman who was lying on the beach, and issued her with a penalty notice, which cited her for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism“. Apparently, in Nice, one has to wear outfits that “respect secularism”.

The mind boggles.  An itsy bitsy teenie weenie lady’s swimming costume respects good morals, whereas an outfit designed for modesty doesn’t?  Seriously?  And is secularism so sacred to the French that they insist that people must show respect for it by the clothes they wear? Does that mean nuns who wear their habits as they walk around Nice can expect police officers to come and request that they take them off? (Apparently not. At least not yet.)

But it does remind one that the French take the traditions of the French revolution seriously, and one of those traditions is secularism.  It also reminds one that not only did the French Revolution involve the storming of the Bastille; it also involved the executions of large numbers of priests and nuns – and, interestingly enough, an incident in which the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red “Cap of Liberty.” One suspects that his mitre was not considered “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.

Meanwhile, in the UK . . .

The burkini ban, however, reminds me of something closer to home – the case, a few years ago, of Nadia Eweida, A Christian who was told by her bosses at British Airways to hide a small cross she wore around her neck. While she lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) eventually ruled that she had faced discrimination for her Christian beliefs.

There are differences between the two cases. In the first place, BA’s objection to the gold cross the woman wore was not based on the fact that that the gold cross was religious, but on the fact that it was jewelry.  Secondly, BA is a private company and was simply enforcing a policy that applied to employees while they were at work. In France, the edicts prohibiting burkinis were issued by municipalities, in other words, governing authorities.  

But there is an important similarity: the question of how the bans were perceived.  Just as there has been widespread concern over the burkini ban, there was also considerable unhappiness about BA’s policy, because it was seen as discriminatory.  And, in particular, it was seen by many Christians as evidence of a society that was increasingly hostile to Christianity.

Hostility and alienation

And that brings us to the second reason why the burkini ban in many French towns is interesting. If Christians in the UK feel that British society is hostile towards them, it is not likely to cause problems for the British government. But if  Muslims in France think that French society is hostile towards them, that could cause big problems for the French authorities.

Why? Because if British Christians feel that British society is hostile to them, they are not likely to want to take it out on British society in some way. If French Muslims think that French society is hostile towards them, it seems to me quite likely that some of them may want to take it out on French society in ways that involve violence.

There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that Muslims in France have always been a minority, and quite a visible minority. They often live in largely Muslim communities. They tend to be less well off that the native French. There is every reason why they may feel like outsiders.  British Christians are a lot less likely to feel like outsiders than French Muslims.

And then there is the fact that war and bloodshed are very much a part of Islam. Simply compare the careers of Mohammed and Jesus Christ. Or look at the fact that for the first 250 years of Christianity, the church grew exclusively by peaceful means – whereas for the first 250 years of Islam, its spread largely came on the back of military conquest. The existence today of Islamic groups that believe in using war and bloodshed to advance Islam looks back to that heritage.

In other words, it seems to me that if French Muslims become disillusioned with French society, and feel like they are outsiders in French society, and feel that French society is hostile to them, it is quite likely that a small number may want to take it out on French society. There are about 4 million Muslims in France. If only one percent of them feel completely alienated from French society, and only one percent of the completely alienated feel so hostile to French society that they want to use violence against it, that’s still 400 people. I suspect that the number might be much higher.

How to be provocative

So my question is “Why does French society seem to be so determined to do things that will make Muslims feel like despised outsiders?” (And here one must remember that for most of these Muslims, Islam is, to some extent, about culture and identity more than it is about religious belief – in the same way that in Northern Ireland, many people feel strongly protestant even when they don’t have any particularly strong religious beliefs. Being ‘protestant’ is part of their identity.)

So look at what the French have done.

In 2010, they passed a law prohibiting concealment of the face in public space. The intention was to ban the burqa. Not many Muslim women in France wore burqas but most Muslims would have taken this as a bunch of non-Muslims saying “You don’t have the freedom in this country to be the kind of Muslims you want to be; you have to be the kind of Muslims we want you to be.” And some Muslims would have taken this as saying “We, the French people, don’t have much time for your stupid religion.”

Then, in 2105, we had the “Je suis Charlie” phenomenon. Two gunmen, who identified themselves with al-Qaeda, attacked the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 11 people. The act was in response to the way that Charlie Hebdo had mocked and insulted Islam. It mocked and insulted Catholicism, Judaism, and various other groups as well, of course, because mockery and sneering were what it was all about. But Catholics and Jews were never likely to retaliate.  Muslims, on the other hand . . .

I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo, but I tend to take a dim view of mockery and insults. I don’t think there was anything honourable about what Charlie Hebdo was doing. But what they were doing was not just discourteous; it was also foolish.  If the people who produced the magazine didn’t realise that in mocking Islam they were playing with fire, they were dangerously stupid.

But the way that so many people in France reacted to the shooting by using the slogan “Je suis Charlie” to show solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who had been murdered, was in my opinion particularly interesting. To say “Je suis Charlie” was basically saying to Muslims “I am the person who insulted and mocked that which was sacred to you.”  Which seems to me to be rather provocative.

And the French have kept at it. Earlier this month we had a bizarre incident in which a halal supermarket in Paris was ordered by local authorities to sell pork and alcohol or face closure. And now we have the burkini ban, which has widespread public support in France.

These things are all sending signals. The problem is that a lot of Muslims in France are simply going to see them as saying that the French people have complete contempt for Islam – at least Islam that doesn’t conform to French social norms.  In fact, many will see this as simply proving that the French have complete contempt for Muslims.  

A lot of non-Muslims – especially religious traditionalists and people with a concern for freedom, find France’s demand that a religion should conform to French social norms to be distinctly sinister. (See, for example, Tim Stanley.) I certainly do.  Over the past 2000 years, Christians have often faced pressure to conform to social norms, even if it meant ignoring Christian teaching.  But for most of the past 200 years, we have become used freedom of religion in western European countries.  To see the French authorities demanding that Muslims conform by taking off clothes or stocking pork in supermarkets should worry Christians.

But for the moment, it is Islam that is the target for secularism in France. And it seems to me that the way that France is going about it is likely to alienate and anger quite a lot of Muslims – including French ones. It isn’t good for France to have a community of 4 million in its midst which feels alienated from French society. That is particularly true if they feel not just alienated, but also angry. However, it is especially true if members of that community seem to have a particular predilection for high profile acts of violence and bloodshed.

The book of Proverbs (15:1) says “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” It seems to me that to respond to increasing signs of Islamic militancy by getting armed police to order a woman lying on the beach to remove some of her clothing does not amount to a soft answer.


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