What distinguishes the West from the rest of the world is the principle of respecting freedoms. It is believed in as a culture, and is protected by constitutions that obligate governments and citizens to respect it. This is why France’s state council, the country’s highest administrative court, intervened and said municipalities’ ban on full-body ‘burkini’ swimsuits is illegal.
The burkini is a new outfit designed to allow Muslim women to spend time on the beach and swim in public places. It confronts three stances: municipality heads reject it because it is Islamic, extremist Muslims reject it because it is un-Islamic, and a few conservative Muslims approve of it. We understand the problem related to this difference in cultures, and we take into account the increasing fear and hatred that are fuelling local residents.
For example, Nice is one of the beach cities that banned the burkini. We must recall that it witnessed a terrorist operation last month when a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ran over more than 80 people deliberately. This was one of the most brutal, hideous and terrifying operations. Amid this tension, it is normal that a recent survey showed that most French are against the burkini.
There may be no more than 100 Muslim women who want to wear it, and they would be part of a Muslim liberal minority. However, the burkini reflects a culture clash, and shows the challenges that Muslims in the West confront at work or school, or in terms of clothing.
Europe’s Jews suffered before them. They coexisted and integrated in Christian culture, and maintained a part of their traditions without excessively distinguishing themselves. Even this centrist approach did not prevent the rise of hostile groups fueled by religious hatred. However, such groups remained limited in countries that are governed by laws and punish those who violate them.
Freedom of religion is protected by constitutions. This is what attracted millions of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to Europe. It is also what attracted Christians from different sects who suffered from sectarian discrimination.
The West is the land of freedom, but freedom is protected as long as it does not violate the freedoms of others, like extremists do. For example, Omar Abdelrahman was an extremist preacher who preoccupied the British media by insulting society and the system that took him in when he arrived in the UK as a refugee who was wanted and sentenced to death in Egypt.
We must notice the social changes that have occurred in Muslim communities in Europe. Until recently, most used to eat, drink, dress and study like other citizens, but extremism found its way to them, having spread from Muslim countries.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
For years, British police guarded him and his house from attacks by racists and angry people. He was later extradited to the US on charges of involvement with an Islamic group that was behind explosions in New York in the 1990s.
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 topic of heated debate inflamed by the increasing number of Muslim refugees. Terrorist operations are adding fuel to the fire of hatred against the peaceful majority of Muslims.
Municipal authorities that manage the beaches of Nice, La Brigue and other cities are trying to disobey the state council’s decision and ban the burkini. Meanwhile, many French media outlets consider the judicial decision a victory for freedoms and for the rules of the republic.
However, the burkini is one piece of clothing among others. A previous judicial decision banned the niqab. We must understand why. The law did not ban the hijab, which only covers the hair, but it banned the niqab because it covers the entire face, and as such is believed to represent a security threat.
We must notice the social changes that have occurred in Muslim communities in Europe. Until recently, most used to eat, drink, dress and study like other citizens, but extremism found its way to them, having spread from Muslim countries.
Muslims in Europe want to distinguish themselves with halal meat, Islamic banking, private Islamic schools, and with the hijab and burkini. This does not contradict laws that protect individual freedoms. It will be difficult for most Muslims to adopt extremism and live in isolation from societies when Islam facilitates their lives depending on their circumstances, and holds many interpretations.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 30, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed