Burkini ban is the culture war desired by extremists on both sides

What the Islamists want more than anything is to have a proper culture war between Islam and the West

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The latest Islam-related hysteria in Europe is the ban on burkinis in several cities in France. Extremists, both of the European white-supremacist kind and of the Islamist kind, are rubbing their hands together in glee. Ordinary Muslims in European societies are made to feel that much less welcome because of their religion. Meanwhile, most of the rest of are thinking, “oh, for Heaven’s sake, don’t we have bigger problems on our plate?”

The justification given by the French mayors who have instituted these bans in their cities is that overtly religious clothing can be seen as provocative in the wake of the many Islamist attacks in the country. And perhaps there is something to that. Given that the Front National and other French nationalist extremist groups are riding high in the country’s political sphere these days, these people may feel “provoked” into assaulting those who are visibly Muslim. There is a public order concern here.

But it is baffling that the conclusion that these French politicians, of the left as well as of the right, have arrived at is that therefore the police should be involved in the public humiliation of Muslim women. This is the perverted logic of blaming the victim. Somehow it is obvious to us that a woman who dresses in a certain way on a night out was not “asking for it” from any rapist who happens to be walking along. But at the same time, we have no problem with the notion that Muslims being visibly Muslim in public “are asking for it.” Surely the public order threat comes from the extremists who would feel “provoked” by people just being Muslim, rather than the people who just happen to practice a certain religion.

This is rather disappointing coming from a country like France, in particular. This kind of reactionary nonsense would perhaps not be all that surprising in the less than liberal Eastern Europe or southern United States. But France, on top of its tradition for secular republicanism, holds itself up as a shining light of liberalism. Yet this is profoundly illiberal.

What the Islamists want more than anything is to have a proper culture war between Islam and the West

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And more than illiberal, it is incredibly dangerous. For decades, the fundamental argument put forward by Islamist radicals has been that Islam is incompatible with Western culture, and that the West is waging a culture war against good Islamic values.

For most of that period, that was patent nonsense that only ever appealed to those Muslims who already found themselves on the margins of society for other reasons in the West or to those who found themselves at the receiving end of poorly executed Western foreign policy in the Middle East.

Yet what the Islamists want more than anything is to have a proper culture war between Islam and the West. And, as the events of the past few years have demonstrated, that is what the racist, ultra-nationalist fringes of Europe want too. In both cases, such a culture war would legitimise their respective world views and prejudices.

What we have with the burkini ban is a move into the mainstream of politics of just this kind of culture war: “Are you a Muslim? Then be aware that your culture is not welcome in our country. Your burkini is not ‘an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’.”

What these moves do is legitimize the very ‘Us vs Them’ world-view which feeds extremism of both kinds. This drives ever more Muslims toward the conclusion that Islamist propaganda may have been right all along: maybe the West does hate Muslims simply for being Muslims after all.

Thankfully, French courts have so far demonstrated that they still have their heads properly screwed on their shoulders, unlike some of the pandering local and national politicians. In one test case involving the ban in the city of Villeneuve-Loubet, the ban on the burkinis imposed by the mayor was overturned by the country’s high administrative court. But as things stand now, it looks like this political fight will continue for some time. Here’s to hoping that the voice of reason will prevail.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim



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