It has been more than a month since the heat of the burkini controversy in France dissipated; A few weeks after a deadly Jihadist attack in Nice, dozens of coastal towns in the south and north of France decided to ban the burkini, a contraction of a burqa and a bikini, that was worn by some Muslim women during trips to the beach. The mayors argued it was a symbol of politicized Islam and women’s oppression, calling it a provocation in the context of terrorist attacks and a challenge to public order.
However, the aftermath of the debate deserves attention. Within the issue of the burkini was how many in Europe believe an issue of Islamic terrorism remains unaddressed. For French citizens, and Europeans as a whole, there must be conversations on the nature of religion and secularism in daily life as well as how groups can cohesively come together to combat possible radicalization.
The burkini debate was the latest evolution of the debate on laicite, France’s idea of secularism on steroids. Laicite aims to remove any religious signs in public places, meaning no crucifixes in classrooms, no public funding of mosques and no public employees wearing a kippa — to name a few examples. During the burkini debate, some argued laicite legitimized the ban in the interest of public order, while others argued it guaranteed religious freedom.
On Aug. 26, France’s highest court, Conseil d’Etat, ruled against the bans, asserting that “in France, one cannot stop a woman from going to the beach with a burkini.” The decision seemed logical and supported the idea of religious freedom. No one could prove that burkinis challenged public order, and banning the garb could also have been a slippery slope: The far right political party Front National also called for a ban on Christian crosses and Jewish kippas worn in the streets using the principles as posed by those French mayors.
Security in France remains a concern, but it does not justify paranoia or the right to patrol beaches to censor clothing. Nonetheless, the burkini debate reveals a larger question of whether Islam is compatible with the principles upon which the French Republic was founded. While most Muslims were appalled by the burkini bans, 6 percent of French citizens opposed them in a public values survey. In the mind of French non-Muslims, the burkini appeared as a violation of women’s freedom, while the majority of Muslims saw this as a legitimate case of freedom of expression and religion.
The burkini itself is a benign and physical representation of someone displaying their Islamic faith, yet tangible issues of radicalization exist and must be confronted. The real fight and debate should be about the city of Brest’s imam, who said children who listen to western music are akin to animals. It should be the flight of French Jews into Israel because of anti-Semitism in Muslim-majority suburbs. It should be about the 50 percent of young French Muslims who follow the most rigorist version of Islam according to a liberal think tank.
In the aftermath of this summer’s burkini debacle, France needs a calm but frank debate on issues of religious expression, Islam and secularism, devoid of racism and naivety. The burkini ban polarized French society over a piece of cloth, yet France needs its Muslim citizens to help in the fight against radicalism in Muslim communities.
Before the burkini debate, Muslim citizens had proven their willingness to contribute in the fight against radicalization. The heartwarming images of Muslims in French churches after the assassination of a priest by two young radical Muslim terrorists and a tribune by Muslim personalities to stop this violence within their faith seemed to pave the way for improved cohabitation and understanding.
With the burkini saga now over, the opportunity for constructive and informative dialogue concerning radicalization is open to continuing. Yet addressing the issue will require a unified effort and conversation among all French citizens on the nature of secularism and religious expression in public life.
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Fault Lines appears every other Friday.