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By Banning The Burkini, The French Are Blaming Muslims

16/08/2016 09:22 | Updated 16 August 2016
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The news that Sisco - a village on the French island of Corsica - had decided to ban full-body swimsuits - commonly known in the media as the 'burkini' - came as little surprise following similar rulings in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet in recent weeks.

In Cannes, the decision to ban the burkini was taken on the basis that Muslim women wearing them had the potential to pose a threat to public order. As a result, the wearing of one would attract a caution and a fine of €38 (around £33). As Thierry Migoule, the head of municipal services in Cannes explained:

"Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order (crowds, scuffles etc), which it is necessary to prevent"

It would be interesting to see whether Nigella Lawson would be cautioned and fined if she was to wear a burkini in Cannes as she did in Australia back in 2011. It is unlikely that she would because when Nigella Lawson - a white, privileged, Western woman - chooses to wear the burkini, it is seen to be her choice to do so, an act of empowerment. Indeed as Madeleine Bunting put it, Lawson's wearing of the burkini was a "subversive political statement". When a Muslim woman - stereotypically understood to be brown, other and non-Western - chooses to wear the burkini however, the opposite is quite true. Rather than empowerment, the burkini instead is seen to be a symbol of oppression and thereby something that goes against 'our' values, culture, way of life and so on. In reality there is little difference except that we fail to take into account 'our' hypocrisy .

In Sisco, the ban was imposed following a special meeting of the local council that was convened following a brawl on a nearby beach between what BBC News described as local youths and "families of North African descent": in other words, 'Muslims'.

The Guardian reports the 'brawl' somewhat differently. Rather than a 'brawl', the incident involved a violent attack on three Muslim families which was perpetrated by local villagers. As report goes on, riot police were subsequently drafted in to stop around 200 locals marching into a nearby housing estate where a number of Muslim families live. It was alleged that the crowd were chanting "this is our home".

As such, the mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni announced that the burkini was banned. Stressing the ban had "nothing to do with racism..." he added that it was instead "...about protecting people's security". It is bizarre however that while acknowledging that it is Muslims who need protecting, the ban also blames and indeed criminalises Muslims in the process. The suggestion being that it is the burkini - and the decision by Muslims to wear it - that is the real problem rather than the violence being perpetrated against them by those described as 'local'.

What is even more interesting is that while French police investigations into the cause of the violence are ongoing, reports in the French media suggest that there was no evidence that any of the Muslim families on the beach at the weekend were in fact wearing the burkini. Instead, Le Monde reports that the incident began when one of the Muslim men complained about people trying to take photos of his wife. After an initial altercation, the newspaper reports that bottles and stones were thrown, three cars were set alight, and four people including a pregnant woman were taken to hospital. It added that around 100 police were duly deployed to set up a cordon to protect Muslim families living nearby.

It's extremely difficult therefore to see any sense in the burkini ban. At worst, the ban is another example of French institutional Islamophobia. At best, it would seem to be a smokescreen behind which the real reason Corsica is "sitting on a powder-keg" of tensions and violence. And that powder keg would seem to be rather more about Corsican nationalists than Muslims or those of North African origin.

This is because for decades the Corsican National Liberation Front has been behind a series of bombings and robberies targeting the French state. While it declared a ceasefire in 2014, the Front failed to disarm. Consequently last month, in the wake of the brutal killing of Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy, the Front publicly warned that it would undertake a "determined response, without any qualms" were there to be anything similar in Corsica. As the Front went on:

"Your medieval philosophy doesn't scare us...You should know that any attack against our people would trigger a determined response, without any qualms...the Salafists clearly want to establish the Daesh (Islamic State) policy among us, and we're prepared for that."

Just a few hours after that announcement, Corsican officials demanded the French government close a number of mosques on the island that they believed fostered radical Islam. A few months previous, French media reported that a large crowd had gathered in the Corsican town of Ajaccio that had gone on to vandalise a nearby Muslim prayer room before trashing copies of the Qur'an. The incident in Sisco at the weekend was not without precedent therefore.

While there is no evidence to suggest that Corsican nationalists were responsible for the violence in Sisco, research shows that over the past decade and a half activists from within the far-right and neo-Nazi milieu have been increasingly targeting Muslim communities and the religion of Islam and have regularly been behind acts of organised violence. Routinely seeking to exploit tensions and flashpoints that occur between Muslims and non-Muslims, the violence in Corsica should come as little surprise. While so, what is needed is strong and robust political leadership that not only sends out a message of unity and togetherness but so too seeks to afford and reinforce necessary protections for those who need it.

This has not happened in Corsica and so the announcement to close mosques immediately after the Corsican National Liberation Front's announcement about a violent response to any future terror attack could be misconstrued as coming from the same mindset or ideological premise. There is little doubt that in doing so, Corsican officials could be seen to have reinforced the view that the real problem is in fact Muslims and the way they dress. In doing so, the actions of the violent aggressors have gone unchecked and unnoticed.

I will be even less surprised therefore to see even more violence against Muslims in Corsica and tragically, more French officials seeking to justify the worthless banning of a harmless piece of swimwear.

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