Imagine for a moment that an ISIS European recruitment committee was meeting this week. Times, as we know, are getting tough for them. As they lose traction on the ground in Syria, the group no longer looks like it is on an invincible march to expand its hold in the Middle East, let alone conquer the world.
What, they might wonder, would be the best strategy to really fire up the grassroots and keep motivating young men not only to join ISIS, but to turn ideology into action and go out and commit terror attacks.
Surely, the brainstorming session at this imaginary meeting couldn’t come up with a better way to whip up fury than widely circulating photographs of armed policemen on a beach in southern France forcing Muslim women to publicly strip off their modest bathing gear and headscarves, exposing their bare shoulders and heads to those around them, violating their religious commitment to modesty. After all, what could be a better way for their cause to send the message that European governments — in this case, France — are indeed the heartless and merciless enemies of Islam, and that devoted Muslims must fight back with all their might?
Such images, of course, are no theoretical exercise. They are all too real, splashed across the world media. As the number of seaside towns and cities outlawing the full-body beachwear known as a “burkini” has climbed as high as 15, the press and social media has provided photographic evidence and testimony of women handed tickets and fines for wearing excessive clothing to swim and sunbathe by French police armed with handguns, clubs and pepper spray.
The photographs depict the women stripping off the offending garments on the spot, in public view, as stony-faced police look on, inspiring headlines in the press like “Armed police force woman to remove her clothing on Nice beach.”
In one account of a confrontation in Cannes, a witness said that “people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police” while a woman in a headscarf, tunic and tights was ticketed and fined as “her daughter was crying.”
The pictures and reports, naturally, have sparked extensive reaction and angry protest on social media.
Let’s leave aside the politically correct arguments against the burkini ban: the feminist position that women should be able to put on or take off; the culturally sensitive stand that it represents militant secular intolerance and turns a legitimate fear of terrorism into a message of xenophobia and hatred.
On an utterly practical level, the burkini laws are a terrible idea because not only do they fail to fight terrorism in any way, they actively encourage it. The boomerang effect of open harassment and oppression of observant Muslim women will surely not end well, creating more fury and anger in Europe’s Muslim population, both immigrants and native-born. It is wrongheaded enforcement of a wrongheaded law that essentially hands ammunition to the very forces the French government claims to be trying to fight.
Neither, it seems, will the new regulations actively discourage women from wearing burkinis. Again, the ban seems to be having the opposite effect. In an active illustration of the adage that “all publicity is good publicity,” burkini sales are reportedly booming. The modest swimwear industry is clearly benefiting from the fact that women, Muslim and non-Muslim, who want to cover up on the beach or the pool in water-friendly fabrics and who may not have known of their availability, now know about them and are putting in orders. It is probably only a matter of time before activists start burkini-wearing protests, in solidarity with the women they see being victimized — glimmers of the idea have already appeared on Twitter.
One would assume that Jews — who have historically been the victims of humiliation for expressing their faith through their appearance — would take the side of those suffering from oppressive behavior at the hands of the French authorities. After all, a huge leap doesn’t need to be taken between scenes of German officers in the 1930s cutting off the beards and side curls of Jews in the streets of Berlin and French authorities undressing a Muslim woman on the beaches of Nice in 2016.
Unfortunately, at least one prominent French rabbi has shamefully chosen the wrong side of history and has publicly supported the burkini ban, saying that the bathing suits are “not innocent.” Rabbi Moshe Sebbag has stood behind the French mayors who banned the burkini, saying that they “understood this is not about women’s liberty to dress modestly, but a statement as to who will rule here tomorrow,” and that “there's a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic, and this is what they find unacceptable.”
Such a stance isn’t just insensitive and immoral, it is utterly misguided. Even those who firmly believe that a religious war for Islamic supremacy in Europe is raging and feel terror needs be fought by any means necessary must recognize that shaming tactics like a burkini ban will ultimately do far more harm than good. They are doomed not only to fail, but to backfire.
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