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France's debate over the burkini ban, explained

'Wear what you want' protest at the French embassy against the burkini ban for Muslim women on Frances beaches on August 25, 2016 in London, UK.
'Wear what you want' protest at the French embassy against the burkini ban for Muslim women on Frances beaches on August 25, 2016 in London, UK.
Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

Update: France's top administrative court overturned the burkini ban Friday, according to the Associated Press.

This week, photos emerged of four armed male French police officers demanding that a woman wearing a headscarf, long sleeves, and pants remove layers of her clothing at a beach in Nice. She was given a ticket for not "wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism."

In other words, she was wearing something resembling a burkini — a full-body swimsuit for women that is designed to be "in line with Islamic values" — that, as of this summer, was banned in 15 French towns, including Cannes and Nice. After much anger and protest worldwide, France's top administrative court overturned the burkini ban on August 26, the Associated Press reported.

This wasn’t a unique incident; another woman in Cannes reported being fined for wearing leggings, tunic, and a headscarf on the beach. The "burkini ban" — which fined burkini wearers up to €38 ($42) — was adopted in response to a tragic terror attack in Nice in July, when a truck driver who had reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS drove through a group of Bastille Day revelers watching fireworks on the boardwalk, killing 80.

French officials were championing the law as a protection of France’s secularity, a core tenet of the country's constitution, as well as a defense against the "regressive" nature of the burka. Here’s Gérard Araud, French ambassador to the US, defending the ban:

But not everybody agreed. While French officials argued the burkini represents Islam’s inability to assimilate to France’s values, the burkini was actually invented to allow Muslim women to participate more in Western culture.

The burkini’s inventor, Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, told Politico that France’s ban is "just hatred" toward Muslims.

"I created [burkinis] to stop Muslim children from missing out on swimming lessons and sports activities," she said. "I hope the French prime minister and the mayors see that they should find out how to combine communities, how to work around issues, instead of harming the community, taking the beach away from some people and punishing them. That’s just hatred."

Nevertheless, before being overturned by France's top administrative court, the ban was upheld in a court in Nice last week: "The wearing of distinctive clothing, other than that usually worn for swimming, can indeed only be interpreted in this context as a straightforward symbol of religiosity," the court stated, arguing that such displays of religion are counter to the country’s secular code.

This was not the first time France has banned Islamic dress — headscarves are also banned in public schools — nor is it the first time France’s attitudes toward Muslim immigrants has prompted debate.

Rather, the burkini ban was the latest in a series of policies, or attempted policies, that have discriminated against Muslim immigrants in a manner that research suggests could have a negative effect on the fight against radicalization.

How France’s secularism leads to discriminatory policies

France’s approach to a separation of church and state is much more vigorous than that of other European countries or the United States.

France doesn’t just keep religion out of political policies; it believes that religion should be separate from the national identity all together. This concept, laïcité, which in the French constitution formally declares France as a secular republic, was developed during the French Revolution to weaken the Catholic Church’s influence on government.

This approach of secularity was relatively easy to enforce when France was a more homogeneously Christian country, but France today is much more ethnically and religiously diverse, and the modern interpretation of this belief has proven to disproportionally target Muslims and other minority religious communities in France.

Laïcité is what led the French government to ban religious symbols and clothing — including crosses, yarmulkes (the Jewish skullcap, also called a kippah), and Islamic headscarves — from public schools in 2004 and to prohibit face covering in public in 2011, and is what was being used to defend the burkini ban. But in reality, laws that ban all religious symbols seem to mostly target Muslims.

French Muslims already experience a disproportionate amount of discrimination compared with French Christians and Jews in other aspects of French life like the workforce, and since the Charlie Hebdo shooting last year, France has seen a significant uptick in threats of anti-Muslim violence.

Ultimately these policies and attitudes have cultivated an increasingly discriminatory culture against Muslims living in France that further ostracizes them from French communities.

Muslim Lifesavers Unveil The 'Burqini'
Mecca Laa Laa wears a burkini on her first surf lifesaving patrol at North Cronulla Beach in Sydney, Australia.
Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

France has a problem with radicalization, but burkinis and headscarves aren’t causing it

French officials are right to be concerned with growing radicalization. French-speaking countries are the most likely to produce people who leave to fight for terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, according to research by the Brookings Institution's William McCants and Chris Meserole.

But thinking that banning an article of clothing is going to help stop it is wrong. In fact, researchers assert the opposite, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp explains:

McCants and Meserole hypothesize that this culture of laïcité has alienated French and Belgian Muslims from national culture, making them more vulnerable to radicalization. They argue that French influence in former colonies such as Tunisia and Lebanon, which are Francophone, could lead similar dynamics to play out there, exacerbating religious-secular divides and thus strengthening extremist narratives.

The causes for radicalization are hard to define, but they usually come down to both societal and individual factors. As Vox’s Jennifer Williams explains, societal factors include "the presence of a large minority population that is socially, politically, and economically marginalized," "a cultural or political hostility toward religion in general or Islam in particular," and "treatment of certain groups as ‘suspect communities’ that are subjected to invasive and overbearing counterterrorism efforts."

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe: an estimated 5 to 6 million (about 8 percent of the total population). Yet with policies like the burkini ban and systemic anti-Muslim discrimination among employers, this community also feels frequently targeted. This is not to say that there are not other factors at play in France (you can read about them here), but limiting a community’s ability to integrate in society — by, say, taking their family to the beach — is not the way to address problems of integration and alienation.

The burkini ban played into the "war on Muslims" narrative ISIS is trying to propagate

Targeting Muslims also has another effect: It plays into the ISIS narrative that the Western world is engaged in a "war on Muslims."

"Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State thrive every time Western countries give them ammunition to say that the West is discriminating or stigmatizing Muslims," Sara Silvestri, a religion and politics professor at City University London, told CNN. "The effect of these laws is that Muslims feel marginalized and in turn, the feeling of being unwelcome impacts their ability and willingness to integrate into society, can cause withdrawal and lead to engagement with radical groups."

Much of ISIS’s propaganda is based on the idea that the group is a welcoming home to Muslims who have been pushed out and discriminated against in western society.

Rules that further alienate Muslim communities in turn make ISIS’s claims more convincing to those at risk of radicalization.