Most liberty campaigners, freedom lovers, religious minorities and of course Muslims will be sighing a collective sigh of relief at the French State Council’s ruling that suspended the controversial “burkini ban” earlier today. The Council (Conseil d’État) is effectively France’s supreme court on administrate matters. The three judges who handed out the initial ruling, which will be followed up with a more comprehensive judgement in due time, deemed the ban to, “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom.”
The matter had been brought before the State Council by the human rights group, the Human Rights League (LDH) and the anti-Islamophobia group, Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). The ban originated in Cannes earlier this summer but had since also been adopted by 15 other areas in the country, with many others signaling their intent to follow suit. Images of armed French police enforcing the ban began emerging and they made headlines worldwide, with many commenting on how xenophobic it all seemed. The move to ban the item of clothing confirmed the suspicion held by many Muslims that the French government is intent on singling out people of the faith for stigmatization and victimization.
The bizarreness of the draconian measure peaked when French politician, Christian Estrosi, threatened to sue any social media users who shared photos of French police enforcing the ban. Not only did this threat highlight the reality that France is conscious of the negative reaction from the ban, but also how aggressively far the political establishment of France was willing to go to protect the ban.
Social media users around the world responded to the ban by sharing photos of Nuns on beaches so as to highlight the double-standard of the ban; not all who covered up were deemed “a threat to the public order”. A protest against the ban at the French embassy in London made headlines and was attended by people wearing clothes of various colours, shapes and degrees of covering.
As heartwarming as it might be to believe that the majority of the world stood against the ban, a poll carried out by the IFOP in France reported that 64% of people surveyed supported the ban while 30% were indifferent to it. This highlights how divisive issues such as this are proving to be in France, a country with a significant minority population of Muslims. Further to this, it is telling of the public mood that Nicolas Sarkozy, desperately thirsty for another drink of power, weighed in by escalating things and calling for a nationwide ban of the burkini. While it is certainly not news to find another politician abandoning the principle of real leadership in favour of an irresponsible populist soundbite, it is telling of the public mood that his attempt to drum up popularity was done by calling for an extension of the ban.
While the whole issue raised many concerns about the direction in which we are going, and the willingness of the political establishment to exacerbate public fears, there are two significant positives to be drawn from the latest developments on this. Firstly, the freedom and willingness that press had to attack, mock and challenge the ban should not go amiss. This also should not be taken as a right that will never come under threat, as we have seen in the warnings made against social media posts related to the ban. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, is the process by which France’s judicial system has held its politicians to account and examined whether or not the decision they made was just.
To understand what can happen in the absence of these two critical factors, just look to the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Over the course of the past five years these two countries have ran up quite a rap sheet in state-sponsored Islamophobic acts; forcibly shaving beards off of men (13,000 beards according to some sources), banning children from mosques, banning children from participation in any public religious acts other than funerals, police arresting and intimidating women into removing their hijabs, public officials claiming hijabis were prostitutes who were trying to raise their prices, banning names that are “too Arabic”, closing down of shops selling items such as the hijab among other violations of basic human rights. Most recently, the Washington Post reported last week that in one Tajik city, public officials were drawing up a list of all Muslim women who wear the hijab.
Too often, we have seen judiciaries become tools for governments to enforce their will and crack down on dissenting voices. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan highlight the ugliness that can arrive on the back of unchecked power. Yes, there are certainly worrying trends that seem to be emerging throughout Europe. And while the media and the judiciary are not always helpful, they seem to have enough health in them to protect the values that the countries of Europe claim as their own. France’s State Council has allowed liberté and égalité to prevail, this time. For now.