AP Photo
Nissrine Samali gets into the sea wearing a burkini, a wetsuit-like garment that also covers the head, in Marseille, southern France. Beneath the clash over how to dress, or undress, on the beaches of France simmers an issue that for decades has divided the nation, and grown more complex in this time of terrorism.

Muslims and Europe, swimming chic by chic

Bans in France on wearing ‘burkini’ swimwear only alienates Muslims. Europe must find better ways to encourage integration, not feed into Islamic State’s playbook.

As Europeans deal with a rise in terror attacks, they must also be careful not to fall for false fears that would have them do the very bidding of terrorists. Case in point: In recent weeks, more than a dozen French cities have banned the wearing of “burkinis,” the full-body swimsuits that have become popular among some Muslim women who enjoy going to the beach like everyone else.

Preventing such a simple religious expression in public life would fit right into the Islamic State’s playbook about the presumed incompatibility between Islam and Western culture. If anything, France should be finding ways to encourage symbols of Muslims’ integration into France’s diverse society, not banning a symbol like a bathing garment.

The French bans on burkinis – already enforced on a few beaches, with fines of more than $40 – come on top of moves in Germany toward imposing a partial ban on full veils in many public spaces. Other parts of Europe have lately implemented full or partial bans on veils. In 2009, Switzerland voters opted to ban minarets, common on mosques.

In a few circumstances, of course, countries are right to insist on an uncovered face to identify people properly for security reasons. But this is a minor infringement on personal rights that involves only careful and minimal solutions, such as a female officer asking a Muslim woman to lift her veil in a private setting.

The moral strength of Europe in countering extremist groups lies in honoring, not hindering, religious liberties of individuals rather than imposing social conformity. France, in particular, should also be careful of presuming it is “liberating” Muslim women by fining them for wearing a burkini (a word derived from “burqa” and “bikini”). Many Muslim women enjoy this new beach fashion that enables them to enjoy the oceanside. And if governments start down the road of liberating people from a “gender prison,” they might as well go after high heels and neckties.

If Muslim women living in largely non-Muslim countries want to stand up to male stereotypes, that effort must come from their own moral and spiritual reasoning. The state has little to do with it except in cases of physical harm, such as enforced marriages.

French officials are rightly concerned about better security against further terrorist attacks. But public fear about terror should not lead to anti-Muslim bigotry. In fact, the wearing of a well-designed burkini should be seen as a step up from wearing a traditional and hot burqa. The women who wear burkinis are signaling they endorse the individual freedoms of the West. That thought is as good a weapon against radical militants as anything. Muslims and the West should dance together, chic to chic.

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