Amid Europe’s insecurity, who fears the lady in the burkini?

The fear of terrorists lurking in the community is leading politicians to back futile and perhaps illegal bans, such as that on the swimming costume, the ‘burkini’, writes John Lloyd
Amid Europe’s insecurity, who fears the lady in the burkini?

IN Europe, however beset by the continued weakness of the euro, Britain’s vote to defect from the European Union and the rise of the far right, a vacation is a right for oneself, a duty to one’s family.

In Italy, especially, the beach doesn’t just beckon — it commands attendance.

On the beach, Italians and tourists doze, chat, leaf through magazines, minister to the old folks, play with, or shoo away, the kids, and at times take a dip in an almost-warm sea.

But, as Corriere Della Sera’s commentator Beppe Severgnini observed, it’s a summer composed of sun and insecurity, fun, and fear.

Italy’s peninsula isn’t just seductive for natives and visitors; but for the migrants who continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to get to a country that has, till now, remained relatively calm about the influx. It even welcomed them — perhaps heeding Pope Francis’ passionate plea for tolerance toward immigrants.

That toleration is breaking down now, however, out of a growing fear that agents of Islamic State lurk among the migrants, ready to unleash terror on a European state that has suffered relatively little. That last fact allowed interior minister Angelino Alfano to declare that he would not go down a road that, were it not so serious, would have otherwise seemed a product of the August silly season: A ban on Muslim women wearing an article of clothing called a “burkini”.

A burkini is a linguistic cross between a burka and a bikini. But it is most of the former with none of the latter. Likely invented in 2004 in Australia, it is a one-piece swimsuit that covers the body, with only the face, hands, and feet exposed.

It seemed to cause no great fuss in Australia. But it did in Paris in 2009, when a woman wearing one was banned from swimming in a public pool. Now some French resorts, starting with the classiest, Cannes, have ruled the burkini against the law and levied fines on those defying the ban.

It hasn’t stopped at the beach resorts. Looking a little embarrassed (as well he might), French prime minister Manuel Valls said last week that he supported mayors who had banned the garment because it is “not compatible with the values of France”. He did not announce a national ban, though.

Valls and the various mayors are appealing to France’s strict secularism, which bans all wearing of religious symbols in public institutions, though not, until now, on beaches. Secularism has been a national choice for a century. But applying it to Muslim women who wish to remain modest tips into legal extremism and makes the state look ridiculous. Critics say the ban could provoke a violent reaction from Islamist terrorists.

Indeed, that was the main reason Alfano, the Italian minister, gave for rejecting a burkini ban. He received a rebuke from centre-right senator Lucio Malan, who said laws should not be adopted, or not adopted, based on presumed threats. Both the far right and centre right are beating hard on the drum of fear. The French mayors who have banned the burkini are largely centre right. In Italy, the most right wing of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s TV channels, Canale 4, broadcast last week a programme that featured Mirandola, the epicentre of a serious earthquake in 2012 and where a beloved church remains unusable.

Yet a new mosque has opened in the town, built with public funds, as well as money from Qatar. Citizens, massed in the square, screamed “Shame! Shame!” at the lonely spokesman from the governing centre-left Democratic Party, whose plea for understanding seemed to enrage them more.

The miasma of fear spreads across the West, prompted by massacres in France and the United States, by the continuing official police warnings of the “not if but when” variety, by the evident enthusiastic ruthlessness of Islamic State and other terrorist groups, as well as freelance murderers who act in their names after brief exposure to their methods on the internet.

There seems no point in saying that more victims die in road accidents in a month than terrorism in a year, nor that Islamic State is losing territory in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. The fear of evil hidden in the community is too great for that kind of reckoning. It has become a political fact which causes leaders to back futile and perhaps illegal bans.

Donald Trump has long known the power of the fear of terrorism, and his recent speech on immigration was one of his most carefully constructed. He pulled back from his blanket temporary ban on all Muslim visitors to the US and called instead for a ban confined to nations where terrorism was out of control and for an “ideological test” on those who did seek to come to the US.

Peter Feaver, a former George W Bush official who signed a letter along with 50 top Republican former national-security officials saying they would not vote for Trump, said it was a “surprisingly serious” speech.

It was serious because Trump knows he has to be credible on the issue. This is what those beyond the roughly 30% in the US who strongly believe in him are fearful of.

This is big politics, which can make a centre leftist like Valls endorse nonsense because, if he doesn’t, his already unpopular government may slide into toxicity. This is the largest element that created the majority for Brexit. This is a defining period in the West’s relations with the Muslim world.

One that fear, even on sunny beaches, makes it very hard to manage.

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