Burkini Bottom and Religious Freedom

by Kenny Vandergriff

Let me preface this post by saying I am not a Muslim. I do, however, take to heart the teaching of Jesus to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  That said let me begin what will be a diatribe against the oppression of Muslims in Europe.  In April 2011 France became the first country to ban the public wearing of the burqa.  Likewise Germany is considering banning the veiled burqa.  Shortly after the ban two women protesting the imposed sanction on the expression of their religion were arrested.  This summer the burkini, a swimsuit version of the burqa sans veil, was banned on several beaches including Cannes, Villeneuve-Loubet and in Sisco on the island of Corsica. Many in the American West do not understand the implications of banning the burqa, perhaps because of the uproar against the heinous terrorist acts which have plagued both America and parts of Europe.  Islamophobia runs high fueled by rhetoric from the Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.  Trump’s recent expansion of the proposed Muslim ban suggests barring immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.  Moreover, his suggestion of returning to McCarthy-era tests for immigrants is xenophobic.  What then is really at stake regarding the burkini controversy?

First, declaring what one faith group can and cannot wear is religious oppression.  Some Christians in America believe Christianity in America is under attack, being oppressed, and that the rights of Christians is declining.  FYI, if you get to go to church, worship, pray, ride the bus, ride the subway, drive down the street, fly on a plane without being pulled out of line in security, read your Bible, and continue to wear a cross necklace or a WWJD bracelet then you are not oppressed, you are not losing your rights, and you are not under attack.  If, however, you are asked at a beach to remove layers of your clothing because said religious clothing has been banned, then you are being oppressed. If you are unable to ride a bus, ride the subway, pray, worship, drive down the street, fly on a plane without being pulled out of line in security, or read your sacred texts without being looked down on, scowled at, beaten, fined, or murdered in cold blood then you are being oppressed.  So guess what Christian America, you are not being oppressed.

Second, forcing groups of people to dress (or not dress) a certain way based on their religious affiliation has a dark history in our world.  During World War II Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on their clothing.  They were attacked in the night (and the day), forced into migration through a series of railways, stripped of their clothing, forced to labor, and killed in furnaces throughout Germany.  Millions of men, women, and children were forced to dress a certain way because they were scapegoated by a megalomaniac who shouted that the Jews were to blame for the state of Germany, that to make Germany great again the Jews needed to be eradicated.  Muslims are the new scapegoat to the West.  Yet, the West is to blame for much of the Muslim hatred. Unfair policies toward different, predominantly Muslim countries from the 1970s to the present have left many Muslims distrustful of the West.

Finally, why are we (i.e. non-Muslims of the West) so arrogant in our treatment of Muslims?  And I believe it is arrogance insofar as we believe that we know better than they do.  Our white privilege runs deep.  That is what it is – white, Christian privilege.  Part of it is fear of the other, part of it is a deeply embedded theology that the White Christian Way is the only way.  I wish it were different, I desperately wish it were different.  But it is not.  Far away from the fancy French beaches, in our suburban neighborhoods or quiet country towns, we take off our cross necklaces or WWJD bracelets, pray, and go to sleep content that we have the freedom to do so. Yet, on a far-away continent men and women weep because we are taking away their religious expression.  I do not sleep content tonight.  I weep with them.