THE BURKINI ban has dominated news not just in France but around the world. The ban, enforced by several French municipalities, has since been rightfully suspended by the High Court.
France is known for having separated the religion from the state (the core concept of Laïcité), but targeting Muslim women like that just creates prejudice against Muslims as a whole and can amplify racism and alienate millions of law-abiding Muslims in France.
The decree assumes wearing a burkini is a political statement and tries to force Muslim women to decide whether national identity is more important than religion.
The move was a knee-jerk reaction following the terror attacks in France over the past few months. It clearly cannot be taken seriously as a counter-terrorism measure as there is no evidence that links women who wear burkini to terrorism.
It was a populist decision motivated by political point scoring (the French presidential election takes place in less than a year) and is certain to prove counter-productive in the fight to defeat Islamist terrorism.
It seems the politicians concerned are still influenced by the French philosopher Joseph De Maistre, who believed that the legitimacy of government cannot be questioned and cannot have rational grounds.
John Stuart Mill, however, would have disagreed, as he emphasised the need for a society to have limits over the powers it is able to exercise over the individual.
It was, therefore, right for the Board of Deputies to be concerned and express solidarity with the Muslim community in France in its statement that “it’s important people of different faiths be allowed to manifest their beliefs through their dress”.
This was a fine example of how one faith group can defend another and, crucially, highlighted the importance of interfaith relations.
I’m glad that the Board of Deputies initiated several interfaith projects with the Muslim and Hindu communities and took an opportunity that arose with the United Reform Church to join a project to support co-existence in the Middle East.
The URC had previously considered a proposal of adopting sanctions against Israel, but decided not to take that route.
Promoting inter-faith relations with all faith groups (not just with the Abrahamic religions) is essential for our community in the 21st century as it can help to foster better understanding of each other’s history and of issues which matter to each group.
This helps to build common ground around issues of mutual interest and can facilitate a dialogue around issues where there are disagreements. It also very important in terms of social cohesion.
This process of reaching out can help us to tackle challenges we face as a community, whether it’s anti-Semitism, threats to religious freedoms such as shechita and brit mila, and the boycott movement.
Just look at the fabulous work of Nisa-Nashim, which brings together Jewish and Muslim women and has opened several branches across the country in the course of the past year.
We would have been outraged if an Orthodox Jewish woman had been harassed on the beach by an armed policeman because of her modest clothes.
Hillel the Elder said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah.”
And Leviticus sums it up perfectly: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Let’s turn the negativity of the burkini ban into an opportunity to deepen interfaith relations, to respect each other, and show more compassion, understanding and kindness to those around us.
Tal Ofer is a member of the Board of Deputies. He writes in a personal capacity.