Does Clothing Make You a Terrorist? Scotland and France Make New Muslim Dress Policies.

Authorities in France and Scotland are taking very different approaches to Islamic dress in their societies.

Reactions to growing terrorist threats have varied in countries around the world and show Western countries divided in how to integrate their Muslim populations.


Coming off a series of horrific terror attacks over the past months, including the sea-side carnage in Nice that saw 86 people moved down by a truck, a number of French towns decided to ban burkinis, full-body swimsuits for Muslim women.

In particular, 15 French cities on the Mediterranean coast are banning the burkini, with some Muslim women already getting fines of about $42 for wearing them.

The idea behind the ban is that religious clothing, like a burkini, is incompatible with France's secular values. Nice’s deputy mayor, Christian Estrosi said that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations”. 

Thierry Migoule, the head of municipal services for Cannes, which also banned the burkini, went even further in describing the burkini as “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us”.

In a stark contrast to such thinking, police in Scotland have taken a very different path. They announced that the hijab, a head-covering scarf, will now be part of its official uniform, increasing diversity in the force. 

The hope is to attract more Muslim women who might not have considered a career in Scottish law enforcement. The hijab was already an optional part of the uniform, based on approval by senior staff. 

Chief constable Phil Gormley explained why they made the move to include hijabs:

“I am delighted to make this announcement and welcome the support from both the Muslim community, and the wider community, as well as police officers and staff. Like many other employers, especially in the public sector, we are working towards ensuring our service is representative of the communities we serve. I hope that this addition to our uniform options will contribute to making our staff mix more diverse and adds to the life skills, experiences and personal qualities that our officers and staff bring to policing the communities of Scotland.” 

This move was welcomed by members of the Muslim community like Fahad Bashir, chair of the Scottish Police Muslim Association, who said:

“This is a positive step in the right direction, and I am delighted that Police Scotland is taking productive steps in order to ensure that our organisation is seen to be inclusive and represents the diverse communities that we serve across Scotland. No doubt this will encourage more women from Muslim and minority ethnic backgrounds to join Police Scotland.” 

Of course, one big difference between Scotland and France is the number of Muslims in the countries. Scotland’s Muslim population was at around 78,000 in 2011, about 1.4% of its population. In France, the Muslim population is estimated to be about 7.5-10% of its population, depending on who is counting, totaling around 4.7 to 6 million people.

In order to promote secularism, it’s actually illegal in France to collect data on religious and ethnic affiliation of its citizens. Even officially asking such questions is seen as a kind of discrimination. Of course, the reality is that many view what is happening with the burkini bans as an instance of discrimination especially as no one is attempting to ban Catholic nuns from wearing their outfits on the beach or elsewhere.  

If you’d like to know more about some of the different outfits that Muslim women wear, here are a few helpful explanations:

A hijab is a veil or headscarf covering the head and chest, worn by Muslim women around adult males who are not part of their immediate family. It's a symbol of modesty and privacy. It does leave the face clear.

Wearing a hijab, American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad faces the media during a press conference on August 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

A niqab, by comparison, is a veil for the face that leaves only the eyes clear. And there's a separate eye veil you can get to cover those up as well. Niqabs were banned in France in 2011.

Foreign tourists wearing niqab have a rest on a bench in downtown Tbilisi in George on August 16, 2016. (Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

burka (burqa) is a piece of clothing that covers a woman's whole body when in public. It's the outfit that hides everything, including the face. There's just a mesh screen for seeing.

A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks prior to offering prayers at the start of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, at the Jami mosque in Herat province on July 6, 2016. (Photo by AREF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images)

A burkini or “burqini” covers everything but the face, hands and feet and is used for swimming.

Sydney, AUSTRALIA: Mecca Laa Laa (center) wearing a full body covering known as the 'burqini', sits on a rescue board at Sydney's Cronulla beach, 04 February 2007. Australia's first group of Muslim lifesavers hit the sands of Sydney's Cronulla beach, just over a year after mobs of whites attacked Lebanese Australians there in a bid to 'reclaim the beach.' The race riots, the country's worst of modern times, sparked a series of retaliatory attacks in which churches, shops and cars were trashed and left Australians of Middle Eastern appearance fearful of going to the beach. (Photo by ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty Images)

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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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