Not everyone is happy about the Olympics

Protesters march against the corporate takeover of the Games.

It's a bright, sunny July afternoon and the descendants of victims of a 19th-century genocide march while performing their traditional “sreedom joug” dance to the beat of a protesting drummer. Glowing banners dance to a cacophony of horns, whistles and furious chants.

 
The Olympics are in town, and not everyone is happy. From Occupy London to the Green Party, over 35 organisations and 400 people marched across East London on Saturday against a range of issues linked to the games – from the militarisation of London to the corporatisation of the games and the building of future Olympic sites on the graves of genocide victims.
 
The diversity of the crowd's demands mirror the crowd itself: Refugee networks, environmentalists, charity workers and anti-war campaigners were among those fighting to be heard. Emily Coats, 24, a campaigner with environmentalist group UK Tar Sands Network, opposes the corporate sponsorship of the games by what she claims are unethical companies such as BP. “BP really has no right to be called a sustainability partner yet the Olympics gives it a great opportunity to try and convince the public that it's a really green, sustainable, good company.”
 
The government's austerity programme figures in protesters' objections, too. Mary Stuart, 54, an English tutor, said: “People are killing themselves every week because their benefits are being cut. I'm furious about it, and that's why I'm here.”
 
Civil liberties are also a concern, with more than 18,000 troops deployed for the games. Andreas Speck, 48, a campaigner for War Resistance International, takes issue with the restrictions on civil liberties during the Olympics. “I am here today to protest against the Olympics and the restrictions on our civil liberties which we have seen.” While Haci Ozdemir, 36, a campaigner with the Refugee Workers Cultural Association, marches against what he claims is corporate profiteering at the expense of local Londoners. “The local people will not benefit from them [the Olympics] when huge businesses are making money.”
 
Later in the afternoon, the protesters are herded together by police. They stop the protest on Vincent Road in Bow, to ensure that protesters do not spread too far apart when marching at different speeds. The marchers are peaceful, and cooperate with the them. Yet the marchers maintain solidarity when one of their comrades is stopped and searched by the police. Four officers, surrounded by around 40 protesters, form a cordon around the man while he is searched next to a wall. The marchers towards the rear of the crowd stop and wait for the man to be released.
 
“Let him go!” roars the crowd repeatedly. After a few minutes, a police officer announces to the crowd, “This man will be returned very shortly.” A protester shouts “the march will wait for him!” And wait it does. The man, who calls himself "Danny", says of the search:  “It was fine. I didn't really mind too much to tell the truth.”
 
Counter Olympics Network spokesman David Renton thinks the peaceful nature of the protest explains why it received “vast” coverage from international media but scant attention from the British press. “This demonstration has been entirely peaceful. Because there hasn't been a fight it stands against the way our media culture reacts to demonstrators: if there is a fight, there is a story, if there is no fight then no story." The international media presence is humbling – journalists from different organisations clashes while trying to interview the same people. The world hears the marchers.
 
But not all protesters marched solely against London 2012. NoSochi2014 is an organisation of Circassians opposed to the 2014 Winter Olympic stadium being built in Sochi, the city in their ancestral homeland which they occupied before the 19th-century Russian genocide against them. NoSochi2012 claim the site will be built on the grave sites of their murdered ancestors.
 
Lisa Jakarsi, an activist with NoSochi2014, says the group is at the protest to raise awareness about the 2014 games. “We're here to raise awareness about our plight. Basically they are building the [2014 Winter] Olympic stadiums on the graves of the Circassian genocide.”
 
Campaigning Labour MP John McDonnell for Hayes and Harlington marches alongside the activists. “I am in favour of the Olympics. I support sport. I enjoy sport. I enjoy the Olympics. What I am against is the corporate exploitation of the Olympics." McDonnell says he wanted the march to raise awareness. “I want people to start understanding the issue and debating the issue – about what the Olympics are all about.”
Protesters in east London marching against the Olympics on 28 July (Photo: Getty Images)
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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.