The Burkini Controversy Reaches Italy, Via Facebook

After a liberal Italian imam posted a photo of nuns frolicking on the beach while dressed in their habits, he discovered his Facebook account had been suspended

Part bikini, part all-covering burqa — (AFP)
Aug 23, 2016 at 4:55 PM ET

In response to controversy in France over the burkini, the body-covering bathing suit designed for religious Muslim women, Izzeddin Elzir, an imam in Florence, Italy, posted a photo of seven Catholic nuns joyfully bathing in the sea on his Facebook wall. The nuns were all fully dressed in traditional habits and veils. The imam’s post was shared more than 3,000 times. But by Friday morning his account was blocked — not by local authorities, but by Facebook.

“I just wanted get people to stop and think. That’s why I posted the photo alone, without writing a single word. I didn’t want to take sides but rather to spur a healthy debate,” Elzir explained in a telephone conversation with Vocativ.

The burkini originates in Australia, where it was launched in 2004 by a clothing designer who had immigrated from Lebanon with her family when she was a toddler. Aheda Zanetti’s design was inspired by a government-sponsored campaign to integrate Muslim citizens into Australian life. It was worn by the country’s first female Muslim lifeguard and is regarded in Australia as a symbol of diversity and successful integration.

But in France the modest bathing suit has sparked controversy. Recently, the mayors of five towns banned women from wearing the burkini in public, with police fining three women (so far) for defying the new law. Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, supported the mayors’ ban, saying the garment was “not compatible with the values of France.”

Italian supporters of the far right have suggested adopting the ban in their country as well. This spurred a heated debate both online and offline. On Wednesday Elzir, who is also the president of Ucoii, an umbrella organization for the country’s Muslim communities, posted the image of the nuns in order to make a point: If they can go to the beach covered from head to toe, why shouldn’t Muslim women be allowed to do the same?

The burkini controversy comes at a time when tension regarding Islam is running high in Europe, with several EU countries increasingly at odds with their Muslim minorities as they struggle with jihadi-inspired terrorism. In Italy the construction of mosques was one of the hottest political topics of the year. Since Elzir is a public figure in his own right, his having posted the photo of the nuns at the beach on his Facebook wall was reported widely by local media.

Many speculated that Elzir’s post might have been mistaken for some kind of threat against the Catholic clergy. After two men who said they were inspired by ISIS murdered a French priest last month, concern has been growing that Christian clergy have become a target for jihadists.

The odd thing about this theory is that Elzir, a Palestinian from Hebron, has an established reputation for being at the forefront of interfaith dialogue. In fact, in 2014 he was awarded the Golden Florin, Florence’s highest prize for community service, together with Florence’s archbishop and its chief rabbi.

Elzir tells Vocativ his account was blocked by Facebook and not by the Italian authorities. The social network platform’s official explanation, he says, is that someone had reported his profile as a possible fake. “I asked an internet-savvy friend to help me out and we sent a message to the administrators. They told us my account was reported [by some user] and asked me to send them a scan of my ID.” (Vocativ was not able to verify this with Facebook).

After the imam provided Facebook with his ID (and after the Italian online media had reported widely on the incident), the account was restored within 24 hours. “The whole incident seemed very strange to me. Do really people block an account just because someone falsely claims it’s a fake one? I cannot help but think it had something to do with the picture I posted and the buzz it created,” said Elzir.

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Italy’s police recently cracked down on the online activities of groups that are perceived as extremists, shutting down websites and social media accounts of far right activists and jihadi sympathizers, since social networks are increasingly perceived as a channel for radicalization and hate speech. “My post [about the nuns] was widely shared by my Catholic friends on Facebook. The way I see it, social media is also a tool for dialogue among people of different faith,” said Elzir. “Although I personally prefer interaction that takes place in person.”