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Behind the Burkini
A Tunisian woman wearing a 'burkini' walks in the water with a child on August 16, 2016 at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital Tunis. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Behind the Burkini

Benjamin Haddad

This past week, France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned the controversial ban on the burkini of Villeneuve-Loubet, paving the way for other municipalities to rescind the prohibition on Islamic beachwear on French beaches. The ban, put in place by 16 French cities, has sparked outrage outside France, triggering much condemnation and ridicule, especially in the U.S. media. The controversy, already heated, was heightened by the widespread diffusion of photos of a burkini-clad Muslim woman being reprimanded by policemen on a beach in Nice. Such exposure had already made the bans counterproductive, and emblematic of a very French propensity to over-legislate daily life.

And yet, political leaders of all stripes, including former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, supported the ban, which stirred intense debate in France. Polls have shown that a two-thirds majority oppose the burkini being worn on beaches, a view that largely transcends partisan affiliations. This debate, caricatured outside France, deserves greater nuance and context. The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population. And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t. Furthermore, France, as host to the largest Muslim community in Europe (proportionally about ten times larger than that in the United States) has become the preferred battleground of extremists.

One can, of course, oppose the ban without falling prey to complete relativism. To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it. Treating the burkini, like the niqab, as integral to Muslim religion equates Islam with its most radical, minority interpretation—a poisoned gift to moderates. The tolerance offered by progressives effectively reinforces the idea that hiding from men’s natural sexual urges is a woman’s burden. That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.

Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle. The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.

These strains are worsened by the anguish of a country reeling from years of terror attacks, including the particularly gruesome one just last month in Nice, but that only partly explains a broader trend. Indeed, other countries are facing similar debates. A senior leader of Norway’s Progress Party, a member of the ruling coalition, suggested emulating the burkini ban. In Germany this month, the Interior Minister proposed a partial ban of the niqab (the veil that covers a woman almost completely), a measure already introduced in France. The proposal is supported by a large majority of the public. Mainstream political leaders are now aware that the inability, or unwillingness, to confront these phenomena has nourished the rise of dangerous populist discourses. Far-Right movements have long enjoyed a near-monopoly on issues of identity or security, hijacking public concerns with xenophobic or racist discourse.

Some argue that “aggressive” secularism has proven an obstacle to the integration of France’s largest minority, but in the opinion of many French, the opposite is true. The French authorities have tolerated the creeping influence of a minority of Salafi preachers, largely funded from overseas, and their attempts to impose a more rigorous, combative, and exclusionary brand of Islam in certain urban areas. Islam expert Gilles Kepel has pointed to the emergence of an aggressive Salafi brand among the third generation of French Muslims, breaking ranks with a broader tendency toward secularization among the rest.

The French attachment to secularism is not some ploy to oppress Muslims: It is the reflection of a long political history and a very different cultural attitude towards religion than in the United States. While many settlers fled to the New World to practice their persecuted faiths, the development of French democracy and the Republic came hand-in-hand with the fight against the influence of the Catholic Church. French schoolchildren, for instance, are all taught the famed Revolutionary cartoons depicting the oppressed peasant crushed under the combined weight of the priest and the aristocrat.

After centuries of conflict and tension, compared to which the polemics surrounding the burkini ban pale, separation of church and state was formally institutionalized in 1905, becoming one of the pillars of French Republican identity. More recently, other laws have followed to adapt these principles to the modern age. In 2004, “ostentatious” religious signs such as veils, kippas, and large crosses were banned in public schools. In 2010, the National Assembly banned the niqab. Questions such as public funding of mosques to stem foreign funding or the official training of imams have increasingly been up for debate.

But this isn’t only an issue of institutions. In the land of Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo, only one third of citizens believe in God. A politician invoking God in a speech would be considered both inappropriate and something of an oddball; French presidents finish their speeches saying “Long live the Republic.” President Hollande, for instance, didn’t even offer Christmas greetings to the nation, a fact that is stunning to Americans. In addition, starting with the Prime Minister, who denounced the use of the term “Islamophobia,” many French refuse to equate criticism of religion, a freely chosen set of values, with racism, an intolerance of innate traits.

Commentators, mostly in Anglo-Saxon countries, are prompt to ask the French to adapt their identity and principles to a religious conservatism often funded by the Gulf, in keeping with a multicultural model, but the French wonder why the adaptation shouldn’t go the other way around. Indeed, France has a long history of successful assimilation of the foreign-born, with an identity based on civic ideas rather than on an ethnicity. Manuel Valls, the Spanish-born French Prime Minister, acquired his French citizenship at age twenty. The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was also born Spanish, while the Education Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is from a family of Moroccan descent. Recent Pew polls have not found a greater degree of anti-Muslim sentiment in France than in Germany or the United Kingdom. Even more significantly, polling shows that French Muslims are far more likely to define their identity through citizenship than other European Muslims.

Banning the burkini won’t solve France’s integration and radicalization challenges. Social and economic causes (from discrimination to an uneven education system to rigid labor markets) should be tackled with greater energy. But the ideological dimension should not be ignored. The burkini, together with all the other visible provocations, constitutes a trap: the mayors have certainly fallen into that trap and the debate engendered has distanced Muslims and rendered these Islamist symbols an even more potent rallying point for the anti-secularists among them. Law is not the best tool to respond to ideology. But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices. In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority. These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.

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