In August 2016, an international controversy broke out over a garment known as the “burkini” or (“burqini”): a head-to-ankles swimsuit specifically designed for Muslim women. Since this garment leaves a woman’s face uncovered, it does not cut her off from ordinary communication or conceal her identity in the same radical way as the various forms of apparel commonly referred to as the “burqa.” Nonetheless, it covers almost all of her body, including her hair and neck, while somewhat obscuring her overall figure. Its design and history signal the wearer’s allegiance not only to the doctrines of Islam but also to a distinctively Islamic conception of female sexual modesty.
A number of local government administrations in France enacted bans that were aimed against women wearing the burkini on public beaches. In at least the best-known instance, the ban was, in its explicit terms, directed at all conspicuously religious apparel. That formality should not distract us from the undoubted fact that the immediate target was the burkini. It does, however, have a wider historical and social relevance.
France is notable for its unique version of secularism: the principle of laïcité, which is enshrined in its national constitution and can be understood as a repudiation of the immense power historically wielded by the Roman Catholic Church. Laïcité includes secular government, in the sense that politicians are required to avoid spiritual considerations in formulating policy and legislation and are to focus on promoting citizens’ secular interests. From the viewpoint of Anglo-American secularism, this is, I take it, entirely commendable. In practice, however, laïcité goes further: religious organizations are often regarded in France as potential sources of tyranny or disruption of the social order, and conspicuous public displays of religiosity are viewed with suspicion. There is a widespread sentiment that French citizens should encounter each other in public places, such as streets and beaches, merely as fellow citizens, not as followers of rival otherworldly creeds.
I discussed the burqa in my 2012 book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. You can look up the details, but the short version is that I’m not a fan of the burqa, yet I oppose bans on wearing it such as France enacted in 2011. The case for banning the burkini is even weaker, since it does not hinder communication or identification to the same extent as the burqa, and it is simply not as restrictive a garment. In my view, then, France should not have banned the burqa, and yes—oh, dear, yes (to borrow some almost proverbial words from E. M. Forster)—of course it should not ban the burkini.
As I write, at least one such local ban has already been struck down by the French courts. To support the ban would have required proving that wearing conspicuously religious apparel on the local beaches was causing social disruption. This could not be shown adequately in the locality concerned. It’s doubtful that other local administrations would have more success, so all such bans are likely to fail. That is, surely, a sensible outcome. By contrast, the French burqa ban itself—actually a ban on any apparel that covers the wearer’s entire face—has survived legal challenge. Since the burkini does not cover a woman’s face, as we’ve seen of late in numerous photographs of pretty burkini-clad models, the legal issues are quite different. But even if we supported the burqa ban—which, again, I don’t—it would not follow that we should support the burkini ban.
My general view is that men and women should be allowed to wear whatever they like and find convenient, subject mainly to practical issues such as safety and security. If their clothing expresses their religious, moral, and/or political beliefs, so much the better. I may not like the beliefs concerned—or agree with any of them—but basic ideas of free speech require that people be at liberty to express their commitments in public. The burkini should be legal on French beaches.
All that said, the burkini ban followed closely upon the terrifying Bastille Day jihadist attack in Nice, the most recent in a series of such atrocities within France. When combined with France’s longstanding suspicion of conspicuous displays of religiosity, it’s not surprising that there was a public reaction against a sectarian garment such as the burkini. The reaction was fanned and exploited by some local administrators, wanting to be seen as doing something about the havoc caused by extreme Islamism. The burkini ban was—oh, dear, yes—the wrong political response. But at the same time, it’s not that difficult a stretch to imagine that ordinary, apolitical people living in the south of France—people still shocked by the surreal massacre in Nice—might be offended by garments associated with a strict interpretation of Islam.
Yet the response in English-speaking countries has been an extraordinary, almost gleeful pile-on against France. The burkini itself has been elevated, in the mainstream press and on ever-fickle social media, to something in between a trendy fashion statement—complete with models simpering at the camera—and a sacred object representing social inclusivity.
It seems, by now, that many people who regard themselves as secular, progressive thinkers despise French culture and are hostile to French ways of thinking about religiosity. Even if those ways are mistaken, there are reasons and historical circumstances behind them. For many pundits and public intellectuals, France is a decadent, self-indulgent, racist—and, they think, probably misogynist—country that has it coming whenever there’s trouble. Therefore, legitimate French concerns about politicized religiosity, not least about Islamism, can be dismissed.
Such a dismissal is a flawed and callous approach, but expect it to continue.