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To Ban or Not to Ban the Burkini

France is all over the news this month, first because several coastal towns banned “burkinis” on Mediterranean beaches, and again this week when its supreme court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned one of the bans.

Burkini is a loosely defined word describing what basically amounts to a cross between an all-enveloping burka and a bikini which ultra conservative Muslim women wear to the beach and in the water so they don’t show any skin.

American commentators overwhelmingly oppose the French ban. There is no chance our own Supreme Court would fail to overturn legislation that forbids wearing anything in particular, even T-shirts bearing a Nazi swastika or the face of Osama bin Laden.

Even so, Peter Beinart in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz laments what he calls “the American Jewish silence” about an “outrageous assault on religious liberty.” “The ‘burkini ban’ can’t possibly be justified by national security,” he writes. “It’s a purely ideological effort to define French secularism in a way that forces conservative Muslim women either to violate their religious beliefs or vacate public space.”

He’s right, but that’s not the whole story.

Before we get to the rest of it, let’s get something out of the way: None of the severe clothing worn by some conservative Muslim women is mandated by the Islamic religion. Women are just told to dress modestly. That’s it. And “modestly” is an entirely relative concept.

The only places in the entire world where it’s the cultural norm for women to wear a full burka, which covers the face and even the eyes, are certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lots of women on the Arabian Peninsula wear a veiling niqab which conceals their face but at least leaves one or two eyes uncovered, but almost everywhere else in the world, Muslim women simply cover their hair with a scarf, or hijab, and leave it at that. 

Headscarves have been mandated by law in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before that, Iranian women dressed like Western women. Don’t believe it? Take a look at these photographs from old Iranian magazines. Iranian women back then could have worn headscarves if they wanted to, but most didn’t want to. That’s why the reactionary clerical regime forces them to wear headscarves. Otherwise, most women wouldn’t.

In Tunisia, maybe half the women cover their hair. Only one percent at the most cover their face, and everyone on the street stares at that tiny minority as if they’re aliens. Whenever I’m in Tunisia and see a woman dressed like that, I assume she’s not even from there, that she’s visiting from Saudi Arabia. Morocco is a bit more conservative than Tunisia, but not much.

In Lebanon, no women cover their faces, and not even Saudi women on holiday bother to put on a headscarf. Kurdish women likewise never cover their faces. Maybe half cover their hair and call it a day. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in Turkey with her face covered, but perhaps I saw one or two and just don’t remember.

The point is, burkas and burkinis aren’t even normal by Muslim standards let alone French standards where women can go topless on beaches without causing a stir. Showing up there, of all places, in a burkini is perceived by huge numbers of French people as a fat middle finger. It’s the offensive cultural inverse of going topless on a beach in Iran.

France isn’t Iran. It’s not the kind of place that’s supposed to tell people what they can wear and what they cannot, which is why the court struck down the burkini ban.

The ban isn’t racist, though, nor is it bigoted, and American journalists should resist the temptation to write about France as though it has been taken over by a bunch of Islamophobic Orcs. Rather, the French are pushing back against extremists who are menacing all of French society, including most of France’s Muslim citizens.

“The burkini,” Benjamin Haddad writes in The American Interest, “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.”

All this, alas, is lost on most of the American commentariat. Here’s Paul Berman in Tablet:

The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.

And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.

Berman effectively rebuts this simplistic thinking. I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and add the following: the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, and France is one of the least racist countries in Europe. (Critics can let me know when any European nation elects a head of state with African heritage, and also, at the same time, explain why the supposedly Muslim-hating France has more Muslim citizens per capita than anywhere else in Western Europe.)

Some French people are bigots, for sure, but most of them are revolting against extreme Islamic dress codes for the exact same reasons Tunisia’s government led by Habib Bourguiba, and the Turkish government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also did so in their time—not because they hate Muslims, but because they wish to protect moderate Muslims, and the society at large, from the radicals.

As Berman notes, this controversy didn’t start with Muslim immigration to France. It started with the rise of the Islamists.

If Islamic fundamentalists were like the Amish in America—if they were ludicrously conservative compared with everyone else but peaceably keeping to themselves—hardly anybody would care what they wore. The problem is that Islamic extremists routinely bully the moderates and at times lash out with psychopathic mass violence against everyone. Live-and-let-live can’t be a one-way street, at least not for long.

Here’s Berman again:

The veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.

Governments are in a tough spot here. They have no choice, really, but to compromise liberal-libertarian values no matter what they do.

Banning any kind of clothing is precisely the kind of heavy state action expressly prohibited by the United States Constitution, and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our Founding Fathers were rightly appalled by governments that micromanaged the daily lives of citizens, especially on religious grounds. Yet banning severe Islamic dress codes liberates moderate Muslims from the bullying and at times violent pressure from extremists who will only stand down when they’re forced to stand down.

The way forward, for many of us anyway, is not obvious.

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