By Hasan Suroor
Aug 24, 2016
WHEN one of the most powerful European nations with a proud progressive tradition is spooked by a Burkini it shows how badly the continent's culture wars are going for old-fashioned liberalism and common sense. For those who might not be quite up with the latest Sharia-compliant line in Muslim women's clothing, it’s a full-body swimwear; more like a wetsuit worn by surfers than a Burqa. Absurd though the idea of swimming in a full-length dress clearly is (but then what's not absurd about faux Islamist puritanism?) there's nothing "threatening" about a Burkini. It doesn't come with a concealed suicide belt or waterproof explosives. Nobody is known to have blown themselves up in it. It is so safe that Australian lifeguards wear something akin to it, except that they don't call it Burkini.
But we are in France in the midst of a charged atmosphere after the recent wave of attacks. And in the climate of prejudice and paranoia these have generated there's an automatic assumption that if Muslims are hung up on something there must be a sinister motive behind it. So, the axe has fallen on the humble Burkini.
At least five French coastal towns have already banned it. Wearing a Burkini now attracts a 30 euro fine and a police record. Authorities in Cannes have justified it on the basis that Burkini signifies “allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us”. Despite doubts about its legal validity, the ban is set to spread, possibly to other European countries.
France was also the first country in Europe to ban the Burqa and Niqab in public places in 2010 setting in motion copycat bans in several other countries. It was in defence of France's aggressive secularism, the principle of laicite which envisages a strict separation between church and state. But extraordinarily, in the case of Burkini the justification is protecting public order and — more bizarrely — national security provoking a leading Italian bishop to retort that it was “difficult to imagine that a woman who is entering into the water is about to carry out an attack”. The ban was “vulgar”.
France's Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been mocked for portraying it as a grave provocation by Islamist extremists, and “incompatible with the values of the French Republic”. “In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself. It is the expression of a political project, a counter society, based on notably on the enslavement of women,” he said. One almost feels sorry for Narendra Modi for running scared of a bunch of slogan-shouting university students. Here, we have the mighty French Republic running scared of a “garment with some extra bits of Lycra”, as the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil wrote.
It might be relevant to point out that mayors of most the Burkini-banned towns, including Cannes, belong to former President Nicolas Sarkozy's Nationalist Republican Party. And, five years ago, when Sarkozy imposed the Burqa ban, Mr Valls' Socialist Party had opposed it accusing him of feeding Islamophobia. Today, the same Socialist Party is cheering criminalising a piece of clothing that few women care to wear. The mayor of one French town admitted that he had never seen a Burkini-clad sunbather around but did not want to be caught “off-guard”. The new mood among Socialists illustrates how the Left-Right divide in French politics in relation to attitudes towards the country's nearly five million strong Muslim community — the largest in the Europe Union and seething with resentment —has blurred. With an eye on next year's parliamentary and presidential elections, parties are vying with each other to sound tough on Muslim extremism.
The move has ignited a heated debate-— or rather reignited an old and bruising debate — over the French notion of hard secularism: how far and aggressively can it be pushed without offending French citizens of other faiths, and without stigmatising other religions? The French political class is said to be distorting the idea of laicite and peddling an extreme version for political purposes. The puritanical interpretation they are seeking to promote has an eerie echo of the puritanical interpretation of Islam peddled by Islamist. Noted French academic and a specialist in secular studies, Jean Baubérot, called Burkini bans “extremely irrational” and intended to “stigmatise” the entire Muslim community. Such moves, it is feared, are likely to alienate even moderate Muslims whose support the government needs to fight extremism. “It will accentuate tension within French society. We are teaching the French public to associate a woman in a Burkini with the terrorist who assassinates,” warned Leyla Dakhli, a French-Tunisian academic.
Feminists have questioned Burkini's description as a “medieval” practice to “enslave” Muslim women. Actually, it has been designed by modern Western Muslim women who wish to enjoy a beach holiday without wishing to bare all in public. “What is more French than sitting on a beach in the sand? We are telling Muslims that no matter what you do ... we don't want you here,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a religious freedom expert at the University of Toulouse. The pro-ban lobby, she said, was raking outdated ideas about Islam to smear Muslims.
The French row will feed into the wider debate in Europe over Muslim integration; and striking the right balance between integration and assimilation. Should integration be voluntary or imposed by the state? Indeed, what does integration mean? Does it mean obliterating their own Muslim identity altogether? Muslims say, “They want us to become invisible.”
The debate is growing more acrimonious as the backlash against Muslim extremism has turned into Islamophobia with any expression of Muslim identity seen as a threat to presumed superior European values. Even countries which have mocked Burkini bans are themselves either already practising restrictions on Muslim women's clothing or are contemplating them. Germany is considering a proposal to outlaw full-face veil in educational institutions. “From my standpoint, a fully-veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel. Like the French President Francois Hollande, she is also facing elections next year amid intense pressure not only from far Right populist groups such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), but her own party to take a harder line on immigration.
The problem is that coercive measures to push integration risk being counter-productive. The prognosis clearly doesn't look good. Europe, it must be remembered, has a rather unhappy history of sartorial prejudice in relation to Jews. From telling Muslim women what not to wear, it could easily slip into imposing a dress code on them if the Far Right gains power. Is that where Europe is headed?
Hasan Suroor is a London-based commentator