One of the best bits of news I have heard all week is the decision of a French court to overturn the so-called Burkini Ban, imposed by mayors in 30 or so French coastal towns. It was the sort of thing that made me embarrassed to admit I am a secular atheist in polite company.
No wonder, for the stated reasons for the bans had little to do with secular values. Secularism is about giving reasons and justifications for taking a given course of action and rejecting justification by appeal to holy dogma – or any dogma. The ‘reasons’ offered in this case were feeble. The suits were said to be unhygienic. But surely no more or no less hygienic than the full-body swimsuits surfers wear? The ban was to stop women standing out, to protect them from assault. Then why not force Hasidic Jewish men to cut off their locks, to protect them from anti-Semitic bigots?
The logic of the public order justification is oppressive – the state would have to police and prohibit all forms of religious dress, in the interests of public safety. In any case, it was and would have been selectively policed – against Muslim women. Add to that the perverse consequences of ‘protecting’ the possible victims by harassing and humiliating them, as stills of police forcing a woman to strip off on a beach showed. The bans offered a remedy which which bore no relation to the disease it was supposed to cure. Recent terrorist attacks have been carried out by young men, who did not dress all that differently from other young men.
Such logic – if logic this was – is premised on the same lugubrious assessment of human nature and motivation as the Islamist zealots who insist women cover up because men cannot contain themselves. ‘Secular’ zealots insist women strip off because the rest of the population seethes with hate which can be unleashed at the slightest signal of difference, like a woman in a burkini. Both have their own fear of ‘fitna’, the anarchy that women can unleash, if they don’t choose their wardrobe carefully.
We have been here before, with the headscarf ban in schools. That time, one could see what the background issues were: socialisation of the young, the reproduction of Republic values and assimilation of minorities, all purposes the French education system is supposed to serve. One could see how the row over headscarves in public schools was a lightening rod for these wider issues. But what is the big deal about the how Muslim women dress on the beach? In 1944, the Normandy beaches were literal battlegrounds and the the outcome of those battles decided the future of France. In 2016, the beaches have become a cultural battleground, without the world-historical significance of 1944 and without a clear idea of what the issue was actually about.
‘Islamophobia’ is the obvious explanation for the ban but this is not a sufficient explanation. The phrase has inadequate explanatory power, which cannot usefully distinguish genuinely well-founded criticisms of Islam from irrational phobias, rooted in racist bigotry. In this instance, bigotry featured prominently but also – and just as plausibly – simple despair. Small-time politicians felt they had to do something in the wake of the Nice terrorist attack and bigger-time ones (like Sarkozy) sensed an electoral opportunity. Politicians feel they must be seen to be acting to deal with a problem. Action is more important than words – any action, just so long as they seen taking action, even if they cannot put into words why they think their actions are justified.
Cartoonists have been quick to point out the symmetry between secular and Islamist zealots, whose putative motives overlap, as the image at the top of this page illustrates. Still, it is absurd to claim that there is a literal like-for-like oppression of women’s oppression between (say) Saudi Arabia and France. On that subject, we can say more. France does not have anything like the morality police in Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot rely on clerical allies to seek redress in the courts, in the way that Muslim women could count on secular allies to seek redress in the French Courts, as they have just done. Saudi courts uphold the rights of a theocratic system; French courts, a secular system. But there is a key difference. French courts allow individuals to challenge that system. That includes challenging laws popular with the majority. No such checks exist in Saudi Arabia, where legal systems are about upholding collective imperatives to conform and which allow no individual right to opt out from collective demands. In France, as in other western democracies, individual rights do not trump collective demands in all cases but the individual does have a right to be heard and cannot be silenced just because they belong to an unpopular minority or hold beliefs outside the mainstream.
In overturning this ban, the court will doubtless come under attack from the far Right for attacking democracy. The great French political philosopher, Raymond Aron, an intellectual hero of mine, would have had something to say about that. Pondering the question on how democracies can revive ideas that they believe in, he wrote:
“The idea of popular sovereignty is not essential: it can lead as easily to despotism as to liberty. And after all to a large extent it has been popular majorities that have abused their power.
What is essential to the idea of democracy is legality, governance by laws where power is not arbitrary and unlimited. In my view, democratic governments are those that have a minimum of respect for individuals … one where the authority of rulers is subject to the checks of representation [based] on a legitimate authority that is neither magical or irrational …
But that pursuit takes … the intellectual courage to call everything into question and to identify the problems on which depends the very existence of France ….
Instead of raising our voices with the political parties, we might try and define as sincerely as we can the problems facing us and the best ways of solving them”
(The Dawn of Universal History, New York 2002, 175-176)
Amen to that.