Early in August, a Muslim woman was prevented from taking a dip in a swimming pool in Émerainville, a town on the eastern outskirts of Paris.
She was wearing a “burkini”—a head-to-toe swimsuit that resembles a hooded wetsuit and is regarded as an Islamic-friendly swimwear.
The pool management reportedly turned away the woman—a French convert to Islam—not out of religious intolerance, but for not complying with the public hygiene standards.
The suit, it said, could be a carrier of germs and dirt particles, which could pose health risks to the other swimmers. Interestingly, however, the woman was allowed to swim in the same pool in July.
Émerainville mayor, Alain Kelyor, told BBC, “All this [had] nothing to do with Islam” and added that the burkini was “not an Islamic swimsuit” and that such a suit “does not exist in the Koran.”
Earlier in June, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an address to a joint session of the French Parliament in Versailles—the first French president to address the legislature in more than a century—did not shy away from expressing outright disapproval of the burqa.
Calling it a “sign of enslavement and debasement of women,” he said that the burqa was “not welcome on French territory.”
“In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” The same month, a group of 76 lawmakers put forth a legislation to ban the attire.
The controversy surrounding the burkini (a portmanteau of “burqa” and “bikini”) has sparked fresh debate over religious freedom in France, smoldering since 2004, when the government outlawed the display of all religious symbols in public schools.
“Secularism,” as a salient political doctrine of liberal democracies, implies the separation of state and religion.
It demands that the state either: (1) turn a blind eye to religion per se; (2) embrace all its religions equally; or (3) altogether exclude them from the political realm.
France is a devoutly secular nation. But so is the U.S.—but there’s a difference.
Unlike in France, the brand of secularism practiced in the world’s largest democracy, with its multiplicity of religious minorities, is predicated on a concept of inclusiveness, which allows it to embrace all religious minorities, each with its religious accoutrement: the Sikh turban, the Islamic niqab, the Jewish yarmulke, the Hindu sindhur, the Buddhist bead.
To get a snapshot of the American secular milieu, one need only take a ride in the New York City subway. A Jewish man, wearing the Torah-prescribed long black coat; a Sudanese woman, dressed in an abaya; and a Spanish tourist, wearing a cross, may all travel together in the same car, without drawing the slightest attention to themselves.
By contrast, an American woman in Saudi Arabia, dressed in regular Western outfits, with her head uncovered, will likely be whisked away by its religious police for immodest behavior. The sheikhdom is an oppressive theocratic state governed by shariah—the Islamic law, based on the Quran.
What’s happening in France today, has shades of the Saudi Arabian model.
The French Republic’s almost fanatical adherence to laïcité goes against the very spirit of the secular state. When secularism itself begins to masquerade as a religion, it can become just as repressive as religious fundamentalism.
Any code—regardless of whether its roots are religious or extra-religious—that demands an individual to surrender his or her religious freedom is likely to engender discontent and further marginalize France’s Islamic population of 5 million, the largest in Western Europe.
George Orwell, an ardent enemy of fascism, once complained that the British left’s anti-fascist tirade had acquired the very same totalitarian attitude that it attacked in fascism.
The British liberals were not only attacking fascism in the most banal of ways, but were also advocating the installation of democracy as the global deity of choice.
Thus, one form of orthodoxy was supplanting another.
Were Orwell alive today, he’d been appalled by the French reverence for secularism. He would’ve labeled it a French dogma, which has more to do with French nationalism and less to do with the desire to uphold the universal principle of secularism.
By regulating the sartorial, and by extension, the moral freedom of its citizens, France is behaving like a Western mullah.
The banishing of any visible markers of a group’s religious identity from the French public sphere, is perhaps, not just an affirmation of the French political virtues, but of something greater.
It’s the declaration of the pacific and egalitarian West’s victory over the misogynistic and terror-mongering faction of Islam.