Much Ado About Nothing: Thoughts on the ‘BurkiniGate’ (EN)

Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyenUpon writing an article about a subject as misused and manipulated – the BurkiniGate, so to speak – one must first remind the public of some facts: the burkini ban is in no way a national one, but rather a decision taken by less than thirty cities in France, out of 36,000. Therefore, the BurkiniGate – and that is indeed a false evidence – is not a controversy as important as various organisations are trying to make it out to be, and this for self-interested reasons that we will analyse later on. Is it then unimportant? Far from it, since it highlights the divisions existing within both the French society and, in a subtler way, the French government.

Those divisions within the French society seem to be growing stronger by the day, considering that some parts of the population are willing to reinterpret the republican concept of secularism – that conception being the result of nearly three centuries of political, social and philosophical reflection – in order to ban some clothes perceived as radical Islam’s latest manifestation, thus endangering two of our Republic’s cornerstones: individual freedoms and freedom of religion. It also highlights an identity crisis within the French Socialist Party since that, in addition to Manuel Valls analysing the burkini as a “political provocation” – thus sharing Nicolas Sarkozy’s views on the matter, which only proves that Hollande’s quinquennat is an ideological disaster – a various number of ministers either tried to appease things – like Bernard Cazeneuve – or criticised the ban – like Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Such a lack of shared discipline, only six months before presidential elections and whilst political initiatives are multiplying on the government flanks, only shows that some parts of the left, in order to win new elections, are willing to be infected by Sarkozy’s so called droite décomplexée. Then again, it’s not about debating the burkini’s nature but rather its interdiction’s rightfulness, and to think that resorting to such a questionable tool will automatically create a change of mindset within the French Muslim communities is, for better or for worse, the French way of handling religious-tainted issues. The French way might differ from the Anglo-Saxon liberal approach, since it relies on yet another state’s intervention rather than promoting individual initiatives, which, that being said, are yet to be proved effective in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Subsequently, one must, in order to question the effectiveness of the French mayors’ decisions, focus on the analysis of former attempts made at curbing the rise of Islam through arbitrary interdictions rather than relying on a different and yet inadequate approach.

In the wake of the wars of independence which occurred in both Africa and Asia during the second half of the 20 th century, a various number of countries felt like modernisation had to go through a battle against religious habits deemed as outdated, such as wearing the hijab. Their leaders, most of them being partisans of nationalist ideologies – those were at that time closer to Europe’s 19 th century nationalisms rather that 20 th century ones – were trying to achieve both state’s modernisation and people’s emancipation and some, such as Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, decided to ban civil servants from wearing the veil and settled for only advising the people not to wear it anymore. Others made it optional, such as Mohamad Zaher Shah, Afghanistan’s last king. A more radical approach was decided by Raza Shah Pahlavi, penultimate Iran’s Shah, who made it purely and solely illegal to wear it. What about the results? They were at best disappointing, since rather than encouraging the rise of a relevant and long-lasting secular mindset, those decisions made it only easier for the Islamists’ rhetoric to appear as martyrs of a compulsory and undemocratic westernisation. It is thus quite logical to doubt the effectiveness of those mayors’ decisions as far as fighting against radical Islam is concerned, even though it is quite wrong to associate the burkini with it, considering that most of Iranian mullahs, Saudi imams or Afghan Taliban would simply not tolerate the sight of a woman bathing alongside foreign men, even at the beach.

Therefore, how can we explain that such an unnecessary controversy would happen in France? First, by considering the geopolitical context in which both Europe and France are living and second, by remembering that elections are to be organised in less than six months. The French Republic, once again in its modern history, is watching two events collide: an international crisis – the rise of Islamism and terrorism on its soil – and an internal crisis – the election of a new president. Sadly, examining the last time those kind of events shared a same timespan only lead to an alarming conclusion: willing to satisfy hurt public opinion, but also to take good care of their image, politicians would rather consider communication’s priorities than finding a relevant and effective solution. Such a modus operandi, for instance, is responsible for the massacre that occurred in Ouvéa in 1988, when the French army launched an assault against hostages-takers whereas they were about to surrender anyway in order to make an example, a few weeks before the elections. That disastrous logic – on the long run – is nonetheless what seems to be the French politicians’ strategy: in order to prevail, women and men such as Marine le Pen, Manuel Valls or Nicolas Sarkozy are willing to appear as some hommes providentiels – another sad, French pattern – even if it only means beating the war drums harder than the others. And yet, there’s another way, an honest way, that newspapers won’t bother to display: to recognize that the burkini, as sexist as it is – and it is, since it relies on a so-called moral duty to show modesty and reserve for women only – shouldn’t nevertheless be banned since it would only damage individual freedoms and reinforce radical islamists’ rhetoric whilst preventing women from going to the beach, which is by the way a more daring way to defy religious obscurantism than what our so-called “feminist” leaders have been doing for the past months and years.

The ban of the burkini is being justified in many ways by the different mayors who took that decision. Some of them said that they aimed at defending the French laïcité, even though they seem to forget that our 1958’s constitution, quoting 1789 Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, insists on the fact that the Republic insures freedom of religion and guarantees the free exercise of cults, as long as they’re not a threat to public order. Do those mayors really hope to prove that the burkini is endangering public order? Others may claim that they only want to protect women from religious obscurantism, which is at best doubtful since they never showed any desire to improve women’s living conditions before. Where were they when the right was reducing its funding of social programs and associations helping women gain an easier access to contraception, STD’s prevention or abortion? Where were they when the right turned its back on the victims of domestic abuse? Where were they when the European Parliament tried to discuss the obnoxious salary gap that still exists between men and women but wasn’t able to do it because the right voted against it? The fact that French politicians are willing to lie to get elected is nothing new, sadly, but to see so many citizens buy the Front National feminist rhetoric whereas this party’s European deputes were recently referring to abortion as a “weapon of mass destruction” is simply terrifying.

Justice - Allégorie.jpg

Nevertheless, there’s no white knights on that very chessboard. Various associations, naturally interested by the occasion to appear on the television, indulged in that controversy, hoping to appear as both justicer and victims of a secularism subtly compared to a form of authoritarianism or cultural imperialism. The Muslim citizens of France who felt hurt by some mayors’ decision might have hoped for a better lawyer than Marwan Muhammad, spokesman of the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, who declared in 2011 “who has the right to say that France, in thirty or forty years, won’t be a Muslim country? Who as that right? No-one in this country has the right to take that away from us. No-one has the right to deny us the right to hope in a society faithful to Islam. No-one has the right in this country to define what is the French identity.” The CCIF, until now, was nothing but insignificant. From twenty-three releases published on 2011’s second semester, it was only publishing three in 2012’s first one. Therefore, how could we explain that such a controversial association, whose members are known to be meeting radical imam and hateful preachers, is taking upon itself to represent the French Muslims, most of them being moderate and republican? Sadly, for the common citizen who doesn’t have entire days to dedicate to the sole analysis of the BurkiniGate, the fact that a man as despicable as Marwan Muhammad defends the right to wear burkini immediately turned the fact of wearing it into a sign of radicalism. Therefore, the CCIF is in no way appeasing things nor defending Muslim women. It is on the contrary working towards dividing the society even more; it encourages tensions between communities and isn’t even trying to rationalise the republican debate. Its sole objective is both poisonous and irrational: to fuel hatred between the French citizens since it became its only way to appear on television. Subsequently, the first thing a politician willing to appease the situation should do would be to ignore the sleights of hand of such a dispensable association.

And in order not to make things better, one had to add to that mess the everlasting ambiguous and self-serving press which is at the same time setting things on fire and calling for firefighters whilst ignoring Camus’ words on newspapers. The latter, amongst many others thinkers and intellectuals, was already criticising in 1944 the press’s drift towards infotainment and the cult of immediate, terrific, disproportionate and dumb news. In Combat, a few months before the Allies landed on the coasts of Normandy, Camus wrote: How hard it is to be the first: one rushes on quaint details, appeals to the public’s sentimentality and willingness to be abused, howls alongside his readers, desperately trying to please him whereas he should only be enlightening him, all those actions being proof of the one’s despise for the people. And the media’s defence is well known: that’s what they want! And yet, that is rather what the public has been taught to want for the past twenty than what he really desires, which is utterly different. And yet, one can only witness famous and amateur newspapers indulge in intellectual misery, ready to sacrifice a wise way to inform upon the altar of cost-effectiveness by crushing the readers’ mind under hordes and hordes of articles somehow comparable to an artillery barrage, bombing and bombing again the spirit’s walls. To see Le Monde, once one of France’s marvellous voices, taking part to the erection of this fortress of absurdities is nothing but another proof of the intellectual poorness of the paragons of the days of yore. And yet, we ought to be honest: the press is not the only responsible. To click on an incomplete article, ill-written, resorting to unchecked facts, is by all mean a dishonourable behaviour making you an accomplice of the great illusionist’s initiative. Camus, once again, had predicted it: a society willing to be distracted by a dishonoured press and a thousand cynical entertainers […] is only heading towards slavery and that, despite the protests of the very ones who contributed to that degradation.” (CALIBAN, 1951)

Freedom is nothing but a chance to better

What can we do, then, once it is clear that this controversy is nothing but the bastard daughter of a society’s wounded pride? What can we do, once one understands the responsibility of cynical politicians and breathless media? The idealistic thing to do would be not to wait for someone’s green light and go meet those women who decided, for a reason or another, to wear the burkini – for it will always be honourable to make that effort, to build bridges, to challenge your and other peoples’ mindset – in order to understand their motives. Some, maybe, will admit that they are forced to wear it, and then your duty will be to help those individuals to get in touch with associations and institutions willing to help them stand for their rights. Others will say that they wear  the burkini by their own choosing, even if it is directly linked to a social and cultural construction, and whatever might be your thoughts on it, you will only be able to respect that choice as long as it respects the laws and constitution of the Republic. Perhaps more rarely, some will explain their decision by talking about their shyness or intimate complex and then again, you’ll only be able to respect the fact that they already partly overcame them by going to the beach, thus displaying an actual desire to be part of the society. In conclusion, to display tolerance at any time, without forgetting what we owe to the long fight for our society secularisation, in order to insure the complete enjoyment of our national motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, for all.

Hugo Decis 

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