The burkini: Not a teenie-weenie issue

New flash!  France is not the United States.  They speak a strange language, saying things like “quel dommage” and “zut allors!”  The French eat snails and frogs, and when the food is not peculiar, they give it odd names.  A grilled cheese sandwich (with ham) is a croque-monsieur and a ham sandwich with butter a jambon-beurre.  The French don’t have a federal system, trial by a jury of peers, or the right to keep and bear arms.  Likewise, they do not protect religious liberties to the extent we do in America.  Indeed, they are a profoundly secular state.  So when local French municipalities decided to ban so-called burkinis (full-length bathing garb for Muslim women), the outrage of some folks on this side of the Atlantic seemed a bit misplaced – like arguing with a Frenchman over whether Jerry Lewis is really a comic genius.

Some of those with objections to the French ban are not necessarily people you would expect, either.  Daniel Pipes, a principled critic of Islamism and Western appeasement thereto, strongly attacked the French as wrongheaded, as did others on the American right, including writers at American Thinker, and, quite predictably, the American left.  The general thrust of this criticism is that from a legal standpoint, these French municipalities are wrong; that from a practical standpoint, the burkini ban is bad politics; and from a moral standpoint, the ban is offensive and silly.

Whether the ban is legal or not must be left to French national authorities (and evidently, they think it is illegal), though those worthies care not a whit for what non-Frenchmen think.  The ban very well may be bad politics and in the end redound against the interests of those who support the ban.  But whether the ban is wrong by French or general European standards or silly by anybody’s is a much more difficult question.

Pipes and others like him are staking out an unusual position here.  Since the 9/11 attacks, Pipes has taken the position that such attacks are not the primary danger against the West from Islamists; rather, the primary danger is the peaceful but nonetheless insidious inroads that Islamists make in America and elsewhere.  In November 2001, he wrote of the threat of an Islamist takeover: “the non-violent way would seem to have a brighter future, and it is in fact the approach adopted by most Islamists.” 

The burkini, silly as it may seem, would appear to be part of just what an insidious and peaceful takeover might look like.  Certainly many French authorities see it that way, and not because they are Islamophobes.  While violent attacks make the international news, many French people are all too aware of the creeping Islamization of their nation.  Almost every French city has Muslim ghetto areas in which there are so-called no-go zones where French police and authorities fear to tread.  Muslim cabbies in many Western countries routinely refuse to carry people carrying alcohol or with dogs.  A couple of years ago, a Frenchman eating a jambon-beurre was accosted by Muslims offended by his eating pork in public.  Leftist European Islamophiles increasingly defend Islamist excesses and adopt Islamist positions and attack moderate Muslims.  One of France’s most popular and disturbing recent novels, Submission, describes a peaceful social and political Islamist takeover of the country in 2022, as complacent and confused Frenchmen meekly submit.  And pace Submission, some secularized non-Muslim women in France and elsewhere (the burkini was invented in Australia) have taken up the burkini for reasons ranging from modesty to fear of skin cancer to adopting a chic pro-Islamic fad.

The case is made by some that the use of the burkini is actually an expression of Islamic moderation by forward-thinking Muslim women.  Were this the case, then use of the burkini should arguably be encouraged, with the view that it would lead to Muslim women becoming “normalized” in French society, eventually wearing ordinary bikinis like everyone else. 

The problem here is timing.  The burkini was invented over a decade ago to little notice or fanfare.  Few moderate (here meaning not strictly practicing) Muslim women appear to have wanted to wear it, while devout ones rejected it out of hand.  In France a decade ago, a moderate Muslim woman might wear a bikini without fear of being ostracized or physically attacked.  No more.  Today the burkini market is among moderate, relatively secularized Muslim women because for many, that is their only realistic choice.  In the past decade, not only has the Muslim population of France (and Europe) grown dramatically, but so has Islamist power and influence, along with Islamist violence, only the worst of which is widely publicized.  Within French Muslim ghettos, women face imposition of sharia law not very different from that in Saudi Arabia.  Even in more distant precincts, the pressure, psychological and physical, is ever present. 

This is no surprise.  Uniquely among the world’s major religions, Islam has tended to become more patriarchal over time, not less.  The consensus among Western historians, at least, is that Mohammed’s own wives and daughters were not veiled, and that the practice became commonplace among Arab tribes only after his death, with the conquest of Mesopotamian, Byzantine, and Persian territories, where the practice was more common.  Koranic injunctions on veiling were probably added when the Koran was set down in writing, during these conquest decades after Mohammed’s death in 632.  The increasing pressure on Muslim (and even non-Muslim) women to comply is in keeping with this trend.

Watching video of burly French policeman forcing peaceful Muslim female beachgoers to undress is weird and disturbing for most Westerners who value personal and religious freedom.  And that includes a lot of French people, too, who are offended and even scandalized by the actions of these beach municipalities against female Muslim bathers.  

But as citizens of a highly secularized country, the French really have no good option.  The problem with secularization is that you either have it or you don’t, and if one confessional group ignores that and authorities do not resist, inevitably that confessional group will simply dominate and take over.  That is why French officials who support the burkini ban call the garment intolerably provocative.  As it stands now, the French army is stretched thin throughout the country merely protecting the tiny Jewish community from Islamists.  If the authorities cannot or will not impose the law – regardless of what some French or outsiders think of it – then the nation risks civil war.      

Obviously, the burkini dust-up reflects larger issues, and it seems unavoidable that as a practical matter the burkini-banning French authorities will lose.  And although I too find photos of Muslim women being forced to undress disturbing and offensive to my American sensibilities, I think that for France, it would have been better had the burkini-banners won.