Last month, a series of local bans enacted by French mayors on the wearing of "burkinis" — a type of body-covering Islamic swimwear — generated global furor. Images of armed French police forcing a burkini-clad woman to partially disrobe on a beach outraged observers elsewhere. The whole thing, critics argued, smacked of hypocrisy and sexism.
A top French court ultimately ruled that the bans constituted an insult to "fundamental freedoms," but a majority of people in the country — as well as in other major Western European nations — still support such measures. At the head of the pack is French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has been conspicuous in his defense of these controversial bans and indignant at criticism from fellow Westerners.
This week, Valls penned an op-ed that was published in the Huffington Post, taking exception to an earlier story in the New York Times that featured the voices of Muslim French women speaking out against the bans and what they perceived as anti-Muslim discrimination and prejudice within France.
Valls took issue with what he suggested was the stigmatization and misunderstanding of France's secularist precepts.
"The Muslim women whom this article has given voice to express only one point of view. They are free to express it," he wrote, but then went on to reiterate his long-held view that the act of wearing a burkini was tantamount to embracing a political project antithetical to French values.
"We must have open eyes to the growing influence of Salafism, which contends that women are inferior and impure and that they must be sidelined," Valls wrote, referring to a particularly puritanical strain of Islam linked to militancy. "This was the question, absolutely not anecdotal, that was at the center of the debate around the burkini and the burqa. It is not an insignificant bathing suit. It is a provocation of radical Islam, which is emerging and wants to impose itself in the public space!"
Many have already balked at Valls linking a swimsuit to "radical Islam" and contend a ban on such attire is simply another form of the patriarchal domination that Valls claims to be fighting. But ahead of an election year when Valls and his fellow politicians on the center-left face a stiff challenge from the far-right, he's trying to position himself as both a staunch opponent of political Islam as well as a champion of inclusion.
"We are fighting for the freedom of women who should not have to live under the yoke of a chauvinist order," he wrote.
Valls sees the disquiet of others in the West opposed to the burkini bans as misplaced sympathy for those who would wall themselves off in conservative ghettos. This is a frustration shared by others in France.
"The tolerance offered by progressives effectively reinforces the idea that hiding from men’s natural sexual urges is a woman’s burden," wrote Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and a French national. "That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message."
The different types of secularism
Part of the clash of views has to do with the very different nature of secularism in France than what exists in countries such as Britain and the United States. Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and scholar of religion, laid out in a 2007 essay what distinguished France's concept of secularism — or laïcité — from its Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
Laïcité is about the separation of church and state, a concept Americans know well. But in America, separation was designed to free religion from state interference (and vice versa), whereas in France separation evolved to exclude religion from public space and to promote the supremacy of the state over religious organizations. And the historical reasons for the distinction are clear enough. As de Tocqueville observed, the American Founders saw Protestant Christian religion as a support for freedom and civic virtue; French republicans saw the Catholic Church as having been complicit with the worst features of the 'ancien régime' and sought to limit its sway over French democracy.
In the United States, secularism implies a freedom for religion; in France, it is a freedom from. The latter principle has been ingrained in French politics since its revolution in the late 18th century. A politician like Valls would probably avoid trumpeting the religious moorings of his culture in the way Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently hailed the "Judeo-Christian values" of the United States.
"The conviction on which the French nation is based is that to have free and equal citizens, religion must fall under the private sphere," Valls wrote, explaining that what it means to be French must remain wholly distinct from any kind of sect or faith. "France, in this respect, different than other countries, does not see itself as a juxtaposition of communities with each having their own autonomous process. To say it in another way: We do not view the French identity as something ethnic."
To be sure, this is a rather rigid view of national identity. In other places, as WorldViews has noted, a more pluralist outlook is possible. At the same time as France fulminated over burkinis, police departments in Canada and Scotland permitted female officers to don hijabs, if they so desired.
But in France, as my colleague James McAuley reported, attitudes have hardened over fears of terrorism and Islamist radicalization in the country. Conservative politician and former president Nicholas Sarkozy has positioned himself as a strong challenger in the upcoming elections on the back of a hard-line platform that includes banning the Muslim headscarf from universities and public companies, curbing the French nationality rights of children born to foreign parents, and ending pork-free meal choices in school cafeterias for Jewish and Muslim children.
The dogma of the majority
Sarkozy can argue that he is standing up for French values and the importance of assimilation. But such a stance can also be seen simply as cynical bullying, the move of a politician seeking the vote of a bigoted Parisian restaurant owner rather than the Muslim patrons he controversially refused to serve last week.
Sarkozy's campaign, wrote British journalist and author Christopher de Bellaigue, "looks likely to be defined by his promises to enforce majority prejudice over minority interests."
This is an impulse that is hardly unique to France. Rather, as de Bellaigue observed, it links up with a current trend of democracies from India to Turkey to countries in the West where the political leadership is "indulgent of many different varieties of nationalist phobia" and where "xenophobia has once more become a widely accepted electoral tool."
In many cases, such as in the tumultuous U.S. election campaign, suspicion of Islamist extremism is a dominant theme. But the opposite is true in majority Muslim Turkey, whose powerful President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sculpts his religious nationalism as a reaction to decades of stifling, French-style secularism.
The "majoritarianism" of the moment looks even bleaker when you turn to the world's most prominent authoritarian regime.
Consider this recent episode of state-enforced secularism in China: In the last week of August, authorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, a restive Turkic Muslim minority, rounded up thousands of local people in the city of Yarkand and forced them to participate in a mass rendition of the Chinese national anthem as well as a performance of tai chi.
The event, a government website explained, was intended to "foster the Chinese nation’s valuable traditions and spread patriotic education" among the region's largely Muslim population. Beijing has long seen the faith of Xinjiang's Uighurs as a potential threat to the state and has sought to curb all sorts of daily expressions of Muslim identity, from trimming men's beards to imposing strictures over female dress.
The patriotic show in Yarkand was not that different from the actions of France's burkini-banning mayors: a heavy-handed bid to counter the supposed radicalism of a minority under permanent suspicion.
And what of these Islamists under suspicion? The threats posed by groups like the Islamic State and their proxies are all too real. But secularism as a worldview or policy platform is not exactly an antidote to extremist violence.
“When observers imply that Arabs or Muslims are prone to violence, they’re usually thinking of groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda,” writes Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid in his recent book "Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World." "But the preponderance of Arab violence has come at the hands of ostensibly secular regimes that claim to be reacting against Islamist movements" and which largely stoked the rise of extremist militant groups.
Hamid's work raises interesting questions about the capacity — or incapacity — of majority Muslim countries to become truly secular. Islam, perhaps more than other religions, plays an outsize role in the public life of countries where it is the majority faith.
But the discomfort it causes some Western leaders raises questions about their values, too, and the limits of the universalism they preach.
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