The burkini trap

What are we supposed to make of the recent (failed) attempt to ban burkinis from France’s beaches?

Let’s start with the proponents of the ban and the various reasons advanced; to preserve public order, hygiene (a pool in Marrakech), avoiding “ostentatious religious symbols” in public in the name of secularism.

  • Public order: the same argument could have been used to preserve racial segregation in schools in the United States. Indeed, any interest group could obtain what they wanted simply by threatening to disrupt public order if they didn’t get their way.
  • Hygiene: First of all, there is no hygiene risk in swimming in a chlorinated pool, no matter how dirty your fellow swimmers. Secondly, if you really want to be sure your fellow swimmers are hygienic, you’ll have to ask them to swim naked.
  • Secularism… is not about obliterating religion, it’s about creating a level playing field for religious and non-religious beliefs, in particular by separating religion from the State. Private citizens swimming at the beach is nothing to do with the State.

On the other hand, the central argument in favour of the permitting burkinis is a liberal one: women (indeed people) should be free to dress as they please.

Yes, but: All societies have always placed restrictions on clothing in public. These become customs which change over time. The social media posts comparing burkinis to 19th century European bathing suits strike me as particularly vapid. I don’t understand the point. When those rules were enforced, women (and most men) couldn’t vote. Are we being inconsistent with our past? Of course we are.

It is interesting that the anti-burkini side of the debate does not attempt to argue in terms of custom or tradition. Burkinis could be banned for the same reason nudity is banned – it’s simply not in the current set of acceptable customs. End of story. This is coherent, consistent, social conservatism. No appeals to a logic other than “this is the way things are done around here” is needed.

Perhaps this is because this basic logic of social conservatism is pretty weak, whatever the merits of the status quo. Liberals, who argue for a change in customs, frame their arguments in terms of expanding the scope of individual freedom. It’s quite hard to argue against this; conservatives need to resort to (ridiculous) appeals to “the natural order”, literal interpretations of religious texts, or the spurious arguments listed above.

The constant push for individual freedoms has gradually dragged the centre of western social mores in a liberal direction for centuries. As western influence spread throughout the world, other societies find themselves subject to the same pressures. Indeed the burkini itself, on a public beach, would be seen as a radically liberal shift in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to swim in public.

In the recent debates I have not heard the argument that “the burkini is not a free choice for the women who wear it”. This is sometimes used by so-called liberals to justify coercing women to remove it. I think it is unwise to base a coercive policy on the assumption that adults are not making free choices, even if, in some cases this might be true. Two coercions don’t add up to one freedom, they (probably) just add up to more coercion. It would be better to deal with the (rare?) cases of women being coerced to wear burkinis (or anything else, for that matter) individually than with a blunt and poorly targeted restriction of freedom.

So, given both sides accept that the burkini is a free choice, who is saying what?

The anti-burkini mob can be grouped into two broad groups of people: those who are uncomfortable with an ethnic minority asserting their cultural values / identity (the “ethnocentric” group) and perhaps a small minority of “liberals” who are worried about “emancipating” Muslim women, whether they like it or not.

On the other side, there is an odd mixture of liberals who think people should wear what they want, and (Muslim) social conservatives who certainly don’t think people should wear what they want, but are happy to selectively apply a liberal idea to defend the burkini.

So both sides of the debate find themselves in bed with their ideological opponents, which leads to a really incoherent, inconsistent and above all, stupid debate.

My impression is that social conservatism and ethno-centrism are strongly correlated – people who want to assert group control over what people wear are also acutely interested in ethnic groups. They see primarily people in terms of these groups. They can’t see differences (i.e individuals) within groups. As far as I can tell, the differences between European social conservatives who want to ban the burkini, and Muslim social conservatives who want to wear it are irreconcilable, because the burkini is just a proxy for a wider argument about the presence of an ethnic minority in Europe. For the genuinely ethnocentric European, there is nothing that migrants can do – no amount of adopting western values – that will be enough. I suspect this is something a lot of well integrated migrants have felt, including, for example, Polish people in the UK after the recent Brexit vote.

However, lots of socially conservative people are to some extent open to outsiders, provided existing social traditions and values are not threatened. If they were not, immigration would never have got off the ground in the West (in other words, we would be like Japan).

I wonder if the anti-burkini conservative-liberal alliance could do themselves a favour by adopting a simple line, without any counter-productive blame: the migration project is starting to break down. In Europe, for whatever reason, our ability to integrate newcomers into the existing value set is being tested. As evidence of this, liberal freedoms are being used secure “beachheads of illiberalism”, including the establishment of “new” social codes for women (in reality, old social codes the West has left behind). The presence of this “new” set of social values, which are very different from contemporary western values, leads to social discord. Perhaps previous waves of migration were unable to hold onto their traditional values because of the distance from, and difficulty of communicating with, their originating countries. As the world has got smaller, and with satellite TV and internet, the links to “home” are much stronger.

From that line of reasoning, it is not difficult to say that the existing set of western values takes precedence over the imported values, because that is the “migration bargain”. When in Rome.

I don’t know if this theory of the migration project “breaking down” is really true. But migration is certainly taking centre stage in western politics. Complacent, educated and cosmopolitan: liberals are foolish to dismiss this. The subject needs to be discussed.

My impression is that liberal western values and freedoms are a big part of the migration pull – it’s not just economic. As such, we should be confident about the eventual adoption of these values. This is the (perhaps naïve) position a lot of liberals take, earning us the label “libtard” from frustrated and worried social conservatives. And it’s not just western conservatives who are worried. To give one example, a recent Economist article quoted a (liberal) Syrian migrant who arrived in Germany in the 1960’s as being very concerned about the (illberal) values of the latest arrivals.

It is possible that plenty of burkini wearers do already hold liberal, western values. That is, they are strong supporters of the right to wear a bikini, gay relationships, women working outside the home etc.

But presumably, a large chunk of burkini supporters are what they superficially appear to be: social conservatives. They are happy to use liberal arguments to advance socially conservative morality which is highly illiberal. Their idea is to ensure that their sisters, daughters, etc can be raised in a suitably moral environment, where their sexuality is tightly controlled by their elders and betters. Not one in which they are free to wear what they chose.

And therein lies the dilemma for pro-burkini liberals.

Will defending the burkini in the name of liberalism further, preserve or erode the freedoms liberals seek? Will it result in girls in bikinis or short skirts being called prostitutes or being sexually harrassed? Is the next step the exclusion of unrelated males from beaches where conservative women bathe, as was reportedly attempted in Corsica?

I don’t know. However, I do know that just as we can’t bomb people into democracies, we probably won’t be able to bully them into liberal values.

In France, this debate seems like a terrible distraction from a much more constructive way to promote liberal, western values: getting young people, and particularly young migrant women, into the workplace. Indeed it feels like there is such a political cul-de-sac in France when it comes to economic reform, and that all political contests must now take place on a field where Muslims – liberals and social conservatives all lumped into one unhappy, ethno-religious amalgam – are the football.

This amalgam raises an intriguing idea. What if this fashion for wearing a burkini is contrived to create the amalgam? If I were a conservative Muslim living in France, worried about the insidious effect of liberal ideas on my children’s upbringing, I’d be wondering how I could bring them around to my way of thinking. One way would be to proudly display conservative “Islamic” values, by wearing (say) Wahhabi style clothing. Another way would be to provoke westerners into the sort of xenophobic reaction that will show my kids that they will never be accepted in the West, no matter how liberal they are. So they might as well stick with traditional family values, be proud of their socially conservative heritage etc. The idea is to divide the world into ethnic identity groups, where “Muslim” = socially conservative and “Western” = decadent and corrupt (socially liberal). The idea of the “Muslim liberal” must be squeezed out of everyone’s head. This provocation motive might explain the ostentatious sort of praying in a chador, at the beach (beside girls in bikinis) that I witnessed a couple of weeks ago in France. It was a puzzling scene – I have never seen anyone praying (but not swimming) at the beach in Morocco, for example.

Fundamentally, there is a gulf between very conservative social values (“Islamic” or otherwise – they’re the same) and liberal ones. Each value set can give rise to stable and harmonious societies in their own right, but like sodium and water, they create an explosive mixture. The challenges that liberalism poses to traditional family authority, the role of women and children, individual freedoms over choice of partner, clothing, sexuality etc. are profound. Although plenty of migrants to the West are attracted by its liberalism, some completely reject it.

Following this reasoning, the burkini is a trap. Scenes of western policemen ordering Muslim women to undress or leave the beach are a gold mine for Muslim conservatives trying to discredit the idea of liberalism as a sham. However, in accepting it, do we create a new (illiberal) social norm for young (migrant) women? Is it the thin end of an illiberal wedge? The trap is not the burkini per se, it is the fact that we don’t know how to react to it. A genuinely liberal society, confident in its values and its ability to convert migrants to them, would not even notice the burkini. The burkini is calling our bluff.

But we don’t need to bluff. Liberal values have a lot going for them . The anti-liberal conservative’s real nightmare is not a woman in a bikini  (au contraire, it’s the stuff of their repressed fantasies). Their nightmare is an educated woman earning her own salary, equal in status to men, disposing of her own income (and time, and body) as she sees fit.

If we’re going to use coercion to instil – or safeguard – liberal values, these are the areas where we should use it.