Hot new frontier in fighting Islamism in France: Banning the burkini

If you can’t change hearts and minds, I guess you can make ’em change their swimwear.

This is the sort of cosmetic assimilation you worry about when you’re at a loss as to how to engineer the more meaningful variety. Call it “blunt-force assimilation” if you like. Under penalty of law (in this case a small fine), you’ll act like you’re part of France’s secular liberal culture whether you are or not. I can’t imagine that combo of papering over profound differences and encouraging petty religious resentments will come back to torment France later.

French human rights campaigners have asked the country’s highest court to rule on the legality of the so-called burkini ban after a public outcry over police fining Muslim women wearing head scarves.

In one incident, police fined a woman wearing a traditional head scarf knotted at the nape of her neck and a long matching tunic over tight leggings on a beach in Nice. Photographs showed four male officers carrying guns standing over the woman as she stripped off her tunic, though the Nice mayor’s office denied that she had been forced to remove clothing…

Officials deem the burkini, which covers the body and head, to be a challenge to French values of secularism and gender equality and a threat to public safety after complaints and outbreaks of violence. On the French Mediterranean island of Corsica last weekend, about 200 police officers broke up brawling locals who had apparently turned on a family that included two women wearing what some believed was religion-mandated clothing.

The court is set to rule tomorrow. Lower courts have already upheld the burkini ban on grounds that it’s “liable to cause offense and to provoke people to violence,” which is a disturbing form of legal sanction for the “heckler’s veto.” On the other hand, a right-wing French politician was right when he said that there’s something “provocative” about wearing the veil in public, especially after the country’s endured a series of major terror attacks. It’s an expression of cultural rejectionism at a moment when France is panicked about whether Muslims can be assimilated, especially since coverings for women are associated with more austere strains of Islam. You don’t see the same panic in the U.S., partly because Muslims are a much smaller share of the population and partly because they’re better assimilated than the banlieue-dwellers of France.

A Muslim author thinks French arguments in defense of the ban are contradictory, but I don’t:

According to France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, the suit is part of “the enslavement of women.” In a newspaper interview, the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, said: “The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion.”

These explanations may seem ludicrous, but Mr. Valls and Mr. Lisnard perfectly summed up the two contradictory public order rationales that European courts all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights use when dealing with Muslim women in religious garb. According to Europe’s highest court of human rights, Muslim women in head scarves and burqas are simultaneously victims, in need of a government savior, and aggressors, spreading extremism merely by appearing Muslim in public.

Is it really that hard to understand how someone can be a victim and an aggressor? They’re victims within their own religious culture, where they’re taught subordination to men, and “aggressors” in the context of the larger society that’s worried about illiberal Islamic values being normalized in the name of multiculturalism. France doesn’t want women, especially the impressionable young next generation of Muslim women, to conclude that it’s fair for them to cede certain freedoms that men enjoy, even if the freedom in question — this time — is relatively minor.

Still, that doesn’t mean the burkini ban’s a good idea. The best you can say for it, I think, is that if it’s enforced scrupulously (which it probably won’t be) over many years, the sheer volume of debate over it will force Muslim girls to make a conscious decision on whether to wear the veil and accept its symbolism rather than to wear it as a matter of religious course. But that could backfire: It might encourage Muslims to treat their religious identity as more important than they otherwise would have, which will deepen the cultural divide instead of bridging it. And as a matter of pure optics, it’s pathetic to make French cops spend their time hassling Muslim grannies on the beach over their bathing suits. (One meme going around on Twitter the past few days has a photo of Iranian police bothering a woman for not wearing a headscarf side by side with a photo of French police bothering a woman for insisting on wearing one.) The targets are sympathetic, the “offense” seems cosmetically absurd, and French security officials come off as having their priorities far out of whack given the trouble European counterterrorism is having in thwarting the actual jihadis in their midst. The ban reeks of the idea that if the cops can’t prevent killers from shooting people up, they can at least prevent some random Muslim woman from weirding you out while you’re trying to catch some rays. In fact, according to CNBC, the uproar has even backfired by boosting sales of “burkinis.”

We’ll see what the court does tomorrow. I was hoping to give you a CNN or Fox News clip on the controversy but the only extended treatment I can find right now is this bit from Kremlin-backed RT. Good enough in this case, I guess.