Ignorance, fear and the burqini ban debacle

This picture shows the bylaw forbidding women to wear burqinis on the beach in Nice. Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

This picture shows the bylaw forbidding women to wear burqinis on the beach in Nice. Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

The alleged Islamification of Europe has become an occasionally absurd but critical political fault line, and one is reminded of the fervent views of freethinking Victorian writer Samuel Butler. To paraphrase, the three most important things anyone has are their sexuality, their money and their religious opinions. So to the situation of Muslims in today’s France and Germany. Their choices are clear. If they fall in with official diktats on the first item of Butler’s list, the authorities will let them keep the other two. How’s that for a deal?

It seems to be pleasing no one very much. There are varying levels of consternation and outrage over three separate recent developments on the European mainland. Five towns in France have instituted a localised ban on the burqini, swimwear that looks like a wetsuit but should hardly inspire gibbering fear. Germany is considering a partial prohibition of the burqa. And a senior French politician, appointed to head the newly created Foundation of French Islam, has advised Muslims to be “discreet” in the practice of their faith.

It’s all of a piece with the political ferment, perceived cultural intolerance and latent fear that’s gripped Europe after a series of terrorist attacks, but most of the attention has been directed at the burqini ban.

Muslims say gross ignorance and stereotyping is driving intolerable intrusion into their personal choices. Social activists say the French are misguided to prevent women from being as modest as they want. A number of rather good jokes are being told about the absurdity of adding a new category of “religious offences” to the usual list of “promiscuity offences” and “public order offences”.

Feminists have protested against the denial of a woman’s right to wear what she pleases. And stout secularists have demurred, insisting that governance shouldn’t be tainted by religious considerations. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, commended the burqini ban as a battle for “the soul of France” though it is not clear if she thinks it is won.

There has been a flurry of explanations from the great and the good. French prime minister Manuel Valls offered the uncompromising view that the burqini is not “swimwear fashion [but a] political project”. German chancellor Angela Merkel said she believed that a woman who wore the burqa had scarcely any chance of full integration in Germany. Her interior minister, Thomas De Maizière, objected that “the burqa doesn’t fit with our country”. And Mr Chevènement of the Foundation of French Islam unwittingly illustrated the debate over religious freedom versus civic awareness with this piece of advice: “Muslims, like all French citizens, should be able to worship freely but they must also understand that in the public space where there is public interest, all citizens should make the effort to use ‘natural reason’.”

The notion of discretion set off a firestorm. Twitter users have been having a lot of fun, using the #MusulmanDiscret and #DiscreetMuslim hashtags. French Muslims, according to the tweets, should henceforth resign themselves to a life of impeccable, even hypocritical discretion. They should drink tea in beer glasses; deny that they observe Ramadan and insist it is “therapeutic fasting” instead. They should say their headscarves aren’t hijabs, just “retro” chic a la Hollywood actress Grace Kelly. And they should reject the notion they possess a prayer rug; it can be claimed as proof of Aladdin fandom.

This is gallows humour and it’s prompted by a very real fear that ordinary Muslims in the West will henceforth be constrained by the need to look and behave as if they’re not Muslim. That argument supposes there is one universally prescribed Muslim way to dress.

And is that what Mr Chevènement was really suggesting? Are the French and German authorities insidiously nudging the Muslim community towards a lifestyle that de-emphasises faith in a culturally debilitating way?

Not necessarily. It depends on the conspiracy theorist and the quality of their argument. So far, it’s not been particularly persuasive to suggest that having Mr Chevènement, a non-Muslim, head the Foundation of French Islam is part of a planned takeover of the faith. Nor does a burqini ban indicate a state-sponsored war on Islam. The garment originated in the early 2000s in Australia.

Finally, there is the issue of discretion. Is it so terrible to advise caution and situational awareness at a time of insecurity and paranoia?

Some weeks ago, the UAE urged its citizens not to wear national dress outside the region “to preserve their safety”. It also issued travel advice urging respect for bans on the full-face veil where they are in place. The advice was explained as a response “to the security developments in some European countries, triggered by the unfolding unrest in the Middle East region, and their fallout, especially the refugee crisis”.

The warning did not reference the incident, but it came just days after an Emirati man was detained in the United States because the panicky locals of Avon, Ohio reported him as a likely ISIL terrorist. He was wearing the traditional white robes and headdress and was using several mobile phones.

Clearly, the UAE’s advice to its nationals chimes with that offered by Mr Chevènement. Discretion can be a great protection against the enormous danger posed by sincere ignorance and ferocious fear of the other.