France's high court clears up burkini's legality; mainstream media still muddy the waters

In France's so-called burkini wars, hypocrisy seems to be one of the few things that mainstream media have teased out well. The latest salvo came from the nation's high court today, striking down a town's law against the modest swimwear for Muslims.

Coverage has been fuzzier or silent on other things, though -- like what the laws say, what the underlying concepts mean, religious views on the matter, even the definition of a burkini.

The Washington Post aptly compares the burkini flap with that against the burqa, banned in France since 2010:

The argument behind both was—and remains—that Muslim modesty somehow impedes the rights of women in the historic French Republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
This is why, for instance, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his opposition to the bathing suit in nothing less than the language of human rights: the burkini, he said, was a means of “enslavement.” By the logic of Valls and others, it is the duty of the French state to emancipate Muslim women from the clutches of their religion but also from themselves.

Last week, the New York Times quoted Marwan Muhammad, executive director of France's Center Against Islamophobia, that there is no legal definition of a burkini. But then the newspaper skirted the obvious follow-up question: "Well, is there a religious definition of a burkini? Have any Islamic scholars ruled on this?"  

Tmatt last week quoted former human rights lawyer Amanda Taub on the "obviousness of the contradiction – imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear." But she then inches out too far on a limb:

This, of course, is not really about swimwear. Social scientists say it is also not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity when many would prefer to keep it as it was.

GetReligion readers will recognize this as the "Sources Say" dodge. It's often used as code for (1) "This is just my opinion, but I want to give it an authoritative halo," or (2) "I don’t want to look it up, but I'm pretty sure some smart people agree with me."

The Los Angeles Times notes that the court ruling affects only one town, Villeneuve-Loubet, and predicts a long legal and political fight.  The bans have "touched a social and cultural nerve, triggering highly fraught debate turning on national identity, security fears, immigration, feminism and personal freedoms, among other questions," the article says. But not religious ones?

And what do the anti-burkini laws actually say? According to the New York Times today, they "did not mention Islam or the burkinis explicitly — instead banned bathing attire that was not 'appropriate,' was not 'respectful of good morals and of secularism,' or did not respect 'hygiene and security rules'." But the target of the laws was obvious, the article says. 

An earlier piece in the Post today both clarifies and muddies the waters by bringing in a basic French philosophy without helping us grasp it:

Now, it seems, even French beaches have an ideology. In the name of “laïcité”—an abstract secular ideal whose definition seems to be approaching “that which is not Muslim” with each passing day — the picturesque beaches of the Côte d’Azur have now become zones somehow hostile both to observant Muslims and the female body. Images that emerged on Wednesday shocked the world: on a beach in Nice, police officers actually forced a Muslim woman — later identified as a third-generation French citizen from Toulouse — to remove articles of her clothing in broad daylight.

Other articles also mention laïcité, but likewise with little background. The Post simply mentions secularism, "perhaps France’s most sacred ideal." It also doesn't say how a secular concept like laïcité is supposed to be sacred.

The New York Times' Aug. 17 story comes closest:

Further complicating matters is the deeply held belief that government should not be tainted by religion, an idea referred to as laïcité, a concept for which there is no English translation. It dates from the bitter wars here between Protestants and Catholics and the later efforts by many to curtail the powers of the Catholic Church, which had long been allied with the monarchy and conservative political forces in France.

As you'll see, though, that's a stunted, one-sided interpretation of laïcité.  

And as with much else, there are answers online, or at least clues. The British journal Prospect ran this briefing on laïcité after France's 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools:

Derived from the Greek laos (the people, as distinct from the clergy), it is a specifically anti-clerical term. Its meaning is active, unlike the passive notion of secularism. Laïcité is about purging all state-run establishments – schools, prisons, hospitals – of any whiff of the soutane. The problem facing France today is that the priest’s black soutane has been replaced by the Muslim woman’s hijab. Or so in France we are led to believe. In fact, this is nonsense. The 19th-century Catholic clergy had real power in France, while today’s Muslim schoolgirls have none – except the considerable power of tying the French in knots.

Countering that is this article from the World Public Library:

Supporters argue that laïcité by itself does not necessarily imply any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is best described as a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant to protect both the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies. 

That last sentence would have been a handy tool for reporters before calling sources, methinks.

Now, I don’t expect mainstream media to pontificate on laïcité (though God or Allah knows, the New York Times gives its views on so much else). But asking the right questions can help reporters interpret, reveal hidden issues, help readers understand -- not just chronicle events or pick out entertaining contradictions.

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