More secular attacks on burkinis: The New York Times explains why this is not about religion

All week long, there has been a wave of news coverage about the burkini wars (earlier post here) in the very tense land that is postmodern France.

Part of the problem is that public officials are not sure what has been banned. One Muslim woman was sent home from the beach for wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and pants, with a head scarf, according to The New York Times. Another got in trouble for wearing a "competition bathing suit" with a head cap. There appears to be confusion about whether it's illegal for Muslim women to take a stroll on a beach while wearing the hijab.

Meanwhile, one Muslim voice argued that it's progress that some Muslim women want to go to the beach at all, since a wet burkini still reveals the shape of their bodies. Progress!

In terms of journalism, the good news is that some reporters are beginning to explore what this story says about the links between French colonialism and the nation's aggressive approach to secularism -- which argues that all religious faiths must kneel before the powers of a superior French culture based on secularism, venerating modern saints such as Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim. I ticked off a few readers in an earlier post by suggesting this is a clash between Sharia law and a kind of secular Sharia law.

However, one still gets the impression that members of the college of cardinals in the Times newsroom are still clicking their heels together and chanting, "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion."

Well, it's hard not to sense a religion ghost in this haunted headline: "Fighting for the ‘Soul of France,’ More Towns Ban a Bathing Suit: The Burkini." The irony, of course, is that Prime Minister Manuel Valls and others have been placed in the uncomfortable position of arguing that their goal is to liberate women, by telling them what they can and cannot do.

Let's tune in some of the coverage, before we get to a Times "Interpreter" analysis piece that, logically enough, tries to tell readers what the great Gray Lady thinks is really going on.

That debate is a continuation of deep-seated discomfort in France with Muslim women’s dress that has long defied simple categories of left and right, leaving Mr. Valls, a Socialist, sounding a lot like the presidential hopeful for the center-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, or for that matter, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right National Front.
“This is the soul of France that is in question,” Ms. Le Pen wrote in a blog post that strongly supported the burkini ban. “France does not lock away a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted.”

This same Times piece also included some crucial background info, noting that French laws have placed some limits on visible signs of other faiths, as well:

The slippery slope of such restrictions first came into view with a law in 2004 that banned the wearing of overt religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. It included wearing the Jewish kippa, large crosses and the hijab, but affected disproportionately those wearing the hijab because there are few parochial schools for Muslims, so they have no choice but to go to state schools.

Many Muslims in France responded with a logical choice -- attending Catholic schools, where the practice of their religious faith was respected.

At the heart of this, notes the "Interpreter" essay by former human-rights lawyer Amanda Taub, is one of those puzzles that define liberalism.

There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called burkini bans. ... 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 -- makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on. ...
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.

The bottom line: It is getting harder and harder for postmodern liberals to tolerate people that they believe are intolerant. Or, as author Stephen Bates told me long ago, some progressives have found themselves saying, "There are people in the world who just don't love everybody the way that they should and I hate people like that."

Now, the leaders of France have found themselves striving to defend their large French minority, part of the land's awkward heritage of colonialism, while also using the power of the state to force Muslims to scale down the practice of their faith. This has placed a spotlight on some painful paradoxes.

Meanwhile, earlier battles over Islamic veils have evolved into the war on burkinis, in which topless women on public beaches are symbols of public morality and Muslim women practicing excessive modesty are officially immoral.

... The veil became a symbol not just of religious difference, but of the fact that people of French descent no longer enjoyed exclusive dominance over French identity. ...
John Bowen, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said France tended to experiment with such restrictions at times when it was struggling with both domestic and international tensions relating to Muslims and the Muslim world.
This began in 1989 with the so-called affaire du foulard (“affair of the scarf”), in which three French schoolgirls were suspended for refusing to remove their head coverings. Ostensibly, this was because the scarves were visible religious symbols and thus ran afoul of the French rule of laïcité, or secularism. But laïcité had been on the books since 1905, with head scarves nonetheless by and large permitted.

But things keep changing, especially in an age of terrorism.

So there you have it. This is not about religion, it's about a clash between religion and a codified non-religion that, in some ways, functions as a religion when it comes to defining what is good and bad, moral and immoral, in France.

At some point, journalists may be forced to discuss the -- What's that very American term? -- religious liberty implications of all of this.

Stay tuned. Might this debate be linked, somehow, to the Brexit phenomenon and other tensions in an increasingly post-Christian Europe? Oh, by the way, who and what needed to die in order for France to establish into rule of laïcité?

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