Adventures in secular laws and faith: BBC takes shallow dip into Cannes burkini debates

If you were covering a radical Islamist government's decision to ban Western swimwear on the beaches in its territory (a) who would you interview and (b) would you include any information about the religious/legal beliefs that shaped the decision?

Of course you would focus on the religion angle in the story, probing to see precisely what kind of Islamic vision was at work in this decision. It's not enough to say that Sharia law was at work and leave it at that, because there are many different approaches to Islamic law and its enforcement in the Muslim world.

So what if you turned this equation around, as in the BBC report that ran under this headline: "Cannes bans burkinis over suspected link to radical Islamism." Here is the overture of this online report from the tense land of France:

The mayor of Cannes in southern France has banned full-body swimsuits known as "burkinis" from the beach, citing public order concerns.
David Lisnard said they are a "symbol of Islamic extremism" and might spark scuffles, as France is the target of Islamist attacks. ...
Anyone caught flouting the new rule could face a fine of €38 (£33). They will first be asked to change into another swimming costume or leave the beach.
Nobody has been apprehended for wearing a burkini in Cannes since the edict came into force at the end of July.

Ah, some readers might say, this action was not based on religion. It was the response of a secular government to religious symbols that it has decided are, in effect, threatening. As the BBC story quickly notes, in 2011 French officials banned both full-face Islamic burkas as well as hijabs that cover part of the face.

So the burkini wars are not a matter of religion, but of an anti-religion?

If that is the case, then what are the documents that contain the doctrines of this non-faith, the pseudo-Sharia guidelines that are in place to enforce this vision of the good life? Who are the "non-religious authorities" one would need to interview in order to understand this secular faith and how it is shaping these debates? What happens if a Muslim woman decides to wear a full-body wet suit, as in scuba diving?

The questions just keep on coming. For example, who produced this public statement when a private facility near Marseilles cancelled a burkini-only day for modest patrons?

"Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of good morals and secularism.

"Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order."

Oh my. In a land famous for its topless beaches, it's interesting to note what kind of clothing is dangerous to "good morals" and, thus, could cause riots.

The BBC report goes on to offer snippets from a number of French newspapers, commentary weblogs and other one-click-away resources. As you would expect, the politics of this showdown are thoroughly explored, but not the religious or secular ideas/doctrines that are in play. It is interesting that Cannes mayor David Lisnard:

... confirmed to local media that other religious symbols such as the kippah (Jewish skullcap) and the cross would still be permitted, and the ban would not apply to the veil that some Muslim women wear over their hair.
He said: "I simply forbid a uniform that is the symbol of Islamic extremism. We live in a common public space, there are rules to follow. "

So let me restate some of the key questions, just for the sake of clarity. What are these rules that must be followed? Who wrote them and do they also exist at the national level? Who interprets them?

I mean, I am aware that France is, legally, a secular state and I had been following the debates in recent years about the banning of Islamic veils. In this case, the BBC story really left me wanting to know the details of the secular doctrines that are in play. Can women who are Arab Christians and/or traditional Catholics wear veils as they walk to church?

For those who are interested in this topic, there is another report on this topic at The Daily Beast. This is clearly an analysis/advocacy piece, but I thought GetReligion readers would want to see this long passage, which does cite some interesting facts:

Only in today’s France can one imagine beachwear having to pass a test for “secularism,” but here you have it.
The municipal bylaw in Cannes was put forth by Mayor David Lisnard, a member of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s increasingly far-right party (now called Les Républicains) on July 28. That was two days after a couple of jihadists cut the throat of an 86-year-old priest in a church in Normandy very far from the beach and even farther from Cannes. But no matter:
“Beach wear that ostentatiously presents a religious affiliation while France and places of worship are now the target of terrorist attacks is likely to create the risk of disturbances to public order (mobs, scuffles) that it’s necessary to prevent,” said the bylaw. Therefore, access to beaches is prohibited until after Aug. 31 “to any person not properly dressed, respectful of morality and secularism.” Violators will be fined €38 ($42).
One would think the issue would be the behavior of men who might gather in mobs, start scuffles, and otherwise disturb the peace because women are wearing, yes, too many clothes. But for the mayor of Cannes the problem lies with those provocative women -- a sentiment that weirdly mirrors the reasoning in some Muslim-majority countries that require women to wear burqinis if they go to the beach at all, lest they incite disorder by lust-crazed men.
And that’s precisely where we enter into the perverse details of this issue: the matter of Muslim groups in France that don’t share French ideals and values and that require women to cover up at the beach -- in France -- whether they want to or not.

This is pretty complex stuff. Let's hope that, in the future, journalists explore some of the actual religious and pseudo-religious doctrines that are shaping these news trends. You know that this story has legs (etc., etc.).

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