By BEN RYAN [Theos] — The real reason for banning the burkini had nothing to do with the women themselves but with the fear about what the burkini represents to France and French values. France is proud of its laïcité, its distinctive Republic vision of secularism, which is for many a key component of what it is to have a French society. In fact according to a poll by the Institut français d’opinion publique in 2015, 46% of French adults believe laïcité is the most important Republican principle (ahead of universal suffrage at 36% and freedom of association 8%). It is also a country that feels under siege; a succession of terrorist attacks on French soil has made people afraid. Islam is now seen as a fundamental threat to Frenchness. The burkini is a visual sign of that fear – a public and (to many) alien demonstration of a faith that rightly or wrongly they now perceive as the enemy within. The burkini is a symbol of anti-laïcité, anti-Republicanism and, therefore, anti-Frenchness. It has become a blasphemy against the French state and society consensus.
In both the American and French case it seems to me as if the underlying issue is a desperate Western fear that, just maybe, the emperor doesn’t have any clothes after all. After all if our Western values are so safe and strong why do they need such aggressive defending? It is because of the crisis afflicting any real sense of Western identity that we have come to rely so heavily on symbols. It is easier to direct anger at [Colin] Kaepernick’s lack of respect for a symbol than to engage with the difficult question of how real American values are when black kids can be shot to death by police who too often seem indifferent and too rarely seem accountable. It is easier to reinforce laïcité and ban a piece of women’s clothing than to deal with the issue of why integration in France is failing. It is easier to make a symbol sacrosanct than to engage with the question of what it represents.
Blasphemy laws in a religious context are a sign of weakness. They represent a fear that religion really will be undermined by mean words or contrary voices. A confident religion with a strong sense of its own identity and happy to engage with others does not need protection from blasphemy. If American identity can be undermined so easily as by a mediocre sportsman failing to stand up before a meaningless sports fixture, or if Frenchness can be undermined so easily by a woman not exposing her body on a beach, then perhaps we ought to reflect that our Western values are in deeper trouble than anyone is prepared to concede.