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28th September 2016

The burkini: what’s behind it ?

Lioui Benhamou addresses the deeper connotations of the debate surrounding France’s banning of the controversial ‘burkini’

Islam was once the greatest civilisation on earth. Without their progress in science, mathematics and astronomy, we wouldn’t be so advanced. But today, Islam’s impact on the western world isn’t about science. Rather, it is focused on seemingly trivial social problems such as the burkini. Yet, although outwardly insignificant, such issues play into a wider and deeper social issue.

In our western world, liberal democracy is central; we think that the people should have the power. Thus, only elected institutions are able to create and apply the laws by which we live. But religious institutions claim and feel the same legitimate power, resulting in a conflict in which a nation must choose between allowing religious power at the expense of its own legitimacy, or suppressing such power at the cost of religious freedom and tolerance.

The first option would mean that our ideal of liberal democracy would face a shift to undemocratic liberalism, where rights are respected but the people are no longer able to express their views on social issues. While the second option gives us an illiberal democracy, where democracy prevails over the rights of citizens. If we take the example of the aforementioned burkini, these options become allowing it to be worn, and therefore allowing democracy to suffer, or banning the item of clothing and taking the dangerous path of illiberality.

But why is the burkini considered a problem in the first place? The U.K. and the U.S. have been harsh on the French for opposing it. After all, shouldn’t everyone be able to dress as they wish? Shouldn’t rights prevail?

The reality is a lot more complex than some would like to believe. It is not about how much women are covered, otherwise the pareo, beach tunic and surf suit would be part of the debate also. Rather, it is about what message you send to people you are supposed to form a community with. By wearing a burkini, the message sent to others at the beach is, “I’m from an extremist branch of Islam before I am French,” thus creating a juxtaposition, rather than forming a shared identity revolving around nationhood. While I know this juxtaposition can be lived with, some people cannot accept it, and even if banning the burkini is ridiculous and dangerous, calling it an expression of freedom for those women is an equally ridiculous discourse. But we could wonder why rights aren’t the priority in our free countries.

That’s because we live in a democracy. Thus, if people feel they haven’t had their say in those social issues, which define the very essence of what it is to be from France, they will find a way to get their voices heard. That’s why the U.S is turning toward Donald Trump, and partly why Brexit has passed in the U.K; people are afraid of change in social behaviour, and of extremism, and will find a democratic way to have their voice heard. Unfortunately, the ones who listen aren’t the ones we need. Populists, such as Trump, the UKIP Party, and Le Pen, gain power by playing the national identity card and forming an ‘in’ group and, in the process of doing so, finding another group to oppose to; Mexicans, Muslims, or Polish.

And here you have it, one of the biggest problems facing our post-colonial era under a liberal democracy? How to live together. Do we form numerous distinct groups separated by religion and culture and face the conflict over difference? Or do we create one national identity, allowing in those who agree with it, and asking those who don’t to leave? It is a case of populism vs. extremism, and either one is as dangerous as the other.

I wish Islam was a religion with no extremist movement, intellectually at the level it was from the 8th to the 13th century, so it wouldn’t be problematic to anyone. I also wish tolerance was a value easy to define and to apply in the everyday life, but the reality of our world is a lot more complex, and today’s biggest challenge to liberal democracy is finding the right equilibrium between democracy and rights.

That’s what’s behind the burkini, a symbolic choice for the West. Either sacrifice rights for democracy or democracy for rights. Do we let religion take more and more power into the public sphere but sacrifice democracy because no one has a say in this? Or do we ban it but sacrifice the right to wear it for everyone?

Even if this particular issue can be easily resolved by saying that the burkini is not a religious outfit but rather an outfit used for different reasons, others issues appear all the time, and soon enough a difficult choice will have to be made.

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