Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What's a Burkini? And Why It Shouldn't Be Banned

The country of France has come up with a new way to restrict liberty and needlessly alienate Muslims within its borders.

Multiple seaside towns have adopted burkini bans, and now more are considering them. This week, French Prime Minister Valls decided to weigh in on the matter, reportedly speaking in favor of the bans and suggesting that burkinis are "not compatible with the values of France and the Republic".

All of which may have you wondering, what is a burkini? Glad you asked. In fact, it's basically what it sounds like--a rough combination of a burqa and a bikini. Or to be more precise, it's a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women who apparently believe in dressing in conservatively, but still enjoy a day at the beach. While the styling is distinctive, in practice, it doesn't appear to be dramatically different than a full wetsuit. Here's a picture:

The bans are alleged to serve many practical ends, most notably hygiene. But the actual purpose of the ban is evident from the laws themselves. One municipal decree cited by Yahoo! News bans access to public beaches to (emphasis added):
...any person who is not properly dressed, respectful of moral behaviour and secularism, hygiene and bathing safety.
Iin reality, this has nothing to hygiene or "bathing safety", whatever that may mean. Rather, it's an experiment in coerced secularism.*

Ideally, in a governing context, secularism should mean that the state is separate from religion and makes no laws concerning religion. Oftentimes, however, it ceases to be a principle of good governance and becomes a policy objective. This is what we're seeing here. In other words, it's no longer enough for the government to make no laws favoring particular religions; now, it needs to make laws favoring no religion. Or at least in the present case, opposing a particular type of religion.

Verbally, the distinction seems subtle, but it makes a world of difference.

Of course, the reason any of this is in the news is because France has suffered a string of terrorist attacks, and most, if not all, of the recent attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State. The backlash against burkinis amounts to lazy collectivism, with logic that runs something like this:

  • Premise 1: Some people who self-identified as believing in Islam committed attacks
  • Premise 2: Some followers of Islam believe women should wear very modest clothing in public
  • Therefore: If women wear very modest Islamic clothing in public, they're probably with the terrorists.
This doesn't make much sense, but it's why Muslims are being targeted now. 

Also, I think it's worth noting that, even if you accept the hysterical guilt-by-association analysis posited above, there's no plausible way in which a burkini ban would be helpful. If you really think that the burkini-wearers are just one step away from committing terrorist attacks, how would making a new law directly targeting them going to help things? Moreover, if radicalization stems in part from a sense of alienation from society as some suggest, wouldn't making a law clearly aimed at Muslims make that problem worse? Clearly, the answer is yes on both counts.

This isn't the fundamental reason to oppose the burkini ban, however. It should be opposed because it is a wholly arbitrary restriction on liberty, and people should be free to wear whatever they choose in a public place. If you don't like the burkini, look away and don't buy one.

But what makes this policy more (and worse) than just another stupid and unjust policy in a world that has its share, is the fact that it is obviously targeting members of a particular religious group. And the group being targeted is already the most marginalized and vilified group in Western societies.

In short, the burkini ban is collective punishment and intolerance masquerading as enlightened secularism. And even if you evaluate the policy on its own terms, it remains equal parts foolish and appalling.

*For what it's worth, I'm atheist. But I'm of the strong opinion that coercive secularism is just as bad as coercive religion. 

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