French burkini ban exposes the myth of neutral secularism


France, that bastion of liberal values, free expression and equality, has come under fire from just about the whole of the Western world for imposing a beach ban on burkinis. For those who don’t know, a burkini is an alternative to the bikini. It is a burka-esque form of beach attire that allows women (predominantly Muslim women, it must be said) to cover their bodies on the beach whilst still giving the ability to swim and such. Though the ban itself has not been well received outside of France, it is a particular incident involving armed police officers forcing a burkini clad woman to strip off in Nice that has really brought the opprobrium to its current levels.

Although the ban was initially introduced in Cannes as a temporary measure, clearly this was a knee-jerk reaction to a particular terrorist atrocity in a nearby town (see here). What is much less clear is how a ban of burkinis could have stopped it from happening or will in any way prevent it from recurring. Even more perplexing is quite why this is now being rolled out across France.

The argument from proponents is that a burkini ban protects ‘security and secularism’. The Mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, who first mooted the ban claimed he wanted to prohibit ‘beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks’ to avoid ‘trouble to public order’. The next commune to enforce a burkini ban, Villeneuve-Loubet, insisted on clothing that ‘is respectful to morality and secular principles’. Authorities in 15 towns and cities have since brought in the ban, with many more considering a similar prohibition.

It is right to point out that none of the pieces of legislation specifically outlaw, or even mention, the burkini. What seems apparent to most people is that the ban has been triggered by events in Nice. Equally, many question whether a nun in full habit would face a similar fine. That is to say, is this about secularism or Islam in particular? Clearly former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes no bones about this when he says ‘Wearing a burkini is a political act, it’s militant, a provocation’ (see here). It has led many Muslims to feel singled out and vilified, though it bears saying the French authorities may well crack down on any other overtly religious beach attire in an effort to appear evenhanded in the enforcement of laïcité.

It is this that rather strikes at the heart of the false claim that secularism is neutral. Secularism, as defined by the National Secular Society, stands on the twin principles of the separation of church and state and that all people, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliation, stand equal before the law. Of course, such things are often supported by faith adherents – it has been a consistent feature of most dissenting Christian views for several hundred years. These two principles are not terribly contentious (unless you’re Anglican or a theocrat). What is contentious is the supposition that religion (define that however you will), or at least countries built on religious principles, cannot cope with tolerating opposing views and opinions whereas secularism allows all views to thrive.

Whilst secularism would claim it is not about curtailing religious freedom, France are doing a pretty good job in undercutting that presumption. In a bid to maintain equality, secularism seeks to expunge all exhibition of anything tinged with religion from public view. This would, in a sense, be a version of equalité if it weren’t for the obvious elephant in the room. There is no such thing as a valueless society. If anything emanating even a whiff of religion is prohibited in public, something will inevitably fill the void. If not the symbols and expressions of faith, it is the symbols and expressions of individualistic consumerism (or, if you’re in North Korea, totalitarian collectivist communism). But don’t be fooled into thinking no expression of faith in the public square means some empty void in which no values take centre stage. At the very least, such a prohibition on the active expression of anything remotely religious inevitably means the only public expression of faith permissible is the public non-expression of faith, or Atheism. And if religious values must be expunged from public life, we are only permitted to enforce non-religious values or those values consistent with no faith (Atheism again).

What is more, Secularistic Atheism – and be under no illusions, that is what most secularism inevitably ends up being – cannot permit the very freedom that most Western Liberal democracies crave. As France are currently proving, in a bid to maintain secularism, religion is pushed to the fringes. As night follows day, what begins as a clampdown on one particular religion (rightly or wrongly) will, in the name of even-handedness, be rolled out to all faiths save of course for that consistent with the Atheistic/Secularist agenda. The very aim of equality is undercut when expressions of faith are not permitted while anything consistent with non-belief is not only acceptable but actively enforced. That is why France are now in the ludicrous position of forcing those who wish to be modest, in accord with their religious belief, to strip off to immodesty, a value which only accords with secularist atheistic agenda. In removing the religious right (dare I say, the universal right) to modesty, secularism imposes its own value which many would deem particularly immodest, a value which can only be derived from a principle of individual liberty which, ironically, they simultaneously impede for all who do not share secularistic/atheistic views.

It is not secularism that will guarantee equalité but a system that has some basis upon which to uphold universal human rights. Secularism, far from establishing universal human rights, has no underpinning on which to hang them. There are no universal secularist values. A Protestant Christian theism, however, has inbuilt within it a view that all human beings are endowed with the imago dei. Moreover, the Bible is fairly clear on how such inter-personal relations ought then to be worked out. Further, Protestantism – especially dissenting Protestantism, even more especially those committed to independency – have a history of defending equality of religion for all borne from their very own experiences of having been locked out of office and the like.

Of course, nobody is here arguing that Christianity is unbiased or Protestant dissenters are somehow neutral in all these matters. It is only to say that Christianity has both the underpinning, framework and experience to make genuine tolerance of dissenting opinion possible. Secularism simply does not have the tools available to ground universal rights in anything substantial nor to genuinely permit dissenting views and opinions. Secularism can only insist that anything ‘religious’ be prohibited in the public square, the problem being it has no inherent values to bring to the table nor does it have any foundation on which to build a case for human rights (why do some rights exist and not others? How are they grounded?).

Notice the difficulties the British government have been having trying to define ‘British values’. Also note how any measures imposed in response to Islamism – often an individual terrorist act – are clearly aimed at Muslims (as if all of them are a problem anyway) but then extended to all religious groups regardless of whether they have ever shown any inkling of such tendencies or how likely they are to suddenly take them up. Consider, in the marketplace of competing rights, why some consistently win out over others. Such things are rarely grounded in anything very much at all. Everything except non-belief – whether Deist, Agnostic or Atheistic in flavour – is prohibited, or at the very least, granted second-class status. Such is the fruit of secularism.

And now, in France, we see secularism’s logical end. Laïcité, Egalité and Fraternité so long as you don’t express any actual opinions that might offend against secularism. Theocracy, thy name is secularism.