The Beach Movie of the Absurd

AP Photo/Claude Paris

A bylaw forbidding women to wear burkini is posted on an information panel at a public beach in Villeneuve-Loubet, French Riviera, southern France, Friday, August 26, 2016. 

At midday last Friday, in an upstairs room in central Copenhagen, 1,400 miles north of the beach in Cannes, jumma prayers began: A woman imam chanted the call to prayer and another delivered the Friday sermon. It was reportedly the first female-led Muslim service in Scandinavia.

The event at the Miriam mosque, as the room in Copenhagen is now known, garnered far fewer headlines than the controversy over Muslim women wearing full-body bathing suits on the beaches of southern France. To be fair, the Copenhagen service wasn't a stand-alone breakthrough. A women-led, women-only mosque began holding services in Los Angeles last year. It's been over 20 years since the female scholar of Islam Amina Wadud gave the sermon at Cape Town's Claremont Main Road Mosque, at the invitation of Rashied Omar, the mosque's imam.

But gradual liberating changes within a traditional religion make weaker news items than the absurdity of a mayor making a link between unrevealing swimwear and terrorism, or a picture of male cops standing over a woman at a beach and insisting she show her French values by showing some skin.

Besides mere timing, though, there's a connection between the news from Copenhagen and Cannes. Both the Miriam mosque and the burkini are products of women defining an identity both Muslim and Western on their own terms. Prayer and its rituals are much more basic to religious life, so the prayer service should be more significant. Beaches, however, are more public, and fashion is more basic to 21stst century Western life. So it was the burkini that produced greater theatre—a beach movie of absurdities.

The first absurdity, of course, was men asserting that they were liberating women by telling them what to wear. Before a municipal burkini bans was overturned by a French court last Friday, France's Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, defended such rules by saying that, “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear. ... It is the expression of a political project ... based notably on the enslavement of women.” Hmm. Allow me to toss out the possibility that the women wearing burkinis, as free citizens of France, made up their own minds to do so. Whatever the patriarchal roots of modesty standards, women in the 21stst century attach their own meanings to their choice. One of those meanings, for some, is resisting the pressures of the gazillion-dollar fashion industry to define what women should look like. Another is publicly asserting their right to remain part of a minority religious community. I have no stand whatsoever on these choices, except that it would seem more liberating to respect women's rights to make them on their own, individually.

Publicly displaying religion is a problem in France, though. That's been the argument against Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school in a controversy that has lasted close to 30 years. The debate led to a 2004 law banning “ostentatious signs of religious affiliation” in public offices and schools. So if Malala Yousefzai, the Nobel Prize-winning defender of girls' right to education, had taken refuge in France instead of Britain, she would not have been allowed to attend public school wearing her headscarf.

The law is about religion as such. It doesn't single out Islam. Sikh boys have also been told not to wear turbans to school. As an Orthodox Jewish man, I wouldn't be allowed to work in a French government office unless I removed my kippah, my skullcap. Last Friday night, at a Sabbath dinner in London, a friend told me that when she was hired to teach English in a Paris school, she was told not to wear a Star of David pendant. The strange thing about the admonition is that she wasn't wearing such a pendant, and never had. It was a preemptive warning based purely on her being Jewish.

The rationale, of course, is the sacred French value of laïcité, public secularism. Outsiders are asked to understand this as a necessary outcome of French political history, in which clericalism was overthrown by the Revolution. Alas, we've stumbled into absurdity again. Clericalism isn't the same as religion. Clericalism is when clerics have state power and the state imposes religious behavior. 

For the state to bar religious behavior, in cases where that behavior has no effect on anyone but the individual involved, is a photo negative of clericalism and of the universal church. The form is the same even if the colors are reversed. To keep insisting on the need for a revolutionary value, 200 years after the fact, in a radically different situation, in which doing so causes harm to real people, makes about as much sense as, well, Americans insisting they should own firearms because owning firearms was essential to getting rid of the Redcoats.

Really, though, the burkini fight—like headscarf debate—isn't so much about religion as about diversity. The historical context that matters is that the Revolution inherited a country where the majority of people didn't speak French as their native language and did not share an identity. The state set out to create a nation. Laïcité—secularism molded by the Catholicism it mostly rejects—became part of the values of that nation.

A few years ago, the nationalism of sharply defined identities seemed like a story from the past. Colonial empires retreated. But cities like London and Paris became as multi-cultured, multi-colored and multilingual as the empires they once ruled, and much freer. You can argue about whether the United States ever exactly had an empire, but the same thing happened to the great American cities. Europe declared itself a political community. People popped onto planes to vacation on other continents. In 2003, the great historian of postwar Europe, Tony Judt, wrote that nationalism was over. “Western civilization today is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many others—as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know,” Judt wrote.

It turns out that reports of nationalism's demise were greatly exaggerated. In 2016 it's clear that the project of creating national identities that celebrate many sub-identities is under attack. The Britain that is not London voted to leave Europe. About four Americans in 10, so say the polls, will vote for the candidate who wants to make white Christian English-speaking America great again. Small American towns, The New York Times reports, do not want Muslim cemeteries. And in France, there are people—not all, but too many—who see a fully dressed woman on a beach as a threat to the Republic. Islam—misperceived as monolithic—is a convenient opponent for those who long for a monolithic national culture. Keep them out, or force them to assimilate completely, and everything will be OK again.

The final absurdity is that religions are even less monolithic than nationalities. The burkini is a fashion statement about one way to fit together Western and Islamic cultures. Friday prayers led by women is a much deeper statement. Only a religion's extremists and its least knowledgeable opponents believe it to be rigid and unchanging, and both are committed to dangerous illusions.

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