Secularism or Western Cultural Imperialism? Reflections on the Burquini Ban

By: Jude Lobo

Throughout the summer of 2016, armed police were found surrounding Muslim women on beaches in several cities in the French Riviera, ordering them to remove their burqini’s or be fined and forced to leave the beach in compliance with newly enacted laws. Such police acts were often carried out amidst many more modestly dressed non-Muslim beachgoers, such as divers dressed in full-body wetsuits and even nuns clad in their habits (Rubin 19). Utilizing the philosophy of esteemed political theorist Wendy Brown, this article will attempt to demonstrate to the reader an inherently contradictory aspect of secularist policy, namely, the implicit assumption that secularism is culturally neutral (Brown 8).

Brown brings to attention the public’s intuitive understanding of secular societies as synonymous with an optional and highly individualized relationship with religion. Essentially, it is understood that individuals within such societies not only understand that they may “exit” their religion at any time but that such a topic is in itself a matter relegated to the private sphere. Associations within the public sphere are to remain devoid of religious influence due to religion’s vulnerable state in a liberal society. Meanwhile, those who hail from unsecular orders are not only understood to be completely saturated with religion, unable to freely leave as their secular counterparts are but religion is regarded as having absolute power over the individual in the public sphere. Thus, those understood to be part of an unsecular society immediately present as individuals in need of liberation (Brown 8). With this in mind, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ denouncement of the burqini as “enslavement” comes as no surprise (Rubin 3).

Further evidence points to the public’s instinctive understanding of the term secular and how deeply rooted such an understanding is. One may realize that Rubin’s discussion of the ban is implicated in our same norms of secular public debate, namely, in that within one’s own life, assuming one is either Jewish or Christian. It is seen as natural for one to simply leave religion behind when they enter the public sphere, with religion being relegated only to the holy days of Saturday (Jews) and Sunday (Christians). Religious talk and dress on any other day of the week are seen as taboo or abnormal; despite doing so in no way conveys a departure from the successful “management” of religion that a secular society assumes. Just like the burqini ban, which implicitly demands secularism exclusively on Judeo-Christian terms, such talk and dress norms are also implicitly required of the non-Judeo-Christian individual, despite the opposite in no way implying an erosion of secular principles.

Brown asserts that the self-emphasis of the West’s “legal neutrality, individuality and universality” enforces the idea that while the West is graced with the enlightened rule, the “rest” are plagued with roguish religiously dominated ruling forces (Brown 9). Developing this point further, one must notice that the implicit assumption of the West as synonymous with legal neutrality, individuality and universality serves not as much to denigrate the “rest” as it does to assert its cultural hegemony over the rest of the world. Part of this brand of secularism’s genius, and why it is so hard to subvert in public discourse, is that it forcibly separates the individual from their religion, treating them as separate. Thus, in forcing Muslim women to change into less modest clothing, one is helping Muslim women see the limitations placed upon them. However, such assumptions ignore that such limits themselves are only defined from a Judeo-Christian perspective and thus are absent from a Muslim woman’s mind.

Such conceptions are also why this subversive notion of secularism often finds itself present in phrases expressing other colloquial societal goods such as “public safety” and “women’s rights.” Such an association points to the presence of hegemonic cultural ideas in western secularism, namely, that societal goods such as “public safety” and “women’s rights” are goals in themselves that should be realized, but solely on western terms. Those who oppose a burqini ban are not seen as defending their right to self-determination within such a viewpoint. Instead, they are seen as opposing these societal goods themselves.

In conclusion, in light of this analysis, the reader is encouraged to realize that the burqini ban in France and many similar secularist policies in various other jurisdictions demonstrates a far greater imperialist tendency towards western cultural hegemony than is officially acknowledged by the West. Amnesty International, and other humanitarian activists across the globe, are encouraged to realize that while all policies should undoubtedly aim for equity, no policy truly treats all it deals with equally as human culture is much too diverse. Policies that claim to do so, as secularism does, must always be treated with suspicion, out of interest for minorities and the voiceless; those generally ignored when decidedly “equal” policies are first conceived.

Sources:

Brown, Wendy. “Civilizational Delusions: Secularism, Tolerance, Equality.” Revealing

Democracy, 2012, https://doi.org/10.3726/978-3-0352-6398-5/11.

Rubin, Alissa J. “French ‘Burkini’ Bans Provoke Backlash as Armed Police Confront Beachgoers.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/world/europe/france-burkini.html.

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