The Good Morals of Secular Totalitarianism

Last Tuesday, a Muslim woman was publicly forced to remove her clothes by four armed policemen while sunbathing on a beach in Nice, France. Her attire, black leggings, a blue tunic and matching headscarf, was judged in violation of the recent “burkini ban” introduced in response to the July 14 terror attack in the French coastal town. Her ticket read that she was not wearing "an outfit respecting good morals and secularism". Judges upheld the ban, as ‘the clothing could be viewed as a “provocation exacerbating tensions.”

Among the 86 victims of the Nice attack who were celebrating the unity of the French nation on Bastille Day were 30 Muslims, some of them wearing headscarfs. And yet, the city of Nice, along with an increasing number of cities across France, legally branded the wearers of an Australian piece of clothing as representatives of Islamic terrorism because the association might arise and cause offense in the minds of others. 70 years after the modern bikini scandalized France, by which time it was still banned or discouraged in much of Europe and the US, local governments went from outlawing revealing swimwear in the name of good morals to outlawing modest swimwear in the name of good morals and secularism. 

Terrorism-induced mass-hysteria has once again made "good morals" a matter of law.

Since the Charlie Hebdoshooting, France has been increasing its counter-terrorism measures with every subsequent attack. Ever since Paris was hit by a series of terror attacks this past November, the country has been in a perpetual State of Emergency. Therefore, when a truck plowed its way into Promenade des Anglais celebrating crowd, it was not so much a question of whether, but how eager politicians would propose to "increase security" this time. The State of Emergency already facilitates mass surveillance, arrests and ‘administrative searches’ (=raids) without court-ordered warrants and placing suspects under house arrest, yet it was not enough to stop one man from accessing a vehicle. Without turning France into a dictatorship, not much more can legally be done to prevent terrorism.

Enter the burkini ban. 

"In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself." French Socialist Prime Minister Valls told reporters when asked about the ban. He asserted that wearing a burkini is ‘not compatible with the values of the French Republic.’ What is and isn’t compatible with the nation’s values is strangely contingent on public opinion and tends to change quite dramatically over time. Especially concerning the principle of laïcité. France already had a far-stretching interpretation of the separation of church and state, banning religious symbols in public schools since 2004. The law, not coincidentally passed after 9/11, was an attempt to ban veils and headscarfs without too obviously violating the Republican principle of equality before the law. More than a decade later, it appears all the pretense has been dropped. 

Applying the secular principle of religious neutrality to government officials is one thing, forcing citizens to adhere to a government-sanctioned interpretation of “good morals and secularism" borders on the tyrannical. 

To secure its power, the French government is using the threat of terror to terrorize its citizens into accepting escalating infringements of their rights and liberties. Nobody in their right mind, including politicians, can believe that banning swimwear will increase public safety. In fact, "burkini bans that stigmatize all Muslims as terrorists are not only discriminatory, but also grist for the ISIS propaganda mill." This goes to show that politicians are not interested in keeping the public safe, if they were, they would stop bombing Islamic countries and discriminating against their own citizens. With a continuous State of Emergency and increasingly xenophobic and irrational legislation to appease public sentiments, France is rapidly heading down a very dark path to Totalitarianism.

What the burkini ban and the controversy surrounding its implementation shows is both grim and hopeful. When people call for government action, they often don’t realize that it will affect actual people. It is one thing to support the ban of Muslim swimwear for "security concerns after a season marred by deadly Islamic extremist attacks." It is quite another to see pictures of a mother of two, whose connections to France go back three generations, being forced by police in front of her crying children to take off her clothes to the sound of other beachgoers shouting "go home!" 

The only thing that can break-up the mounting political hysteria is confronting the frightened crowd with the damage it is causing to fellow citizens and humans. In order for people to ignore the siren song of power-hungry politicians, they need to see more pictures of women being harassed by police and Syrian children being bombed by their governments in retaliation for crimes they had no part in. This will do more for preventing terrorism than any ban on religious symbols could hope to accomplish.

Andrea Speijer-Beek is a Dutch philosopher interested in all things life, liberty and happiness. You can find her website [Dutch] here. For English, go here or here.

3 thoughts on “The Good Morals of Secular Totalitarianism”

  1. Let me get this straight, enhanced womens modesty is a danger to public safety, but enhanced reckless and provocative policing of women, children and families is prudent.

    Just more moronic medling to remind us that hard cases make bad policy….. and the French are not much if any better than their tuetonic neighbors during the 1930s.

  2. I am not an expert on the structure of French government, but this situation reminds me of something I read recently on Powerlineblog quoting a constitutional historian. It comes back to the issue of how much power the government should have. The French government seems to be able to do whatever it wants. The same issue is alive and well here in America. It all reminds me of a Madison quote. You have to give the government the power to do the job but also oblige it to control itself. That is not happening.

    “A constitutional government will always be a weak government when
    compared to an arbitrary one. There will be many desirable things, as
    well as undesirable, which are easy for a despotism but impossible
    elsewhere. Constitutionalism suffers from the defects inherent in its
    own merits. Because it cannot do some evil, it is precluded from doing
    some good. Shall we, then, forgo the good to prevent the evil, or shall
    we submit to the evil to secure the good? This is the fundamental
    practical question of all constitutionalism. It is the foremost issue of
    the present political world; and it is amazing, and to many of us very
    alarming, to consider to what insufferable barbarities nation after
    nation today is showing a willingness to submit, for the recompense it
    thinks it is getting or hopes to get from an arbitrary government.”

  3. The basic argument of the proponents of the ban is that since a Muslim man committed the the act of terrorism anything which reminds the French people of Islam should be banned. All the great ideals of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of association has been suspend with this master stroke. Burkini cladding women are a minority among the minority, so oppressing them apparently has no political downside. Would they dare to put a similar ban on nuns?

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