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…

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