When objectively defined, a burkini is nothing more than a modest swimsuit (a “burka bikini”) designed to accommodate the dress standards of certain practicing Muslim women around the world. It covers a woman’s head and obscures the shape of her body to correlate with how she would dress in her daily life. Like the side-locks of orthodox Jews, the refusal to take antidepressants by scientologists, or the refusal of alcohol and caffeine (but not antidepressants) by the Mormons, the burkini is a subjective lifestyle choice based on the subjective interpretations of a person living a religious life. But it’s not always treated that way.
For a brief time at many beaches in France, burkinis were banned to the point of French police forcing women to take them off on the spot. Though a French court recently ruled such laws to be illegal, the fact that they existed in the first place highlights a major social problem that is still worsening in Western society. Many French conservatives see the ruling as a defeat for secular values and a victory for religious fundamentalism. When set along a backdrop of recent terrorist attacks on the French speaking world, a growing segment of the French public is falling prey to the belief that equal rights for France’s Muslims is a prioritization of Islamic values over secular, or in some cases even Christian values. I would like to state why this is not the case.
First, it is completely possible to treat secularism like a religion. We religiousize and dogmatize even supposedly non-religious beliefs all the time. French policing of swimwear is something that resembles the very theocratic mindset that burkini banning had set out to eradicate. Endorsing ideas that restrict the freedoms of others based on a set of values not shared by all obviously occurs within and outside the mantle of traditional religiosity.
Looking back historically, the deification of dictators such as Stalin or Kim Jong Un in “communist” societies that preached atheism embodies such a paradox. So too does the demagoguery accompanying rallies for far right candidates both in France as well as in other parts of the West. And of course, most infamous in modern times, there was nothing nonreligious about the old Nazi phrase, “Heil Hitler.”
Think about this while observing how La Pen loving nationalists in France along with orange-haired Presidential hopefuls in the US have argued that the centuries old Western model of market economics and multicultural societies living under secular governments is suddenly failing us. In its place, they argue, ought to be something more tribal, more nationalistic, and in most cases, more authoritarian. Alarmingly, secular France (among other European countries) is agreeing with this mindset in local election after local election. This is highly dangerous. As the burkini example illustrates, you are no more entitled to tell someone that they cannot wear a burka at the beach than you are to tell them that they must. To say otherwise while at the same time putting your faith in some figurehead to restore a vague, conservative moral code from the past is a mindset that’s more theocratic than not.
Second, the structure of Western society and the success of culturally western institutions are rooted in the presence of a secular state—not necessarily secular people. Modern governments, international organizations, and private enterprise are successful because they are adaptable and inclusive. They integrate different belief systems rather than cast them aside. They prepare for incongruous scenarios rather than seek to purify and conform people to the same standards.
Centuries ago, at a time in history when Catholicism was still France’s state religion, the French philosopher Voltaire, an outspoken critic of the Church’s rampant censorship, wrote often about comparatively secular England. Though still plenty religious, the political institutions in England had successfully spearheaded the effort of separating church and state. While at London’s Royal stock exchange, Voltaire writes:
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word.
At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.
If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.
What I find so important about these lines from Voltaire are that they very clearly cite that a multitude of belief systems do not threaten a secular society, but are actually at the center of what makes it strong. People truly are irrational and have an array of practices and priorities that are totally contradictory with one another. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and their various subsets and denominations need not agree in Voltaire’s mind to anything other than to keep religion out of political and economic affairs.
To be clear, this is not saying that the solution to religious strife is the worship of money. What is being declared is that a major institution used by all, in this case a stock exchange, benefits by the fact that it’s not governed by the values of any single religious group. Though in our lifetimes we have also seen the great magnitudes to which social and environmental devastation are enabled by money-centric values and excessive financial corruption, we must consider these problems in contrast to their predecessors. Materialistic institutions certainly have a dark side, but a stock market crash surely beats a holy war.
Third, beliefs change, and religious people are plenty capable of doing away with religious states. France was once a theocracy. Now it is not. England was once a theocracy. Now it is not. Ireland, a country once completely dominated by the Catholic Church, became mostly non-religious over the course of just one generation.
Western secular societies alone also have no monopoly on utilizing secular institutions for the public good. Post Arab Spring Tunisia, for example, has made major efforts to combat sectarianism with attempts at secular governance. Of course, Tunisians are plenty religious and their viewpoints on Islam alone vary greatly. But like eighteenth century England, many Tunisians recognize that the best way to avoid religious conflict is to grow the economy and keep religious beliefs out of state affairs. Ironically, it’s because of, not in spite of a population that takes religious life very seriously that certain political parties have pursued a secular path.
In contrast, forcing others to adhere to personal or religious beliefs that are not their own is to be fundamentally theocratic. Other than basic human rights and laws that make administrative sense, states must not impose a common morality upon everyone, religious or otherwise. It is true that on both sides of the argument, today’s geopolitical uncertainties have put such ideas to the test. Migrants from very devout developing countries, many of which sport theocratic governments, are still struggling to adjust to life in societies with secular institutions. Citizens of developed, more secular countries face arguably an even more complex challenge. They must neither be so tolerant that they condone foreign forms of intolerance nor be so apprehensive of new arrivals that they take on the very sectarian tendencies that they fear importing. At times, this difficult balance seems nearly impossible to ensure. It is without a doubt extremely difficult, but it’s also entirely doable.
In A Land of Tradition and Transvestites
If one rides public transportation in Berlin, it’s possible to see scenes that in many ways bare striking resemblance to what Voltaire saw in London centuries ago. During one of my rides on the U-bahn (the underground train) I happened to witness a transvestite in full drag hop aboard and sit behind a young woman in a burka. What happened next? Absolutely nothing. There was no conflict, no embrace, no statement being made, or even much acknowledgement of one another at all. All that was there to be noticed was a beautiful state of indifference from two people who quite obviously don’t share the same lifestyles.
In some places, this Muslim woman and this dress-wearing man could’ve found themselves in danger simply for what others believe their wardrobe represents. But on this train in Berlin, Europe’s youngest and fastest changing major city, both can share in the same public goods without any need to care much about the beliefs or choices of the other. That to me is without a doubt where Western Civilization’s strength comes from. From The Roman Empire, to the modern day US and EU, the largest and strongest societies in the Western world have always been reliant on integrating a multitude of ethnicities, ideas, and religious denominations under the same (mostly) secular entities. Secularism isn’t about making everybody believe the same things and live the same lives. It’s about allowing people to privately do just the opposite if they so choose, but in harmony.
Why Secularism Matters
The future of Western states in the coming years, as well as many non-western states, will ultimately be decided by the willingness of its people, both local and foreign born, to respect and maintain the religious and ideological impartiality of the institutions that govern them. Burkini banning, anti-gay laws, religious extremism, terrorism, political Islam, Jewish resettlement of the West Bank and ultra-nationalistic far right movements (some tinged with ethnic supremacy) all have one major thing in common— all threaten Western secularism because all seek to supplant it with varying degrees of theocracy and demagoguery.
Secularism matters because it is your respect for secular institutions, not how secular your daily norms are, that hold dynamic societies together. Whatever you believe, no values are without elements of bias, irrationality, and distrust of those who are different from you. Such tendencies are ultimately human, and cannot be eradicated by dispelling from the earth any particular religion, ethnicity, ideology, or symbolic fashion choice. I for one am not religious at all. But I’m hardly able to tell you that how I live is 100% correct and ought to be a standard that others must emulate.
We all must strive to protect secular institutions from the biases of others as well as ourselves. The history of Western civilization is in many ways the history of adjusting to groups who share different backgrounds and beliefs. Looking all the way back to ancient Greece, it was Socrates, not Zeus, who most heavily influenced civic life in the classical world. Still, belief takes many forms. Religion may not always exist as it does today, but religiosity likely will.
Secularism is by no means a force that exists in conflict with religious people. Secularism by its very nature is designed to accommodate societies that have a multitude of beliefs. Failing to recognize this has consequences—the most ironic of which being that non-religious people can be as oppressive as the theocratic forces that they see themselves as at odds with. Granted, the opposite is also a concern. Politically, it can’t be forgotten that there exists a profound difference between promoting tolerance of different ideas and enabling theocratic rule.
So please, wherever you’re from, believe and do what you want without imposing it. Buy the latest smartphone, wear your burkini, go to your church, smoke your weed, be politically correct, be overtly offensive, pray five times a day, do yoga, support your favorite sports team, worship Buddha, worship Satan, worship your favorite band, be a vegan, go to your synagogue, or find solace in the knowledge that modern life requires that you do none of these things at all (except maybe the phone). But whatever you choose, don’t think you can force others to think or do the same.