The French, it's generally agreed, have finally recovered their senses with the court decision that the burkini ban was unconstitutional and a violation of fundamental liberties. Which it clearly was. But of course there's the whole tradition of laïcité - the French term for their particularly rigorous brand of secularism - which colours this whole debate. Paul Berman aims to provide some nuance, looking back at debates in the past over the veil:
The French controversy over the veil—which, in the French debate, has meant the Islamic headscarf or hijab, too—got underway not with the arrival of the Muslim immigrants, but with the arrival of the Islamists. This was in 1989. Schoolgirls in the town of Creil, outside Paris, began to insist on their right to wear the Islamic veil in school. This was unprecedented, and the school authorities forbade it. The schoolgirls insisted, even so. And the question of how to interpret this dispute became, very quickly, a national debate in France, with plausible arguments on both sides.
To wit, pro-veil: Shouldn’t a woman and even a schoolgirl have the right to dress in accordance with her own religious conscience? Isn’t religious attire a matter of individual right and religious freedom? More: If Muslim schoolgirls are displaying fidelity to their own religion and its traditions, shouldn’t this be deemed an enrichment of the broader French culture? Shouldn’t the French welcome the arrival of a new kind of piety? And if, instead, the French refuse to welcome, shouldn’t their refusal be seen as the actual problem—not the pious immigrant schoolgirls, but the anti-immigrant bigots?
To which the anti-veil argument replied: No, the veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.
The French have engaged in a very vigorous and nuanced public debate over these matters. And yet, for some reason, in the reporting by American journalists and commentators, the nuances tend to disappear, and the dispute is almost always presented in its pro-veil version, as if it were an argument between individual religious freedom and anti-immigrant bigots, and not anything else. To report both sides of the dispute ought not to be so hard, however. The French government held formal hearings on these questions, with both sides represented. It was just that, once the hearings were over, the anti-veil side was deemed to have been more persuasive. Crucially influential were Muslim schoolgirls who, given the chance to speak, testified that, in the schools, Islamist proselytizers had become a menace to girls like themselves. And the National Assembly passed a law banning the Islamic veil, along with all “ostentatious” religious symbols, from the schools. The purpose of this law was not to suppress Islam. Students could continue to wear discreet symbols in school, according to the new law, and anything they wanted, outside of school. But ostentatious symbols were banned from the schools, in the hope of putting a damper on the Islamist proselytizing.
Naturally, the hearings and the passage of a law (about school dress) and then another law a few years later (about full-face veils in public) and the issuing of various regulations did not bring the argument to an end. That is because these controversies are, by nature, without any obvious resolution. On one side, in France, there is good reason for immigrants and their allies to complain about imperialist holdovers and larger bigotries in the culture, and reason to worry that anti-Islamist laws and regulations may spill over into an anti-immigrant campaign. And there has been no shortage of pious Muslim women willing to say that, in their own instance, they are not victims of the Islamists, and they wish to wear Islamic attire strictly for reasons of individual religious conscience, regardless of what anyone might say. These arguments are unanswerable.
Then again, the French public as a whole, ancestral Gauls and new arrivals alike, has had every reason to grow ever more frightened of the Islamist movement, which has grown over the years, until by now it has come to dominate the young generation in entire neighborhoods in the immigrant districts—which means the French as a whole have every reason to look for simple regulatory ways to discourage the movement, beginning with legislation against the Islamist dress code. This argument, too, is unanswerable. Here, then, is a debate that will not come to a close.
We've had similar arguments here, of course. There was the case of the Luton schoolgirl in 2005 who went to court - under the influence of her brother, a Hizb ut-Tahrir member - to insist on her right to wear the jilbab, a strict Muslim covering, to school. She lost, eventually, despite support from the Guardian and, of course, Germaine Greer.
So there's nothing uniquely French about the debate. And while it's important to understand the reasons behind the French ban on veils and on other religiously-inspired clothing, it's important as well to see that the burkini ban was a silly step too far in terms of state intervention in matters of personal dress. For a start, the beach is very different from a school.