The burkini ban as a ‘civilizational panic’

26 September 2016


By Robin Cohen

Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Kellogg College, University of Oxford. His latest book, with Olivia Sheringham, is titled Encountering Difference: Diasporic Traces, Creolizing Spaces, Cambridge: Polity, 2016. He expresses his gratitude to Julien Brachet and Marie Godin for their clarifications, corrections and critiques.

Nearly 30 mayors of French coastal resorts have banned the burkini and a number have vowed to continue their prohibition despite the fact that France’s top administrative court has ruled that the ban is unconstitutional. According to one poll, nearly two-thirds of the French population approve of the ban. Many international observers have been puzzled at this extraordinary reaction to female swimwear. Can we explain the phenomenon as a ‘civilizational panic’, a feeling that the moorings of a great civilization erected on the pillars of the Enlightenment are being undermined?

The idea of a ‘civilizational panic’ is a gloss or variant on the established idea of a ‘moral panic’.[1] In the latter, ‘respectable’ people, enflamed by politicians, sections of the media and the judiciary, seek to enforce a consensus when confronted by deviant sub-cultures. In a civilizational panic, a minor form of nonconformity is magnified to assume a political and security significance of the highest order – no less than an existential threat to civilization itself.

How can much of the French political class and many French people possibly think the stakes are so high? Of course, there are immediate and proximate reasons for this panic. The President has declared a State of Emergency. In the last 12 months alone frightening and devastating attacks in Paris, St Denis, Magnaville and Nice have left 225 people dead and 570 people injured. It would be amazing if there were not a strong public response to such atrocities. Indeed, many of the French mayors have evoked the possibility of public disorder in reaction to the burkini, a costume which, they suggest, could be seen to signify support for Islamist terrorism. This is a pretty big semiotic leap and only makes sense in the context of the injunctions themselves which, to some extent at least, have created this inflated interpretation.

I want to argue that France’s glorious intellectual history primarily explains the melodramatic response to the burkini. French thinkers like René Descartes, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Montesquieu, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were at the heart of the Enlightenment, promoting reason, scepticism and doubt above blind religious faith and metaphysical speculation. Observation, empirical testing and fallibility – science – would replace religion.[2] The Revolution and the Napoleonic wars crystallized and spread the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is telling that when Napoleon’s army set out for Egypt in 1798 he successfully urged on his troops by declaring: ‘Soldiers, you are undertaking a conquest with incalculable consequences for civilization’.[3] In other words, it was the French who spread civilization to foreign parts, definitely not the other way around. As a pre-civilizational superstition, religion had to be confined, at best, to an unseen space.

To accept burkinis on the public beaches of France is thus to confess that her mission civilisatrice has failed. Other, more salient, forms of denialism would then also be challenged. How many Muslims are there in France? Are there 4 million or many more? In accordance with Article 1 of the Constitution of 1958, which ensures ‘equality before the law of all citizens regardless of origin, race or religion’, the census does not collect the relevant statistics. However, it now looks like a vain hope that second and subsequent generations of Muslims (and Jews) will abandon the visible expression of their faiths in the name of the ‘indivisible’ Republic. Even in the relatively trivial matter of the superiority of French cuisine, it is doubtful that the French can hold out against the consumer-led forms of marketization promoted by the vulgar Anglo-Americans? French people still fondly recall the moment when José Bové drove his tractor through a McDonald’s restaurant in 1999. However, there are now 1,384 McDonald’s outlets in France, a coverage second only to Germany in Europe.

Support for the burkini ban is an eruption of nostalgia, an evocation of things French. ‘This is how we do things here’ is one cry. The ‘when-in-Rome’ principle is evoked by Béziers’s mayor, Robert Ménard, who argued that ‘If we go to the Middle East we must abide by the rules and customs of that country’ [sic]. But more common than the Roman defence is the view that ‘this is how things are done’, a universal principle based on reason, logic and civilization. The panic sets in when the message does not seem to be getting through. There are strong echoes here of the hostility, disproportionality and volatility found in the general case of a moral panic.[4]

Whereas some French feminists have stuck to their universalist view that the burkini is a symbol of oppression and misogyny, others have swung around to the more ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and relativist idea that women should be free to wear anything they like. It is not quite clear how to respond to French prime minister Valls’s comment that: ‘Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the Republic![5] Marianne, by way of explanation, is the national symbol of France, who has been depicted with one naked breast (and Phrygian cap) in Eugène Delacroix’s neo-classical painting, and also in more modest dress. By contrast, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, Lionnel Luca, banned the burkini on hygienic grounds. However, his and a number of other far-fetched explanations seem rather opportunistic. In the absence of a clear left positon, the political right has used the burkini controversy to promote an anti-immigration platform (Luca is a supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party).

It seems plausible to argue that the burkini is a hybridized or even modernist response by Muslim women seeking to engage in national life, despite being perceived as a civilizational clash. The clue is in the portmanteau word, joining the burqa with the bikini, the last hardly likely to appeal to conservative Muslim sensibilities. However, it should be said that the Australian designer would have been wiser to call her creation the hijakini (implying a scarf rather than a face covering). For France the hullabaloo over the burkini also marks a historical conjuncture. It looks as if she will need to split her monochromatic cultural landscape into at least three segments – the long-revered Enlightenment France (which still inspires those who love freedom, solidarity, equality and rationality), France profonde (‘deep’ France, which survives in Catholicism and rural ways of being) and France métissée (the creolizing and shared cultural practices of the towns, banlieues and coastlines). In 1953, Jacques Tati ’s comic character, M. Hulot, blundered around the beach in a one-piece bathing suit or short long trousers. Today, an imaginative scriptwriter could portray M. Hulot meeting Mme. Husain in her burkini on their holidays. The result will be another classic French movie.

Robin Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies and Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Before joinning Oxford in 2007 he was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick for over two decades. He worked also in Nigeria and Trinidad, and was Dean of Humanities at the University of Cape Town (2001–3). He has published widely. His 31 authored or edited books include: The new helots: migrants in the international division of labour (1987, 1993, 2003), Frontiers of identity: the British and the others (1994), Global diasporas: an introduction (1997, rev. 2008), Global sociology (co-author, 2000, rev. 2007, rev. 2013), Migration and its enemies (2006) as well as Encountering difference (co-author, 2016).

[1] Stanley Cohen Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London: MacGibben and Kee, 1972.

[2] Steven Seidman Liberalism and the Origins of European Social Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983, Ch. I.

[3] Norbert Elias The History of Manners, Oxford: Blackwell 1978, pp. 49–50.

[4] Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda Moral Panics: the Social Construction of Deviance, Oxford: Blackwell-Wiley, 1990.