Except for recent overseas terrorist attacks, the American media rarely turns its focus away from domestic events. And when it considers foreign matters, it does so through its own uniquely American lens, with all its political sensibilities and beliefs coloring its analyses.
One such outward-looking moment took place when towns on the French Riviera and in Corsica instituted bans on the so-called “burkini,” a type of swimwear designed to preserve the modesty of Muslim women. Needless to say, the American media – including its more conservative corners – roundly or implicitly criticized the move. Many journalists and pundits could not come to terms with the idea of banning what could easily be mistaken for a wetsuit; even more could not come to terms with inhibiting the peaceful and public observance of one’s religion. These journalists and pundits accordingly ascribed xenophobic and Islamophobic motives to the French, or at the very least described the bans as a kulturkampf gone too far.
Why the overwhelming negative reaction to the bans? Because the American media cannot under any circumstances see why banning the burkini would be an acceptable course of action in the United States. But the more inquisitive soul might wonder why one measuring stick is better than any other; as Protagoras famously declared, “man is the measure of all things, but men are different and reside within different nations.” Each has its own measuring stick, with one’s extremes and mean rarely mirroring the extremes and mean of another. To achieve a clear view of the motivation behind the French burkini bans, one must first stand atop the shoulders of French history.
One of the defining features of the French Republic in all its incarnations is the doctrine of laïcité, by which an unbreachable boundary between church and state is constantly observed. Ultranservative monarchists and fiery Jacobins alike have spilt blood fighting for and against this policy; it is not something taken lightly by the modern-day French. Notwithstanding the top French administrative court’s ruling that the burkini bans are unconstitutional, the practice itself is not alien to the nation; it is in keeping with the country’s long tradition of clear division between priest and politician.
For example, in its secular vigor the French Republic has banned all religious symbols in public schools, not just the hijab. Crosses and yarmulkes alike are verboten. But the restriction is not unduly prohibitive. Crossing the thresholds of these institutions into the open air, the French citizen may don what he or she had previously doffed.
A better analogue to the burkini bans is that on the burqa, but even here the comparison warrants caveats. Both French and supranational courts have upheld this law as constitutional, and its justification is perhaps less tenuous. While a means of expressing one’s religious beliefs, the burqa also obfuscates the face and renders identification nearly impossible. The rationale behind banning the burqa is less a fixation on its overt and very visible religiosity and more a concern with its antisocial potential in European society. Banning burqas is much like banning masks or Halloween costumes worn out-of-season or in sensitive areas.
Of all the coverage the burkini ban received from the international Anglophone media, the American media’s reaction was especially unfair. Like France, the United States has an equally lengthy tradition of secularism; unlike France, the United States also enshrines religious freedom in counterbalance to this injunction. Historically individual expression of faith has been allowed far greater latitude than religious association within government, and even then the United States and its courts have been extremely tolerant. Consider: the Supreme Court ruled in the 2014 case Town of Greece v. Greenway that local officials could open city council meetings with a ceremonial Christian prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The real and embodied practice of secularism in the United States is impermissible on French soil and does not approach the stringency of French laicism whatsoever.
Where the American media went wrong was holding the French people to their own cultural and constitutional standards. They likewise failed to register the equally demanding ban on Christian symbols in French public life in order to push the narrative that somehow the burkini ban is emblematic of rising European Islamophobia. Rather than forcing its own worldview onto the French and distorting the facts to fit its agenda, the American media should have given France the benefit of the doubt it frequently gifts to non-Western countries. Laws punishing homosexuality with death in Saudi Arabia, for instance, receive far less coverage and criticism from the mainstream media. Over this issue no public outcry reaches a fever pitch. The American media does not hold the Clinton Foundation to account for accepting donations from countries that routinely imprison and execute gays and lesbians.
These instances reveal the larger double standard inherent in multiculturalism – Western nations must atone for their intolerance while non-Western countries get a pass. Western media as a whole is intensely self-analytic and critical. This is only natural and to be expected when speaking of Western states in themselves, whose people share a broad set of values, but not when the rest of the world is factored into such calculations. If the American media is willing to hold the French to the American standard of religious freedom, then they should be equally eager to hold the Saudis to account for their human rights abuses. If not, then they should refrain from policing the actions of both peoples. Even multiculturalism based upon the shaky foundation of moral relativism must be practiced consistently.
This case of inconsistency further exposes a bias not only in the media but in the reigning philosophy of the Left, namely a bias against Western (Christian) nations on social issues. Journalists and their editors might insist that critiquing France is more socially useful than critiquing Saudi Arabia insofar as France is more likely to alter undesirable power when confronted by the most powerful nation in the world, but this argument cuts no ice. The media disseminates information to provide the truth, not push an agenda. The outrage directed at the burkini ban is a symptom that journalists have lost sight of their fundamental mission, and that is more unsettling than any ban on religious swimwear.
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