The most telling aspect of the events surrounding France’s burkini ban has been the response by European observers. One need not defend the ban—and I do not—to be surprised that so many otherwise insightful commentators appear unable to distinguish between the burkini and, say, the habit worn by Catholic nuns or, even, a scuba suit. I’m referring, of course, to a picture that circulated on social media in which an image of a woman in a burkini was juxtaposed with a man in a scuba suit and a nun in a habit. The image bore the caption: “Just to be clear everyone, only ONE of these is illegal to wear on the beach in France.” We are led to believe that the broad similarity between these forms of dress and the fact that only one of them is banned is an indication of the arbitrary nature of the prohibition on burkinis. But this is simply a crude and naïve empiricism masquerading behind clever captions.
Broadly speaking, empiricism is the view that knowledge derives from experience, but crude empiricism, as I’m employing the term, reduces knowledge claims to an examination of an object’s most primitively observable qualities—color, shape, dimensions, and so on—without looking behind the observable to underlying purposes, intentions, history, and other possible sources of potentially crucial information. Thus, when it comes to banning the burkini (contra the habit and the scuba suit) the presumption is that there are no grounds for doing so save religious discrimination and fear of the other. The limitations of such an approach ought to be readily apparent.
Of course, when considering the social media image, one must grant that each object so happens to be roughly the same color and shape. Each does, indeed, cover the same general amount of acreage on the human body, including the head and hair. But, really, this is where their similarities end.
Nuns have worn habits for centuries as a part of a movement whose roots trace back to St Benedict. Among much else, habits signal, in the form of a vestment, an individual’s involvement in a common vocation that sets them apart from the wider society. In the context of European society, habit-wearing women are recognized for their commitment, throughout history, to sharing the Gospel largely through contributing to the cultural, economic, and educational improvement of European civilization under a broadly Christian moral framework and motivated by charity. Habits have never, of course, been a means of adhering to Sharia law.
The burkini, by contrast, is connected with a different history and is understood by many authorities as yet another example of the efforts of French-born and immigrant Islamicists to establish a Quranic community on French soil, in this case through the imposition of dress codes on women. The burkini, then, along with the veil and the headscarf or hijab, represents to many a continuation of an expression of Islam that has been, at least historically, too often a rival both culturally and militarily of European civilization. Hidden under the burkini, the backers of the ban insist, is a radical movement that utilizes its dress code as a proselytizing tool, a means of intimidating Muslim schoolgirls, and as a means to claim a zone of Islamicist influence within society.
We need not long consider the distinctive characteristics of the scuba suit. Suffice to say, it drives home the point that each object is, in fact, only intelligible in terms of the beliefs and goals that are presupposed by its proper use and can in no way be reduced to its primary qualities. No matter their outward similarity, burkinis, scuba suits, and habits are at home in very different traditions and social practices and, as such, have vastly different meanings. The apparent inability of many commentators to make this distinction is astonishing.
Barbie Latza Nadeau writing for Buzzfeed asks, “Where’s the Outrage Over Nun Beachwear?” Stating further, “No one in Italy would dare blink an eye at the sight of a habit-wearing sister at the seaside or even in the water.” But it would be foolish to suppose that the burkini was banned primarily because of its physical characteristics as opposed to the meaning that these characteristics have within various social contexts. Reducing cultural artifacts to their physical characteristics is simply a form of naïve empiricism that is as silly as it is dangerous.
Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary-general of the Italian bishop’s conference, offers fodder for this type of crude empiricism, stating in an interview that he “thinks of our [Catholic] sisters and peasant women who until recently wore [head coverings] and some of whom continue to do so.” While Galantino was primarily concerned with defending religious liberty—a laudable goal—the western media focused only on the comparison between nuns’ habits and burkinis and the apparent lack of fairness and discriminatory treatment evidenced by France’s ban of the latter.
James O’Brien asks, “How would you feel if a nun at gunpoint was told to take off her habit?” To which I answer: I would be dismayed—just as I am at the sight of police officers enforcing the burkini ban. But not for the same reasons. A ban on nuns’ habits at the beach would be yet another example of a secular European state denying its history, refusing to acknowledge that the ideals of liberalism are rooted in the Christian tradition. The ban on the burkini, instead, represents the bumbling missteps of a European nation that is unable to properly craft policy designed to foster integration and the incorporation of immigrants into the French state.
Pierre Manent stated recently, “Only a French people capable of political action in pursuit of the common good can offer a place for Islam within the body politic.” But as things currently stand, the West’s commitment to a crude empiricism that is unable to make distinctions between cultural artifacts that are similar in appearance and its impoverished moral vocabulary that is only able to apply norms of fairness—lacking the ability to make finer moral categorizations—prohibit the type of political action required to pursue the common good in a contemporary context. This is evident as much in the ban on burkinis as it is in commentators’ reactions to this ban.
Manent argues further, “The universal Church alone is up to the task of holding together a European form of life that has the capacity to offer hospitality to Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrine of human rights.” In their commitment to a radically secular liberalism, western commentators have been unable to make fine-grained distinctions between differing cultural traditions, appealing instead to norms of equality and arguing that all cultures and traditions must be treated equally in every respect. This type of secular liberalism ignores the differing ways in which various cultures and traditions contribute to or hinder the common good.
Developing a form of political hospitality that welcomes immigrants without either requiring them to renounce their identity or naively assuming that assimilation and a degree of commitment to the welcoming nation’s traditions—to say nothing of a willingness to make certain allowances for security purposes or relax cultural codes for the protection of dissenters—is unnecessary, demands that Europeans draw upon the Christian heritage which continues to shape the continent into the present. Only a grammar of the common good informed by the richer moral resources of the Christian tradition can make the fine-grained distinctions necessary for the practice of hospitality to positively contribute to Europe’s future. By doing this we will avoid both naive empiricism and an impoverished moral discourse, and as a result preserve the freedom of religion.
Caleb Bernacchio is a PhD candidate in Management and Business Ethics at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He has an MBA from Louisiana State University and B Phil from the Pontifical University of St Thomas in Rome, Italy.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of France24 broadcast on August 25, via YouTube.