Reports of Islamist terror attacks in Europe have become so common that they are now coming in at roughly two a week. The minor ones barely receive any international news coverage at all. France has been particularly badly hit, with that country having been in an official state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November. Yet terror attacks are only the most jolting expression of a much wider problem as European societies grapple with the challenge of radical Islam and the growing sense of a lack of social cohesion in many of Europe's cities. The worsening culture clash has once again been thrust into public attention, this time with the announcement that a number of French resort towns are banning the so-called burkini, the beachwear equivalent of the full body covering, the burqa.
Cannes became the first town to introduce a ban at the end of July, but the subject provoked increased scrutiny when a town in Corsica followed suit after a brawl broke out on a beach on the island. In that case violence erupted when a tourist allegedly attempted to photograph women wearing the garment. The men in the swimming party reportedly confronted the tourist and when other locals became involved a fight broke out that saw several taken to hospital with hatchet and harpoon wounds. Later the police had to intervene to prevent youths marching on a heavily North African neighborhood. The local authorities have defended the ruling with the claim that they have acted to keep public order and to calm tensions. But these moves to ban the burkini aren't simply the position of a few fringe mayors; the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also expressed his backing for the local bans.
Of course, the full face veil has been banned in France since 2010 and it will be argued that France has a long and sober-minded tradition of upholding secularism in the public square. Yet the increasingly illiberal moves by the French state to ban certain items of clothing would have been hard to imagine just ten or fifteen years ago. Like the banning of the face veil, the burkini ban is starting to look like desperate measures by a society that is losing in the battle over ideas and values. Lacking the will to make the case for Western liberal ideals of gender equality to its Muslim population, France is instead abandoning liberalism and enacting bans in an effort to impose the outward appearance of a society that embraces such ideals- when in fact a growing minority utterly reject them.
In a society that values individual choice, the only hope for combating social ills (such as items of clothing designed to make women disappear from public life) is to have a civil society that is willing to promote the liberal values that undermine such practices. Yet European societies seem completely incapable of undertaking that work, instead lurching between either permissive attitudes of acquiescence or otherwise authoritarian bans. That has been made more than apparent as the burkini ban has been debated by the on looking English language media. The more nuanced position--that the state shouldn't outlaw items of clothing but that never the less the burka is an affront to our values and as such should be strongly socially discouraged--has simply proven too complicated for many to grasp.
Instead, many commentators have wrongly assumed that if they oppose banning the burkini then they must instead embrace and defend it. Rather than condemn the burkini as sexist and misogynistic, a number of columnists have accused its banning of being both those things. Perhaps most disingenuous of all was the BBC radio host I encountered who defended the burkini on the grounds that someone with a skin condition might not wish to be uncovered on the beach. The conflation of someone covering up on account of a skin complaint with an ideology that insists the female form (unlike the male) is so abhorrent and dangerous that it should be blotted out with black cloth, is an indication that many in western societies simply lack the seriousness to grasp what they are now facing.
In a sense, a lack of serious thinking is also apparent in the rush to try and ban these problems out of existence. This is not simply happening on the right; even some in France's socialist party are now calling for a ban on sermons in Arabic. Like the burkini bans, forcing Imams to preach in French is unlikely to do much to solve the underlying problems. Both such measures are at best cosmetic, they do a little to give the appearance of greater integration, they stave off for a short while the sense of creeping radicalization. Yet they do nothing to address the ideological currents that drive the growth of hardline Islamic practices. As things stand, if immigration into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa continues at its current pace, and if no successful model is found for integration, then burqas and burkinis will become increasingly common sights on Europe's beaches and elsewhere. As, no doubt, will many other illiberal practices.
The violent brawl on the beach in Corsica was an alarming example of what happens when both tolerance and integration fail to happen. More harrowing still was the message put out by Corsican separatist paramilitary groups who have threatened that any Islamist activity on the island will meet with retaliation. Europe now appears set to play host to a miserable culture clash. But if political leaders don't act fast we may even see an escalation to outbreaks of sectarian and inter-ethnic violence. What is for sure, however, is that simply trying to outlaw the most visible signs of the problem will be no solution.