In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Nice and elsewhere in the country, several towns along the sunny beaches in the south of France where a scantily clad Brigitte Bardot once frolicked have banned the burkini. This ban on covering up reveals not only a cleavage between conservative Islamic norms and the liberal West, but between the concepts of secularism within the West itself as well.
Notably, sympathy with the ban has united the otherwise querulous left and right in France. The Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls says he sees behind fashion concepts like the burkini, “the idea that by their nature women are immodest, impure, that they should therefore be completely covered. It is not compatible with the values of France and the republic.” The minister for families, children and women’s rights calls the burkini, “profoundly archaic“ and meant to, “hide women’s bodies in order to control them.” And the right-wing National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, writes, “France does not lock up a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half feels it will be tempted.”
In this, they all agree with what the Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle has been saying for decades: “Islamist politics seeks to curb the free public space by limiting women’s visibility through veiling, which is essentially an effort to control women’s sexuality by regulating the social encounter between the sexes. … Hence, in a Muslim context, the existence of a democratic public space depends on the social encounter between the sexes and on the eroticization of the public sphere.”
In a contribution from HuffPost Maghreb, Ikram Ben Aissa takes the opposite view. “Citizens should be free to wear what they choose!” she exclaims. “When will Muslims in Europe be respected and treated as equal citizens? When will we stop marginalizing millions of European Muslim citizens, especially women?” In a contribution from HuffPost Germany, Austro-Egyptian journalist Menerva Hammad endorses that view. “It’s 2016,” she writes. “Can’t we allow women the freedom to choose what to wear? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate form of emancipation? Just because many female celebrities opt for revealing clothes and sing about feminism doesn’t mean that they’re free. Freedom starts inside your head, and not on top of it.” She recalls a different experience in America, where she went swimming in a burkini. “I had a really good time swimming in Texas. No one gave me awkward looks or said anything condescending. Nobody cared who was wearing what.” In pointing out the difference between French laïcité and American secularism, she touched on the cleavage within the West.
I discussed this dissonance in an interview with then-Turkish President Abdullah Gül during the Arab Spring in 2012 when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had told the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood not to fear secularism:
What is unfortunate for the Arab and Maghreb countries is that their interpretation of secularism has been based on the French model, which is a Jacobin model of imposing a kind of irreligiousness. When you speak of secularism to Muslim communities of the region, it is misunderstood because of this French implication. In practice, the implementation of secularism in the Arab and Maghreb countries has meant fighting against Islam in the name of secularism. … On the other hand if you use the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, as practiced in the United States or the United Kingdom, it is something that people should feel comfortable with. All it means is a separation of the state and religion, of the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as the custodian for all beliefs. It is based on respect for all faiths and the coexistence of plural beliefs.
The French republic, and its secular fundamentalism, was born out of a revolt against the Catholic Church aligned with the monarchy. The American republic was born out of desire for religious freedom. So it is perhaps no surprise that modern France, which hosts a Muslim population of nearly 5 million, largely hailing from its former North Africa colonies, has become the sharpest edge, the prime battleground, of the clash of civilizations it seeks to avoid.
Writing from Berlin, Alexander Görlach rejects the notion that Europe has failed because it is run by out-of-touch elites, as populists on both the right and left argue loudly. “The EU has no elite problem, but rather a problem, particularly in Western Europe, with a thoroughly sedated, consumerist and apathetic population,” he says. In an interview with HuffPost, Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz says the euro was flawed from the start.
Writing from Rio de Janeiro, Angela Almeida and John Surico chronicle events puts on by a group of artists protesting both the Olympics and austerity measures by Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer. The group, which calls itself Ocupa MinC because it occupies abandoned and defunded Ministry of Culture buildings, worries that the Olympics, “could end up costing Brazil well over the budget of $4.6 billion.” “One poll,” the authors report, “found that 50 percent of Brazilians were against the Games.” The group’s members, “argue that the mega-event exposed the vast inequality between the Rio that visitors see and the Rio that the government left behind for the people who actually live here ― a sentiment that has led to widespread protests during the Games.”
The world continues to spin beyond all the attention focused on the Olympics. Writing from Manila, Richard Javad Heydarian says, “there is growing reason to expect a potentially seismic shift in Philippine foreign policy under the new administration.” As the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, rapidly consolidates power, Heydarian argues he is, “in a strong position to introduce a significant foreign policy reset, particularly with respect to China and the United States. Unlike his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, he has extended an olive branch to China, deploying former President Fidel Ramos to conduct backdoor negotiations with the Asian powerhouse.”
In an interview, former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says China’s multi-billion dollar investment in Pakistan to link up trade routes to the Arabian Sea as part of its new Silk Road project is a “game-changer” for his country. Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden report this week that the quality and reliability of Chinese-built infrastructure in Africa defies the stereotype of “shoddy work.” Ian Armstrong worries that the recent decision by the U.S. and South Korea to deploy a new missile defense system will provoke China, which sees it as a strategic threat that would make its defenses vulnerable, to develop more advanced weaponry to counter it, igniting a new arms race in Asia. In an interview, Li Zhifei, founder and CEO of Mobvi, a Beijing-based artificial intelligence startup, talks about the innovation ecosystem in Silicon Valley and Beijing, and why Chinese and U.S. tech companies can’t seem to crack each other’s markets.
In what seems like a rare positive development coming out of Syria, Rowaida Abdelaziz reports on the story of an 11-year-old boy suffering from pain caused by meningitis who was unable to get the treatment he needed in the besieged town of Madaya. Hours after she reported on his condition, the boy was evacuated and is now receiving help.
This week, WorldPost co-publisher Nicolas Berggruen talked with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about his investment in ideas, including a $1 million Nobel-type prize for philosophy that will be awarded for the first time this year. Finally, our Singularity series examines how IBM’s artificial neurons are bringing us another step closer to powerful brain-like computers.
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