The Burqini Debate's Irresolvable Tension

Liberals emphasize personal choice, but their conception of choice has its limits.

A woman in a tri-color burkini swims in the ocean in Cannes, France.
Karima, wearing a full-body burkini swimsuit, swims in Cannes after the call to support the wearing of burkinis by businessman and political activist Rachid Nekkaz.  (Eric Gaillard / Reuters)

When I wrote a largely personal, impressionistic piece last week about the burqini, it elicited one of the most charged reactions I’ve seen about anything I’ve written. The piece—or at least one reaction to the piece—went viral. The subtitle (“Is there any right way to react to the burqini?”) bothered many readers, who felt that even posing the question left open the possibility that it might be answered incorrectly.

In the piece itself, I defended the right of women to wear whatever they want wherever they want to, as I long have. But the burqini (along with the headscarf and the face veil) is such a charged topic precisely because of the reactions it elicits on both sides of the debate. Freedom of choice, autonomy, and individual agency are at the heart of the classical liberal idea. They’ve never been defended consistently by liberals, including liberal greats like Thomas Jefferson or John Locke, but the basic principle underlying these ideas has been clear: that people should be able to pursue their own conception of the Good, as long as they don’t harm anyone in the process.

Taken to extremes, though, privileging personal autonomy over everything else comes at a cost, and that cost is something that all liberal societies have to contend with, without one side lobbing charges of “thoughtcrime” at the other. (The reverse is also true: privileging the often nebulous idea of “national identity” can come at the cost of personal freedoms).

As The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada recently noted in an article quoting Samuel Huntington, the fundamental question facing Western democracies today isn’t “which side are you on,” but rather “who are we?” The burqini and what it represents—Muslims expressing religiously conservative preferences—challenges certain Western conceptions of national identity, particularly in staunchly secular contexts like, say, France, where wearing the headscarf in public schools is prohibited by a law passed in 2004. I find this to be a flagrant violation of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but a majority of French voters, as expressed through their representatives, disagree with me. France, unlike the United States, has an ideological orientation based around an aggressive, even radical, secularism. Is it not the right of French citizens, collectively as well as individually, to express that national identity, however much I (or any other American) disagrees with it?

One could argue that prospective restrictions on individual freedom should always require a high legislative threshold—say, a supermajority. But even by that standard, France’s 2004 law would have passed handily (494 voted in favor, with only 36 against). In short, the French have answered the question of “who are we” in a particular fashion, and it has come at a cost.

Having and seeking a communal or, in this case, national identity is something that comes rather innately to people, even if they can’t necessarily articulate that need clearly. It’s just a question of what form that sense of community and belonging takes, and just how exclusionary it ends up being. But any communal identity is almost by definition bound to be somewhat exclusionary, and this is not something to which liberals are immune.

American liberals, in the political rather than classical sense of the word, may emphasize choice and autonomy (just as American conservatives do), but their conception of choice has its limits, leading to a paradox that can’t easily be resolved. They find themselves able to empathize with a woman wearing a burqini, but less so with those who are uncomfortable with a woman wearing a burqini. Voicing discomfort with a woman wearing a burqini (due to concerns around “national identity”) is an expression of personal choice, as long as the person in question doesn’t do anything to stop the woman from wearing a burqini—her legal right according to the American legal and constitutional framework.

I can’t propose a ready solution to this tension, in part because there isn’t one. What legal scholar Stanley Fish calls liberalism’s “inherent contradiction” is something built into the modern democratic project. It is sometimes expressed as whether or not we should “tolerate intolerance.” But this doesn’t quite capture it, because we are all, ultimately, intolerant of some things rather than others. At the heart of the debate is whether we’ve chosen the right things to be intolerant of.