The Dilemma of the Burqini

Is there any right way to react to the swimwear?

A woman wearing a burqini walks in the water on a beach in France.
A woman wearing a burqini walks in the water on a beach in France. (Reuters)

I didn’t associate Massachusetts beaches with burqinis—or with Muslims, for that matter. But my family and I were on vacation, and there was a woman in the water wearing the full-body swimsuit. Next to me on the beach, two friends were talking somewhat loudly. The woman said, “That’s what they were trying to do in France”—ban burqinis. Her friend responded nonchalantly, as if he couldn’t imagine anyone else thinking otherwise: “Yeah, that’s so culturally insensitive.” He quickly connected this to President Trump, saying that we were becoming a “meaner” country, presumably like France.

I smiled. This was why I liked, and even loved, the modern liberal instinct, however naïve and unsophisticated: It was bad to be mean to people with different beliefs. We don’t necessarily know why, or perhaps we can’t articulate the political theory behind it, but we feel it, especially now that the man some of us dislike so vehemently seems to us to dislike Muslims himself.

It’s a good instinct to have, and almost certainly the “right” one, if for no other reason than that it helps defuse conflict in pluralistic societies. It’s always better, all other things being equal, to err on the side of accommodation, at least as a first instinct. But this willingness to go beyond mere tolerance, to accept or even embrace difference, doesn’t necessarily come naturally to those who have not been inculcated with the sort of pluralism that is second nature to me and most of my friends.

Even within my family, all Muslim, there is a range of views about tolerance and its limits. One family member gets genuinely angry when he sees Muslim women in America wearing the niqab, or face veil, and he seems open, or at least indifferent, to banning it altogether. (I take issue with this, because in order to avoid self-contradiction a liberal society must be able to accommodate even extreme forms of illiberalism, as long as they do not harm anyone.) Another family member believes that bans of any sort aren’t the answer, yet he quite instinctively reacted negatively when he saw the woman in her burqini, even though it was a far cry from a face veil. It just really bothered him, and he apparently couldn’t help it.

We could have been anywhere. The sailboats weren’t too far off. The water was calm, and I was reminded of the other places I had lived. I could have been in, say, Jordan, but instead I was here. And I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

I imagine at least some people on that beach—especially if they hadn’t seen a burqini before—weren’t entirely comfortable, even if, after a moment’s consideration, they felt guilty for their lapse in empathy. Or they might have felt that too much accommodation of “assertive” cultures and religions, particularly Islam, risked further undermining our shared American or Western identity. But, whatever they felt, they had no choice but to accept it, because our shared identity and our laws also meant that we couldn’t stop people from wearing whatever clothes they wanted to.

The irony was that that same woman probably wouldn’t have been able to wear a burqini in comparable contexts in certain Muslim-majority countries. At any number of private beaches and pools in Egypt, for example, women are not permitted to swim in burqinis, or even to wear them. It’s not illegal to do so, but at private facilities people make their own rules that go beyond the law.

And it’s not only burqinis that evoke such reactions. I’ll never forget the first time I went to Cairo Jazz Club: Because one of my friends was wearing a hijab, they wouldn’t allow her to come in. This wasn’t the religious intolerance of Islamism, but the intolerance of those who opposed it, itself a kind of ideological position.

To live in the United States meant the freedom to not have to worry about that, even in an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility toward Islam and Muslims. I studied the Middle East, but at some point I realized I didn’t want to live in it. I didn’t want to live under it. I wanted to be left alone. But that required leaving other people alone to make their own choices.

This might have been the best way to live, but the absence of a deeper shared purpose, ideology, or mission could also be quite unexciting. As The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, this was “the flat dreariness of liberalism.” Or as the writer Michael Dougherty might put it, “the West” has simply become “what Christendom calls itself after having lost the faith.” To be free meant to give up on an ideological mission, and that, too, came with its own costs.