To burkini or not to burkini? This is the vexing question facing France at the moment and the rest of the Western world soon enough. Is it a symbol of the oppression of women or part of the right of a woman to wear what she wants? Is it an attack on liberal French society or a statement on the value of modesty? To reduce it down to its simplest level: is it a good burkini or a bad burkini?
The answer is not clear. A bad burkini, we might all agree, is one forced upon a woman who actually would rather be a little less modest and feel a bit more of the sun of her skin. Yet even in this case of oppression is it any worse than the oppression of the modern media that tells women they must dress immodestly and look amazing while doing so? A good burkini, we might again all agree, would be one freely chosen by the woman. But where does peer pressure, cultural pressure, parental pressure and societal pressure all end and a woman's choice begin? How free our are free choices?
Imagine, two women told by parents to wear the burkini. One goes ahead, valuing domestic harmony, the religious traditions of Islam and the respect of her peers. The other rebels, valuing western ideals of sexual and individual freedom. Who is the more morally correct? Who is the more oppressed? Both ideals, taken to logical conclusions, will be bad – one goes to religious conservatism, without faith in the Christian God and the other to hedonistic living, without faith in the Christian God. Whatever your opinion on the lesser of these two evils, both are still evil lacking faith in the Living God.
But let's not kid ourselves, the debate on burkinis is really a debate about Islam as a whole and Islamic extremism in particular. And that debate can be summed up in a similar way: when is a Muslim a “good” Muslim and when is a Muslim a “bad” Muslim?
It would seem that most Muslims in the West can be categorised in the “good” box, if we define good as an unwillingness to commit terrorist attacks. This is a relief. Yet there remain a stubborn percentage in the West, small but not insignificant, of death cult nut-jobs, who are convinced that the cause of Islam must be furthered by violence, death and acts of cruelty. And so we see stabbings, shootings and suicide bombs on the news with seemingly increasing regularity.
But how do we tell one from the other when there will be so many shades of grey? Is the Muslim who gives faithfully to his mosque, despite knowing that a small amount may end up in the hands of terrorists, a good or bad Muslim? What about the father, who in love, and looking to protect his daughter from illiberal western society, insists she wears a burka? Surely, the principle of love and protection is good even if the cultural outworking is extreme?
Unfortunately, the answer is generally: we aren't allowed to talk about it. A full and frank conversation about Islam and Western society can be so easily silenced by the claim of racism. And even when we are able to discuss it, the answers are so very difficult.
For any attempt to ban any aspect of Islam is a direct risk to the religious liberty of all other groups. As a Christian, I am very aware, that what will be done to Islam can so easily be done to Christians. So Anjem Choudary goes to prison for “hate speech” and in a few months time a Christian preacher saying anything negative about homosexuality will follow. Now, I might argue that the two sets of “hate speech” are very different (one inciting violence, one inciting repentance) or that free speech should allow both men their say but in the eyes of a secular state all religions that disagree with the current zeitgeist are the same.
To win a war against Islam extremism and lose the war for freedom would be bitter indeed. And how can we fight the Islamic extremists only? How can we separate the good Muslims from the bad Muslims? Surely, practically, that's next to impossible. So the West will end up fighting all Muslims, regardless.
This is what we see with the burkini ban. Ultimately, it will do nothing to stop Islamic terrorists, it may even encourage them, but it's not a logical cause and effect argument. It's an emotional, strike back at Islam argument. So France starts to wage a cultural war, not against Islamic extremists but against all Muslims.
I've been wondering for a while now: when will the patience of the West end when it comes to radical Islam? How many more terrorist attacks before anger overcomes peace and the West lumps all Muslims into the bad category? The answer would seem to be not long now.
There are no easy solutions and certainly I can offer no advice on now to deal with the burkini or Islamic extremism problem at a national and international level but on an individual level there is one clear answer. For the Christian faith does offer us guidance, in the Bible, for how to deal with the Islamic extremist problem:
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5 v 44.
Out of the 50 countries in the world where Christians are most persecuted, 46 are because of Islamic extremism. With the blood and suffering of so many Christians down to a single religion, we need to take the above verse to heart. Our response is not violence, anger, hate or mistrust nor is it a naïve ignorance or head-in-sand denial.
We pray, for those who persecute our brothers and sisters around the world. And we love, holding out the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are reports that across the Muslim world, more people than ever are converting to Christianity. In this, we can rejoice and it should encourage us to pray on. Christianity is a religion that makes violent men peaceful and there is a great need for more peaceful men in the world today.
In France, we are about to witness the failure of the Western secular state to cope with the simplest of problems that Islam can throw us: to burkini or not to burkini? It might be laughable, but no one has a good answer because no one has a good answer to the question: what do we do about Islamic extremism? What France should do, I cannot say. But what each individual should do is clear, as Jesus said: love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.