Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Separated by the Channel

A week ago, I blogged (it really is a terrible word; "blawged" is even worse) about Yale University Press's decision to publish a book about the reaction to the Danish cartoon depictions of Muhammad in 2005. You remember, they'd put out a book about the cartoons, but wouldn't actually print them. Sort of like hoping that a description of Beethoven's Eroica would be an adequate substitute for hearing it. In the midst of that post, I noted that "I'm no expert on Islam, certainly not on the attitudes of the millions (billions?) of individual Muslims." The disclaimer remains valid. I'm still not.

But this isn't a post about Muslim attitudes. It's a post about cultural difference from one side ofthe English Channel to the other.

We begin in France where in 2004 they banned the wearing of all religious garb in public schools. France, where there's an effort underway to ban the wearing of the burka. France where men must wear speedos or the like to go swimming. France where . . . . Wait, what was that last one?

Yep. See, those things that men wear everywhere else, swim shorts, they harbor sand, dirt, bacterial. Can't allow that in the water at public pools. So it's on with the skimpy, exceedingly form-fitting. (Story here.) This is only to be expected in a nation known to be obsessive about cleanliness and hygiene. Oh, wait, that's not the stereotype of the French at all.

For some men (and it should be most men), the rule is embarassing. It's not the forced exhibitionism (well, maybe that, too) but the fact that few of us have the, er, build for that sort of public display.

Of course, for some Muslim women the issue is different. (Story here.) They must cover up for religious reasons, but aren't allowed to do so. The Burkini is out. The French insist it's hygiene. The women say it's anti-Muslim discrimination. There is litigation.

Meanwhile, across the channel, Speedos may be banned at the Alton Towers theme park. And more and more public pools are having special Muslim swim hours when covering up is mandatory so that nobody will be offended. In fact, there are more and more Muslim swim times at pools in this country, too. (Just do a Google search for "Muslim swim time.")

Here's the thing: I don't believe the hygiene excuse is more than an excuse. It's political and social. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and this isn't the first dress code that seems aimed at that population. We are a secular nation, the codes say. Live with it.

But if the French model seems, well, French, the British approach, a timorousness and fear of giving offense - or more precisely a fear of having offense taken - seems quintessentially British. Lest you be offended by me, I'll conform to what you'd like - however much I don't like it. Or I'll hide.

Bette Midler once complained that "Everyone's so fucking sensitive." I think she was on to something.

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