Burkini and Orientalism : a critic of Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s narratives
Burkini and Orientalism
Neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.
– Edward Said
If women’s liberation is connected to their ability to wear bright clothing, capitalist consumerism becomes a disturbing component of feminism.
One may not believe in the universality of feelings, opinions, values or (re)actions. However, I may argue that everyone who comes across the pictures above will react in one way or another. People may see various things like policemen “helping” a woman to be free from “oppressive” clothes, or men oppressing a woman in the name of an ethnocentric freedom that denies her the right to wear what she intends to.
This paper tries to emphasize how Said’s Orientalism notion enable us to deconstruct the framings, narratives and assumption upon the Burkini.
To begin with, Orientalism is a concept developed by Edward Said in his famous book “Orientalism” (1979), which emphasizes how the Western world and its scholars perceived the Orient and managed, through the hegemonic diffusion of their perception, to Orientalize the Orient and the oriental people. That is to say, to create an Orient whose people shared a same “Oriental essence”, defining the “Orientals” as irrational, childlike, and prompt to violence while also eroticizing them by portraying a sensual and exotic Orient. Hence, Orientalism works as a lens that provides an untrue knowledge made up “by the West and for the West “ (1979).
Moreover, Orientalism works as a cultural strength, like a “library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held” (1979: 41). Evoking the gramscian notion of hegemony, Said reveals how the images and significations Orientalism spread were widely shared by an important range of people, from scientists, to the first anthropologues, and writers.
Historically, Edward Said traces the origins of Orientalism back to the Classic Antiquity, explaining in particular how, since the seventh century, the military strength of the Ottoman Empire was seen as a trauma and threat for Europe. Therefore, such a threat had to be controlled through narratives, which made the ottoman Empire and Islam, symbolize “terror, devastation, demonic hordes of hated barbarians” on one hand, and on the other, an “inherent inferiority” in regard to the Western/European identity. Indeed, the mere fact of defining the Orient as a threatening otherness enabled the Western/European identity to be defined as superior. Said explains that Orientalism is thus based on “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.” (1979: 42).
Finally, Orientalism is not only a positive doctrine, which never evolves nor changes. It has to be understood as a set of “constraints upon and limitations of thoughts” wich take place in various fields. In brief, Orientalism’s material reality always impact and hence redefines it. Therefore new and various forms of Orientalism, like Said’s own ‘’Modern orientalism ‘’ (Said 1979) or ‘’gendered Orientalism’’ (Khalyd, 2011) are to be explored.
The Burkini in itself, seems to be a kind of swimsuit that has been used by some women to go to the beach. This piece of clothing was strongly mediatized since June 2016 and especially during the following months of July and August, in the French medias but across Europe as well. The pictures shown above were taken on a French beach and were used to illustrate what was at the front page of many newspapers for days as “The Burkini scandal”. The aim of this essay is to deconstruct the assumption behind what has been called as the “Burkini” in public discourse, in particular by certain “intellectuals”.
In order to formulate a precise explanation of what I argue, I proceed by doing qualitative analysis of the narratives in regard to the “Burkini” used by two well-known French and so-called “intellectuals”: Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Moreover, I question to what extent the narratives used by BHL and Finkielkraut in order to frame the “Burkini issue” are orientalist?
Starting from this, I will first show how Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy make assumptions about Islam as being a violent religion. Secondly, I will focus on how the negation of any form of freedom and agency in the women who wear the Burkini, can be analyzed through a perspective of “gendered orientalism”. Finally, I will try to challenge Lévy and Finkielkraut’s place in the French media field, by referring to Bourdieu and his notion of “intellectual hit Parade“ (1984).
My methodology to pick up the analyzed data consisted in going through various kinds of medias – from websites, online newspapers, to TV and radio emissions – where Bernard-Henri Lévy and Finkielkraut have expressed themselves as “philosophers” on the “Burkini issue” during the months following the first apparition of the “Burkini” in the medias, that is to say from July to December 2016.
Islam through narratives of war and violence
On the Web, one cannot find many articles where Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henry Levy write specifically about the Burkini. Except maybe, for one particular paper from Lévy, which was first published on his own website and then by various other medias such as Le Point, Welt and La règle du jeu.
Lévy’s article is emblematic of the violence and war references, both him and Alain Finkielkraut use when talking about Islam and the Burkini. Indeed, many points from the short extracts I will quote emphasize an agonistic perception of Islam, which is manifested through the use of narrative evoking a register of war. Said explains that “The European representation of the Muslim, Ottoman, or Arab was always a way of controlling the redoubtable Orient” (1979: 60) Thus, there is a “limited vocabulary and imagery” (ibid: 1979: 60) at disposition of orientalists, when they manufacture what is the Orient, and Islam. Consequently, if “Islam became an image” (ibid: 60) through the older mechanisms of Orientalism, one may argue that the actual vocabulary and imagery used by Finkielkraut and Lévy – because their narratives revolve around words in reference to war, attacks and terrorism – always perpetuate a specific image of Islam, and the East: a merely orientalist one which emphasize the violence of Islam’s “ otherness”.
As a matter of fact, Lévy begins his article by emphasizing one the timeline of when the first Burkinis have been seen, or at least, mediatized :
It is no coincidence that this whole issue about the Burkini was born this summer .
The Burkini issue follows the terrorist attacks that happened in July 2016 in the French city of Nice, during the French National Day. By framing this timeline saying “it is no coincidence” with the attacks that caused the death of eighty-six people, Lévy inserts – implicitly or not – the Burkini in the continuity of the terrorism attacks and the intense violence these attacks incarnate. Lévy also does it at the end of his article, in a more explicit way :
[There is a need for] a call to a reform of the Islam in France, a reform made necessary by the recent terrorist attacks
Then, when it comes to defining the Burkini itself, Lévy portrays it as :
The paroxysm of a wave, the one of a radical Islamism that is at offensive everywhere (…) an ideological issue of offensive nature which challenges the one who try to resist (les résistants).
The use of the word “everywhere” seems to create an inherent link between Islam and its so-called radical – thus violent – form, which is emphasized here by the word “offensive”. Moreover, referring to “les résistants” has to be understood in the historical context of France, where the people who opposed themselves to the German invasion and Nazism are perceived as a strong symbol of collective resistance (Gilzmer: 2009). Les résistants incarnate in the French imagery, the “good forces” against “the bad ones” by being the ones who -by hiding Jews or dying in the fight against Nazis – stood up for their values.
For his part, Finkielkraut refers as well to agonistic narratives related to war, when he talks about Islam, after the Nice attacks :
Maybe France is not at war [against radical islam], but war is in France
Adding, later on :
The violence of Islamism [can be seen] across the whole wide world
Furthermore, Finkielkraut dedicates the radio emission Répliques of the tenth September 2016, on the topic of the Burkini. The emission’s “Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia” is initially supposed to be about the Burkini, as Finkielkraut himself explains during the first minutes. However, he ends up doing constant va-et-vient, between the topics of Islam, the veil and the Burkini. He does it so often that at one moment, the emission’s guest, Rockayha Diallo, says that for the audience it ends up being quite hard to fully understand whether the arguments are exposed in regard to Islam in general, the veil or the Burkini.
One may argue that this – voluntary or not – confusion reveals how the Burkini “issue”, and the narratives framing it, have to be understood in light of a broader context, where the Burkini, like the veil, enable narratives about Islam in general to be formulated and assumptions to be made. Indeed, the Burkini issue is always brought back to Lévy and Finkielkraut’s own visions of Islam. For the two “philosophers” it appears that the Burkini serves as an example to show how Islam – as a homogeneous block – “works”. That is to say as “a religion, which mortify and humiliate its subjects” and where freedom is denied since the Burkini incarnates “a time when Religion believed it was right to hide their women”.
Various orientalist mechanisms take place here. Firstly, the fact that Islam is never nor explained in its own complexity but only defined as a homogenous, motionless and timeless object emphasizes how both Finkielkraut and Lévy don’t seem to be interested in the actual reality – or realities – of Islam. Hence, they act like the orientalist Said describes, who weren’t “interested in anything except proving the validity of these musty ‘truths’“ (1979: 52). Indeed, Alain Finkielkraut is not an islamologist and neither is Bernard-Henri Lévy. Nonetheless, the both of them still allow themselves to define what kind of religion Islam is– even if they do so through their orientalist narratives.
Finally, such narratives portray everyone who shares “Islamic beliefs” as sharing a same Muslim essence. Surely, Muslims are essentialized, since the women who wear the Burkini, appear to do it only because they are Muslim, denying them any individuality. Again, this is an orientalist mechanism that works through the construction of the Orientals/Muslims as “a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics” (1979: 42).
As Tariq Ramadan notes, we have to question ourselves on why a specific category – the Burkini – was created for a mere swimsuit. Indeed, if “western” women cover their body to go to the beach, it is with clothes that have not been given a specific definition by the medias, politicians or by public discourses in general. That is to say, clothes which – contrarily to the Burkini – have not been assigned a political meaning. Hence, one may argue that the Burkini was created – and orientalized – “by the West, for the West” (Said, 1979). In regard to Lévy and Finkielkraut, they both share a specific logic: The West is free because it does not obligate western women to be “kept under wrap” unlike the Other – the “East”, “Islam”, “Muslim men” – does. As Lévy puts it :
What do [Muslim] think about this infringement of the republican principle of strict equality of the sexes? (…) Going back to a time when Religions believed it was right to hide their women, it is democracy we put at risk 
Like ”there are Westerners and there are Orientals” (Said, 1979: 36) there is “the republican principle of strict equality” and “democracy” on one side and the infringement of it (the Burkini) on the other. Orientalism is based upon “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.” Precisely Lévy defines the West as free and democratic, by defining the otherness of the others (ibid, 1979: 35 – 40) –in this case the act of wearing the Burkini, as an undemocratic and oppressive symbol.
Moreover, if Said speaks about how the “white male gaze” is able to define the actions and nature of the Oriental man (1979: 230 – 240) one may argue that, when it comes to the links between narratives about the Burkini and Orientalism, we have to take in account the perspective of gender, since the Burkini is a piece of clothes worn (in general) by women
Gendered Orientalism is, as Maryam Khalid argues, a discourse that marks oriental women as the voiceless victims of the barbaric Muslim males. Thus, gendered Orientalism strongly emphasizes the inherent differences, in a Western and orientalist perception, between West and East :
(…) A range of binaries situating the ‘West’ in opposition to the ‘East’ – for example, good vs. evil, civilised vs. barbaric, rational vs. irrational, progressive vs. backward – have been invoked. These binaries are deployed (…) in ways that are gendered and orientalist, that is, through harnessing and manipulating perceived differences in gender, gender roles, and sexuality, along racial lines. (Khalid, 2011: 15)
As an illustration, Alain Finkielkraut words incarnate this range of binaries, specifically the one of freedom vs backwardness/constraint :
I read a few months ago a very interesting article on women in Muslim countries: in Iran, women make visible on social medias and at their own risk, pictures of themselves têtes nues .(…) I heard an Egyptian woman explain about the veil that “ even if [the women who wear the veil in France] have the luxury to live in a free country, they make the choice to have less freedom (…) The woman was speaking of the veil but we can also say it for the burkini and, in philosophy, we know since La Boétie, since Spinoza, what is la servitude volontaire (voluntary servitude).” 
Finkielkraut speaks for the sake of Muslim women, using general truism like “I heard an Egyptian women” or portraying women, like Lévy does, as “subordinate”. Hence, what both Finkielkraut and Levy accomplish, when talking about women wearing the Burkini – besides denying them any form of agency and freedom – is denying them the mere possibility and right to speak for themselves. Such narratives can’t help to reminds us of Karl Marx’s words Said quotes in the first page of Orientalism: “They [the Orientals] cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”.
In order to challenge actual and common forms of Orientalism, one has to understand how Lévy and Finkielkraut, since the 1970s, have gained an important place in the public French discourse and media field.
From Apostrophes in 1977, the popular TV show of Bernard Pivot about literary actualities, to the TV show on n’est pas couché of the not so less popular Laurent Ruquier, Bernard-Henry Lévy often appears, on the French TV, especially in the most watched shows. Concerning Finkielkraut, even if he used to appear as well on On n’est pas couché, one may note that he does more punctual interventions, in particular in the French newscast. Still, Finkielkraut has, since thirty years, his own Radio emission, Répliques. Finally, some specific newspapers like Marianne, Le Parisien, Figaro, Valeurs actuelles often write articles about Lévy and Finkielkraut. In brief, this short and inevitably incomplete description tries to emphasize how, since thirty years, the two authors have a large visibility in French medias of various kinds. Moreover, a visibility that enables them to express their ideas. Thus, one may ask: Why such visibility? Why, when journalist wants to talk about Islam they look in the direction of Lévy and Finkielkraut?
As Bourdieu argues, there is, in France an ”intellectual hit-parade” (Bourdieu: 1984). In other words, there is a symbolic efficiency in the monopole some “intellectuals” have in the medias. Such a monopole is enabled by the mere fact that :
The journalistic field through its different specialized subspaces tends less to impose its own logic than an external logic, especially economic-political logic, on the social fields of which it speaks. (Benson and Neveu, 2005: 77)
Consequently, there is “un effet d’alloxia” (Bourdieu, 1984) since the audience “prend une chose pour une autre” that is to say “pretends that one thing was another”. Bourdieu argues that the media’s field is organized in a way that, for the audience, it is hard to understand the specific qualification and status of the so-called intellectuals. Hence, this precise confusion reinforces the credibility and symbolic power of those intellectuals and enables people such as Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy to express themselves about the “Burkini” (and other topics) without having any precise qualifications.
In their papers and TV/ radio interventions, Lévy and Finkielkraut make many references to a “legitimate culture” in order to gain “symbolic capital” (Bourdieu: 1979) and thus to appear as credible academics and not mere journalist. As an illustration, the specific references to La Boétie, made by Lévy here and by Finkielkraut above, emphasizes this appeal to former philosophers and their theories to sustain personal arguments in order to make them look stronger and legitimate :
There is today un mécanisme de servitude volontaire depicted five centuries ago by un certain Etienne de La Boétie
The narratives of Finkielkraut and Lévy are as well easy to “diffuse” since they are far from being complex. Indeed, when Lévy and Finkielkraut frame the “Burkini issue”, they do it through orientalist mechanisms and assumptions that are often based upon (as mentioned before) simplistic binaries (Freedom vs Constraint, Islamic values vs Western ones, etc).
The narratives of Lévy and Finkielkraut about the Burkini emphasize the orientalist binary vision of a Western freedom as opposed to an Oriental lack of freedom. Moreover, I argue that the assumptions that depict Islam as a merely violent religion, reinforce the construction of the “Muslim Woman”: a woman with no agency, in need of being saved from this violent and oppressive religion – and from the men sharing its beliefs.
In conclusion, looking back at the pictures of the woman on the beach and the policemen, we can deconstruct this image and the “Burkini issue” to see how Lévy and Finkielkraut’s assumptions and framings legitimate, trough orientalist narratives, the police/state intervention.
In conclusion, it is as well the constant opposition they evoke between French cultural values and Oriental/Muslim/Arab ones that enables Lévy and Finkielkraut to use the register of war, opposing one side versus another. This can remind us of some other orientalist works, like the ones of Bernard Lewis (2003), who believes in the threat of western values, that is to say in “Occidentalism”. The case of Bernard Lewis is not the point of this paper. However, I may still argue – on a last note – that opposing Western vs Eastern/Oriental values – or portraying a war against freedom/the West – is orientalist, since it equals opposing essentialized values.
Finally, the space given to Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut in the media field has to be questioned and challenged, as have to be their orientalist narratives in order to prevent them of becoming (orientalist) “truths”.
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Bourdieu, P. 1984. Le hit-parade des intellectuels français ou qui sera juge de la légitimité des juges ? In: Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Vol. 52-53, juin. Le travail politique. pp. 95-100;
Benson, R. and Neveu, E. 2005. Bourdieu and the journalistic field. Oxford : Polity.
Gilzmer, M. 2009. Mémoires de pierre: Les monuments commémoratifs en France après 1944. Paris: Autrement.
Khalid, M. 2011. ‘Gender, orientalism and representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror’, Global Change, Peace & Security, vol. 23, no1, February 2011
Said, M. 1979. Orientalism, Penguin Books.