France has apparently overturned its “burkini ban.”  This happened after images surfaced of French police forcing a woman to undress on a beach.

It’s worth pausing to consider what secularism even means at this point.

Secularism, at the level of the state, means setting public institutions and laws on a universalist footing rather than a parochial one.  Thus secularism includes, for example, extending citizenship and civil rights to all those born in a country, regardless of their religion.  Or it means allowing citizens to practice their religion of choice, without state interference.

Historically, state secularism has never meant the eradication of religion from society. Such an undertaking, even if possible, would go well beyond the purview of the modern state.  In fact, the very idea behind secularism is for the state to remain indifferent to (private) religious belief and behavior, like what you eat or how you dress.

Here’s the thing: you cannot implement something like a secular society, using the tools of the state (laws and public institutions), while simultaneously upholding civil rights. You cannot promote freedom of dress by banning the burkini. That’s a contradiction on its face.

This is what a lot of the defenders of “secularism” and “universalism” miss. If the French state weighs in on what should be on the menu in French schools, then the state is no longer serving the interests of secularism. No matter which decision it makes.

France has arguably never been a secular society, though it has had a secular state for a few hundred years. It’s a society in which people practice religion, for one thing, but moreover one in which religious customs still permeate general public life. Many of France’s “congés” (statutory holidays) are Christian in origin.  For that matter, it’s not easy to keep the boundary between (secular) state and (religious) society distinct. The state makes decisions which impact different worshippers differently — the Jewish high holidays are either statutory or they are not. This was simply rendered invisible for a long time by the relatively homogenous nature of French society. 

Now France is grappling with a level of “multiculturalism” it has never before experienced.  And it is possible that no matter what the state does in a tense, multi-religious society — banning this, making an exception for that — it will always stoke tensions. But one thing is clear: it is not as though the state can neutrally deliver secularism. That will only ever be a secularism for the other.