SEPTEMBER LEADER – We will never create an inclusive society with hypocritical ‘symbolpolitik’


There’s a great word in Danish, for political policies that have no legitimate aim except to send a message: symbolpolitik. These policies sound or feel good to their target audiences, but they have little impact on real issues.

Symbolpolitik speak to people’s feelings. It gives them the sense that at least something is being done to improve their world. Who doesn’t like a simple solution to a complicated problem?

Enter the burkini, banned from beaches in some French cities this summer. Designed so that Muslim women could enjoy the sea and sand while also conforming to modesty requirements, burkinis offend many French who regard it as contrary to their secular values.

Though French President Sarkozy called for the garment to be banned across the country, the courts rightly overturned the ban as unconstitutional. Many women wear hijabs, niqabs and burkas as a symbol of their sincerely held religious views and respecting those views is central to liberal Western democracy.


Still, I’m not a fan of cultural norms that insist women should hide their bodies from the male gaze. It suggests to me that women are responsible for attracting unwanted male attention, and that men are not responsible for controlling their gaze and behaviour. This is clearly oppressive, because it means women are less free than men, and makes men less responsible for their behaviour than women. It’s a gender-based double standard that violates the principle that all people are created equal.

So we are conflicted: banning burkinis violates free expression, but a person wearing a burkini could be expressing a lack of free will.

It’s not a surprise which side France came down on. Built on deep secular values, they have long taken issue with religious symbols displayed in public. Repeated attacks by Islamic extremists over the past 18 months have only a fuelled the narrative that it is Islam itself that threatens France.

Banning the burkini is a deeply flawed example of symbolpolitik. Millions of Muslims live happily in Europe and don’t kill us, while also holding sincerely held religious views that mean they dress modestly.

And, to the extent that there are Muslims living in communities separate from mainstream Western society, the burkini ban does little to bring them closer. It does the opposite, by making us look like hypocrites. For while we limit their right to express their religious convictions, we simultaneously advocate for free expression, especially the right to criticise their religion in deeply offensive terms.


Intolerant policies such as the burkini ban or the government’s new anti-propaganda law – which makes it illegal to make anti-democratic statements in certain settings – undermine the very system we hope to protect.

I think the most powerful central principle of liberalism is that we don’t have the right to interfere with each other. We do not agree about where to draw the line, which is why our societies contain libertarians, Marxists and everything in between. But the fundamental starting point is that we are all free and therefore must have a bloody good reason to interfere in someone else’s life.

This powerful philosophy is what draws so many Muslims to the West seeking a freer life. There are also, certainly, Muslims in Europe who are anti-democratic, but only if we stand up for fundamental human rights and promote citizenship regardless of one’s ethnic or religious background, can we persuade more people to support liberal democracy.

I read on Zetland this summer about a Danish Muslim man who was for about a decade a member of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks to establish a global Islamic caliphate.

He ultimately left the organisation after realising that liberal democracies, with their focus on free expression, should be valued. He’s still a devout Muslim.

It suits both the Islamist and the right-wing bigot to argue that Islam and the West are incompatible. But we know they’re not. If we want more stories like the one above, we need to stand up to symbolpolitik and demand that our politicians embody the values they say they profess to protect with their short-sighted and bigoted policies. M

News, Commentary

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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