At the end of the Cold War, the concept of security was subjected to an academic redefinition and a certain consensus was reached on flanking economic, societal and environmental factors, to the traditional military one. In addition, scholars of the so-called Copenhagen School pointed out how, in an increasingly globalized world, security can no longer be understood solely on an interstate basis: non-state actors – such as individuals and social groups – can be threatened as well, by both states and other non-state actors. To put it differently, both referents and agents of security have been re-theorized. How exactly did we move from acknowledging that the threats the world has to face are no longer exclusively military-related, to contemplating a swimsuit as one?
The heated debate over burkinis has been headline all over the European continent and beyond, after some cities in the French Riviera ruled against the full-body swimsuit for Muslim women. The controversy over banning “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation” in the prominently secular Republique Française, has sparked during what the New York Times already labeled “a summer of anxiety” in Europe.
While many have – rightly – contested the ban by voicing the violation of women liberties, a different reflection will be developed here. Thinking of a burkini as an issue of security concern fosters us to reflect on what a risk to public order actually is. When is a referent object actually becoming a security threat? At this point, can anything be placed into the security sphere? The securitization theory, one of the most brilliant yet controversial theories of the last two decades, explains this societal phenomenon as one of language: security is what is constructed as such by political and institutional discourse. An issue is securitized when it is discursively depicted as a security problem and the audience has agreed that extraordinary measures need to be undertaken in order to deal with it.
If what we are witnessing with the burkini ban is indeed a brand new securitization attempt, then it is crucial to assess its impact on the social fabric. It is possible to map the potential effects on society by means of a three-stages analysis. First of all, the burkini issue is producing an Us versus Them divide. By neglecting the fact that many Muslims in our societies are as much citizens as anyone else, these dynamics of threat construction are encouraging the cognitive division of society in first and second class components: us, the true liberal Europeans, whose way of life is threatened by the barbaric Islam. Polarization comes next. Constructing rigid and impermeable social boundaries has, in fact, a double consequence: on the one hand, it emphasizes the positive qualities of membership to a majority group and boasts its identity; on the other hand, it creates a stigmatized minority, whose members will be forced to feel different, maybe even inferior. Finally, such a social context will represent the perfect ground for radicalization, because group differentiation crystalizes marginalization while the humiliation of ostracism will feed hatred towards the host community. Anger-driven violence might be only one step away. It will be the war of everyone against everyone.
The very final effect of this securitization process is therefore the politics of insecurity. Public debates such as the current one over burkini must be contextualized within a broader framework: that of a European Union which is currently witnessing the development of a social climate based on a widespread daily sense of intolerance and frustration, suspicion and finger pointing. This politicization of resentment will increasingly pave the way for a perceived political vacuum to be filled (as it has already happened) by populist and far right movements, whose raison d’être is precisely to champion the frustration of those who feel left behind by globalization.
Our contemporary world is indeed complex and its social, political and economic problems far from simple to disentangle. But that does not mean that we should all surrender to over simplified and emotionalized versions of reality that some – socially irresponsible – media and politicians are trying to opportunistically sell. For the politics of insecurity has a crucial specificity, its never-ending character: it generates an eternal quest for security, constantly enlarging the conceptual horizons of what the sphere of security threats may actually encompass. What will be next?
Image source: Mike Linksvayer