Letterboxes and Bank Robbers

The great American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks once remarked about the crucifix: “A lot of Christians wear crosses round their necks. Do you think if Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a cross? It’s kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis (JFK’s wife) with a sniper rifle pendant and saying: ‘Just thinking of John, Jackie!”

I can’t imagine that if Jesus returned from Heaven, he would be best pleased that many wear a necklace reminding him of the worst three days of his life. I think he would have a nervous breakdown and go back to his mansion in the sky.

There are many religious and cultural symbols I find bizarre. The shtreimel, a large cylindrical fur hat often worn by Haredi Jewish men, looks as if someone skinned a bear alive and wrapped the skin around their head (shtreimels are actually made with marten or fox fur). Taken together with a three-piece suit, why anybody would wear it in summertime is incredible. But hey, if Haredi Jews choose to dress like that, then that’s their choice.

Choice is what critics of Boris Johnson’s article on the burqa ban in Denmark seem to forget. On Monday, the former Foreign Secretary wrote an article arguing that Denmark’s recent legislation banning the burqa was wrong. Johnson said he was ‘surprised’ that ‘a country that seemed on the face of it to embody the principles of JS Mill – that you should be able to do what you want provided you do no harm to others’ would ban the burqa. He said proscribing the burqa would ‘risk a general crackdown on any public symbols of religious affiliation and…may simply make the problem worse.’

I can’t imagine that if Jesus returned from Heaven, he would be best pleased that many wear a necklace reminding him of the worst three days of his life

But the most vituperative critics of Johnson’s piece can’t see the forest for the trees. They have instead focused on the sartorial similes; that people who wear the burqa look like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers.’ They view these comparisons as demonising to Muslims, particularly of Muslim women, and as evidence of Johnson’s racism and Islamophobia.

Boris Johnson certainly has a history of culturally insensitive and racist remarks. He said in a 2002 Telegraph column that the Queen loves touring the Commonwealth, because she is greeted with ‘flag-waving piccaninnies’ and that in the Congo, Tony Blair would be met with ‘watermelon smiles; in 2016, he said Barack Obama’s part-Kenyan ancestry meant he had ‘an ancestral dislike of the British Empire;’ he also had to apologise in 2006 after he wrote that the Tory party had engaged in ‘Papau New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief killing.’

So yes, Johnson makes bigoted remarks from time to time. However, his comments on the burqa and niqab were not bigoted. In fact, they were pretty mild. His critics say they are racist, forgetting that Islam is only a race in the same way that abstinence is a sex act.

There is no scriptural basis to the burka and niqab, and the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars call the niqab and burqa ‘un-Islamic.

Neither was he telling women what they should wear. To the contrary, his argument was that women should have the right to choose what they wear. The article expressed opposition to a total prohibition on the burqa and niqab. He did say that in some limited instances – certain businesses and branches of government – removal of face-covering should be required, but if a woman wants to walk down the street with her face covered, then that’s fine. Some might interpret the limited instances he mentions as misogynistic, because it seems he’s telling women what they should wear. But the state already places restrictions on what individuals can or cannot wear in certain instances. We’d be arrested if we walked naked down Oxford Street and we can’t cover our face while at a bank or at passport control.

As for those who cry ‘Islamophobia,’ here’s something they might not know. There is no scriptural basis to the burka and niqab, and the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars call the niqab and burqa ‘un-Islamic.’ So how can Johnson have been Islamophobic if he was criticising something un-Islamic?

As Dr Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford, wrote in a letter to The Times: ‘The burka and niqab are hideous tribal ninja-like garments that are pre-Islamic, non-Koranic and therefore un-Muslim.’ Dr Hargey is a lot more scathing of the garment than Johnson; he wants it banned. As he points out, the burqa is a patriarchal and chauvinistic item of clothing that’s promoted by the extreme Wahhabist-Salafist sect of Islam. The Wahhabists promote a garment that was first worn by the wives of the Byzantine and Persian nobility. These aristocratic men, who considered their wives as property, would make their wives cover their whole body so that the ‘hoi polloi’ would not gaze upon them.

In a free society, we can say nuns look like penguins and bishop’s mitre looks like a tea cosy.

The more you learn about the origins of these outfits and the people who promote them, the more ridiculous they appear. That does not mean the women who choose to wear them should themselves be the target of bigoted remarks and violence. But neither should the ideology behind the full-face veil be immune from ridicule. If the origins and the justifications for wearing it are chauvinistic and absurd, then satire and opprobrium should be readily heaped upon them. In a free society, we can say nuns look like penguins and a bishop’s mitre looks like a tea cosy. Is Islamic clothing somehow immune from obloquy?

Boris Johnson was not mocking Islam, nor was he mocking Muslim women. Criticising the burqa and the niqab are different from lambasting Islam and its practitioners. But the ‘regressive left,’ as Maajid Nawaz would describe them, have forgotten that. If we cannot satirise and denounce this clothing that has such an unpleasant history, then the Islamists will be strengthened and their false sense of victimhood enhanced. If we want to say the burqa and niqab make the wearers look like beekeeper suits, tarpaulin, or as comedian Mark Lamarr once called it, “Satan’s postbox,” then we should have the right to do it.

Personally, the burqa and niqab make me uncomfortable, not because of the wearer, but because of what they represent. It represents the worst of religion. And to quote the polymath Stephen Fry, “Religion, shit it!”