Boris Johnson has once again got into hot water, and once again his comments have provoked furious reactions on both sides—agreeing and disagreeing with him—but I wonder how may actual read what Johnson said? It is worth reading (and worth the trouble of registering on the site) if only to know what it is that people are debating. The central line of his reasoning is that it seems to him paradoxical that in a country like Denmark, which appears to pride itself on a radical understanding of freedom that protects things we in the UK would find distinctly odd, the burqa is banned when that would be unthinkable here.
But of course Johnson hasn’t simply offered an argument; he has offered an argument using his swashbuckling and confident style of writing, which makes it very interesting to read but also makes it easily offensive. The offending phrase came in the description of the perception of those wearing burqas in the UK:
If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of “modesty”, notably the extraordinary exhortations of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who has told the men of his country to splat their women with paintballs if they fail to cover their heads.
Here Johnson sandwiches a flippant insult in between two or three pretty serious points, and this is where the main problem lies. Rowan Atkinson came to his defence, on the grounds that all views, including the religious, should be open to mocking in a free society:
As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.
I think Atkinson is quite mistaken here, not least because I think his parodies of Christian belief have been quite offensive even when they have been entertaining. And what both he and Johnson ignore is the impact that these flippant remarks by powerful men actually have on the women concerned. As my friend Anna Alls commented online:
I’m conflicted on this issue, yes I’m all for robust conversation and debate, I think jokes about Christians are funny and Frankie Boyle makes me howl in fits of inappropriate laughter. However I think there’s something deeply disturbing about a straight, white, educated, male making derogatory statements about Muslim women because they’re a minority group facing persecution. My head scarf wearing friends avoid public transport, get verbally abused while shopping regularly, I think the establishment figure of a politician should be looking for ways to make GB a safer place for headscarf wearing women than looking for ways to further incite mischief against them. This is a question of power to me and the fact that we have another ‘powerful’ person telling us we all need to chill out a bit actually makes me uncomfortable, he’s already the winner in this situation.
And several government ministers protested that Johnson’s comments made Muslim women feel threatened.
Apart from the direct impact that both Johnson’s comments and the debate about them have on groups of people within British society, there are three distinct aspects to the underlying issue at stake here: the religious, the cultural, and the personal.
On the religious, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, claimed that the row about wearing the burqa was similar to controversies about Christians wearing crucifixes. But, as Adrian Hilton pointed out, all this did was highlight Davidson’s ignorance.
A burqa is worn by Muslim women, not men, because throughout the patriarchal Islamic world women are invariably viewed and treated as inferior to men. A crucifix is worn by both Christian women and men, because in Christ there is neither male nor female. The burqa is a symbol of oppression and misogyny; the crucifix a symbol of liberty and equality. The burqa dehumanises, covers the face and conceals identity; the crucifix personalises, looks at God face-to-face and reveals true identity. The burqa has no quranic legitimacy; the crucifix is the nexus of biblical authority. The burqa symbolises Islamic extremism, militancy and divine separation from society; the crucifix symbolises passion, devotion and God’s participation in humanity. The burqa divides Muslims because it segregates and aggravates; the crucifix unites Christians because it saves and sanctifies.
This leads to the second issue: that the burqa is not so much a religious symbol but an expression of a particular culture, a subset of the culture of Islamic countries. Its use does have some basis in the Qur’an:
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah 33 verse 59)
“And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarves (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful”. (Surah 34 verse 31)
An obvious response to these verses is to note that the responsibility for sexual temptation is apportion to women as the temptresses, rather than men as the tempted. But the interpretation that this requires the wearing of the burqa is based on the idea that a woman’s face is the most attractive part of her of all, and therefore modesty requires covering the face as well as everything else—thus leading to a fairly complete social segregation between men and women in public. This interpretation belongs to the Salafist branch of Sunni Islam, which is closely related to Wahhabism, both of which are seen as literalist, fundamentalist and puritanical, and in both of which ‘jihad’ is understood to include violent attacks on non-Muslims. It is therefore no wonder that many of the countries that have banned the burqa have done so in response to the threat of jihadist Muslim violence. This connection makes Johnson’s flippant comment that women in burqas ‘look like bank robbers’ highly inappropriate.
The third issue is one that Johnson has come slightly closer to getting right.
As for individual businesses or branches of government – they should of course be able to enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers; and that means human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.
In Western culture, we are used to see people’s faces, and facial expression is a vital part of communication and interaction. In our culture, because those who cover their faces typically only do so because they offer some sort of threat, or are in a situation of conflict and need to remain anonymous, then we naturally feel threatened, and the other seems depersonalised. But in this regard, our culture is surely in line with basic realities of human life. Recognising facial expressions, and learning what they mean and imitating them, is the most primary form of development in infants. And those who are not able to recognise facial expressions and interpret them appropriately struggle through life.
And this is where the British conversation about ‘acceptance’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ runs into deep trouble. All cultural and religious traditions actually express, in an embedded way, values about what it means to be human. If you think it is humanising to be ‘inclusive’, but your ‘inclusion’ has no actual content, should you be ‘inclusive’ of things which are dehumanising? Even more basically, what does it mean to have a national identity, and what does it mean to be hospitable to other identities? I must confess to being rather baffled by aspect of the current BBC British Asian culture season. One of the trailers asked ‘Is British culture flexible enough to embrace Asian culture?’ and the obvious answer is ‘no’. If to be British means also to be Asian, African, American and every other culture in the world, then it doesn’t actually mean anything. The question should be ‘Is British culture hospitable enough to welcome and accommodate other cultures?’ and the question then arises: how do liberal values of what it means to be human relate to cultures (like that of Salafi Islam) which appear to dehumanise one part of their own society?
The ideas of welcome and inclusion need to have actual content. In Denmark they appear to understand what that means, so that some aspects of other cultures are welcomed in the country, but others are not. In Britain (perhaps because of our imperial past and our lingering guilt about that?) we appear incapable of making the same judgements. As long as we remain incapable, we will have these irresolvable arguments about Johnson’s comments—and those caught in the middle will continue to suffer.
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