By Arshad Alam*
All hell seems to have broken loose with Boris Johnson calling Burqa clad women as looking like letter boxes. He also said that their appearance reminds him of bank robbers. Not content with such ridicule, he also called the Burqa oppressive for Muslim women. Now this is not the first time such a statement has come from a European leader. Conservatives and people from the far right have said much worse things about the Burqa in particular. Predictably, Boris Johnson and his statement has been called Islamophobic and there have been calls to throw him out from the conservative party.
The Muslim face of the conservatives in Britain, Baroness Warsi has in fact used the occasion to ask the Tories to look into their inherent Islamophobia and what she calls anti-Muslim bias. So far, despite pressures from his own party, Boris Johnson has refused to apologise. There can be many reasons for this downright refusal and the calculations of the conservative party to win over far right voters may be one of them. However, there is also a need to dispassionately analyse the brouhaha around his statement and ask ourselves what in the world constitutes Islamophobia in the first place.
Simply because Muslims do not like something which is being said about their religion, does it automatically become an example of Islamophobia? And after all, what is the definition of the term? Many people are positively averse to Christianity and Muslims certainly do not have very good things to say about Judaism but then we do not have a word like Christophobia or Judophobia. So why should there be a word like Islamophobia and who coined it in the first place. We also need to ask if the word in itself has no meaning then what purpose the nomenclature serves? Who benefits from the usage of the term and what is its intended target? Who ever invented the term, it is the leftists and the Islamists who are very fond of using this word.
The problem is compounded by the fact that left politics in Europe and elsewhere seems to buy into this discourse and has been very fond of using the word Islamophobia itself. We live in a strange world today: where the leftists and the Islamists are making common ground. Few decades ago it would have been unthinkable that the left would go all out to support a blanket defence of Islamic traditions or for that matter of any other religious tradition. The Muslim question has been linked with the question of migration, dispossession and therefore it is granted that there is a common cause to be made with Muslims. However, to go so far as to defend the Burqa and some deeply problematic Muslim demands like segregation in schools are perhaps going too far. The left is not being true to its political principles. In trying to defend a people, it ends up defending a system of ideas which otherwise everyone should be free to critique. And that’s the crux of the problem. We need to make a distinction between Islam which is a system of ideas and Muslims as flesh and blood people. While there should be no problem with critiquing any system of ideas including Islam, denigrating an entire people should be condemned roundly.
With this difference in mind, let us revisit the so called distasteful comment made by Boris Johnson. What he said was that women in the Burqa resembled letter boxes.
First things first. His comments are not for women who veil themselves using a headscarf. In this kind of veiling, the face is visible and human interaction and communication is possible. In short, there is inter-personal communication. It is naturally expected that people make eye contact in order to fully comprehend the situation at hand. The full face Burqa, on the other hand, blocks communication as only the eyes are visible. So whereas the women in question can see the facial expressions of the person whom she is talking to, the same is not true for the other person. Very much like a letter box where after postage is dropped, it cannot be retrieved, communication with a Burqa clad women resembles like one way traffic. So what is wrong with the comparison? If anything, the comparison was very apt. Secondly Johnson called the Burqa as oppressive for Muslim women.
Now, except the Islamists and misplaced feminists, who could have any argument with that? The simple reason for calling the piece of garment oppressive is that it denies freedom to women to interact with fellow humans as human beings.
The idea behind the Burqa remains in force even after decades of women’s liberation: that they are a ‘thing’, a private property which needs to be hidden from the sight of the others. No questions are asked as to whether women themselves want it. Granted that, some women want it out of religious conviction: that Islam mandates women to dress in a particular way. But then that cannot be a defence. There are women who uphold and in many ways become the forebears of patriarchy. Do we stop and say that they are exercising their choice and that choice should be respected? Definitely not. And the feminists will, and rightly so, be the first to oppose such an internalisation of masculine ideology.
So why is it that the same set of feminists fall silent when it comes to Islam? If Islam mandates the wearing of Burqa, as most Burqa advocates suggest, then critiquing Islam becomes the next logical progression. After all, how does one critique the Burqa without going into the religious justification for wearing it?
To be fair to Boris, he never said that Muslims are like the scum of the earth, they should all be deported. He did not say that all Muslim women look like letter boxes. What he did say was about those Muslim women who wear the Burqa and defend it in the name of Islam. What he was ridiculing therefore was not the community per se, but a part of the religion of Islam.
Now if someone says that critiquing Islam in all its manifestations amounts to Islamophobia then he or she is plainly wrong. As a system of ideas and an ideology, Islam or for that matter any other religion, should be the object of ridicule and critique if anyone so desires. History tells us that ideas have been criticised throughout history and it is only through critique that ideas adapt and bad ideas are weeded out. In fact, Islam itself started as a critique: critique of corruption within Judaism, Christianity and polytheism. So why is it that any criticism of Islam is taken negatively now? There is no reason why people should be stopped from criticising Islam.
While the manifest function of the bogey of Islamophobia is to construct the religion as beyond the pale of criticism, its latent and perhaps the more important function is to stem the tide of internal criticism. Increasingly, we are witness to a growing clamour for reform within Islam and some of these very powerful voices are coming from Muslims themselves. From Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, reformist Muslim voices have been jailed or simply eliminated. Essentially reformism seeks to challenge the stranglehold of the conservatives or radical Islamists over the community and therefore critique is nothing but fundamentally a political struggle. The bogey of Islamophobia comes handy for the orthodoxy to silence its critics, both externally but more so internally. It is time perhaps that the liberal left does rethinking about this whole issue of Islamophobia. In their defence of orthodox Islam, they are abandoning the progressives within the community and in the process ending up upholding some of the most pernicious manifestations of this religion.
*Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist, where this article was published.