By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
13 August 2018
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
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
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.
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
New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in
Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In
Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women
in West, Islam Women and Feminism
is not without a foundation as I have explained in my article:
Islam's Relationship With The Rest Of The Word - The
Current Problem Of Extremism In A False Ideology And The Antidote From An
Authentic Understanding Of The Truly Humanistic Message Of The Quran
Twin Problems of Growing Extremism and Islamophobia
false ideology of the traditionalists and the extremists
1. Kafir means non-Muslim/disbeliever
2. The Prophet was fighting battles against
the disbelievers to end disbelief. It is our duty therefore to wage holy war
until there is no more disbelief
corresponding ideology of the Islamophobes and of those from among the extreme
right and the neoconservatives:
1. Terrorist means Muslim
2. Since the terrorists are out to get us, we
should get them before they get us.
the viewpoints are equally illogical and unjustified but together, they support
and maintain each other. There are vociferous voices among the Muslims who speak
of imposing sharia all over the world. While the number of people holding such
views may be a small fraction of the total population, it is enough to poison
Islamophobia exists and it must be fought against by changing ourselves where required and remaining firm where required. The solution cannot be changing our religion or non-observance of essential tenets of Islam that do not affect others in any way.
The burqa has also become a symbol of defiance and a symbol of protest
and many of the western women accept Islam because Muslim women wear the hijab
and they do so the moment they convert. Ironically, the burqa/hijab in the
west, is taking the form of feminist protest like the burning of the bra was in
the sixties which is why it offends western sensibilities so much. It makes
their women appear naked in comparison, and the fact is that the western woman
exposes more of her skin than her male counterpart to appear desirable to men. The
western culture brazenly exploits its women sexually. Read the article below
which advises just how much of skin to expose to maximize the sexual
Therefore, go for the burqa bold woman! Just go for it! There is a time to strike a balance and a time to protest.
The author has difficulty making a distinction between defending a
Muslim's right to practice a dress code or whatever and defence of the practice
itself. A person does not have to love a burqa clad woman to defend her right
to wear one.
One may argue that Islamophobia is rational or justified but it cannot
be denied that it exists. He asks why do we not talk about Christophobia. Because
it is not as common as Islamophobia or as intense or become as problematic. Has
the author asked himself why there is no equivalent of Islamist? Is it
Christianityist or Judaismist?