For those who don't recognise the name, Pat Condell is the "comedian" often found advertised on Richard Dawkins' website. I've actually known people to be surprised to hear that he isn't a celebrity here in Britain. His only claim to fame is his youtube videos which he's now actually begun releasing on DVD. He's gained a following amongst atheists who fancy a laugh at the expense of uptight religious fanatics. Unfortunately he's not anything like in the same league as John Safran or as subtle (yes, I'm serious). It was part of his initial appeal that he pulls no punches in his rants, however more recently his rants have sounded more and more like the typical right-wing closet-racist mentality in the UK.
The latest video from Pat Condell makes use of typical Daily Mail prejudice. The topic? Not only that we should ban the burkha, but that women are doing an injustice to women's rights by failing to decry a woman's right to wear it. Pat Condell takes up the mantle of liberator of women both now and in the ever-precious future through his insistence that we demand that it be illegal to wear it.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Pat's video is his claim that the problem is women deciding to disguise themselves. If we were sure that women only ever wore the burkha through their own free will rather than being pressured into doing so by oppressive patriarchy then I don't quite see how it would be a problem (and I certainly cannot see how it would be the women's fault). As for the idea that is mentioned later that the burkha should not be allowed to be worn in banks, I've never heard anything so ridiculous. As Pat is keen to remind us, wearing the burkha is like wearing "a mobile tent". Now imagine a bank robber trying to make a getaway carrying their bag of swag while wearing it. They'd be lucky not to fall straight onto their (covered) face.
Worrying too is Pat's use of emphasis for effect. It often seems quite hostile, but more importantly it can give a very dodgy (and supposedly unintentional) meaning to his words:
Well this week there’s been quite a lot of talk about the burkha or the nikab or whatever you want to call it. I’m talking about the neurotic need that some women have to walk around everywhere in disguise.
"Some women" eh? So much for the feminist champion Pat claims to be later on in the video. If the whole point of this rant is to victimise some women suffering from neuroses, it doesn't fit with the supposedly noble cause Pat claims to be calling for by the end.
Apparently, according to Pat, a more healthy society where everyone is honest would not require this ban because everybody's reaction to unfamiliar styles of dress would be ridicule and condescension. Sadly, what he is describing is not far from the actual situation and it's only thanks to those of us with simple human decency that it isn't even more of an issue for Muslims in Britain.
If we were a more honest society, and therefore a more healthy society, there’d be no need to ban this ridiculous outfit because it would already have been ridiculed out of existence.
Honest and healthy? More like bigoted and unpleasant.
Pat's first major argument appears to be that there is nothing in the Qu'ran which demands that women dress in this fashion, covering their face. That might be worth mentioning, certainly, but religions aren't simply based around scripture. In fact I'm pretty certain that EVERY religious tradition bases itself around more than scripture. Within the Christian tradition we would have to do away with rosaries, monasteries, bishops, crosses worn round the neck, holy water, and even arguably the doctrine of the trinity if Christians are only allowed to follow teachings found within their holy book. It takes a certain type of protestant Christianity to insist that scripture is the only thing which dictates religious tradition and I'm pretty sure their hypocritical in the process. Within Islam it is quite a conservative belief that religious tradition should be based not only on the teachings of the Qu'ran, but also on the actions and sayings of the prophet found in the hadiths and on top of that rules which are derived from these.
What would have been more helpful would have been an argument that the Qu'ran actively contradicts this passage (and I have certainly known Muslims claim that women are not supposed to have their faces covered according to Islamic teaching). However, this would involve putting in a good word for moderate Muslims which Pat wants to decry as 'enablers' (as we'll see in a moment).
In reply to the claim that the burkha is done to demonstrate modesty (rather like the kachhas in Sikhism), Pat's response, fairly reasonably, is that wearing "a mobile tent" is going way beyond modesty. Unfortunately that's where the reasonableness ends. The next stage of Pat's rant is to claim that all women who wear the burkha are ungrateful immigrants who hate British culture and should go back home.
Modest people don’t draw attention to themselves by dressing up in a mobile tent just to rub it in the face of a culture they despise, but for some reason insist on living in.
Now let's accept for the moment (to be as charitable as possible) that women who wear the burkha are disturbed by the commercialised and material world and wear this style of dress to withdraw. How is that different from the attitude of nuns? But then again, maybe Pat is an equal-opportunity bigot. Perhaps he would tell nuns to go to the Vatican if they aren't entirely happy with modern culture.
Islam is responsible for the terrorist threat in the same way that Christianity is responsible for the death of Dr. Tiller. Yes, there's a link. No one is doubting that. But it's not a simple 1:1 relationship. Religions have a huge degree of internal diversity and even overlap with one another. Terms like "Christianity" and "Islam" bracket together similar kinds of religious devotion, however their expression will depend greatly on the culture and location in which you find them. Daniel Maguire is a Roman Catholic Christian and he strongly believes in his faith and the tradition of his Church. Nevertheless, he isn't going to condemn a man for performing abortions. Similarly just because someone follows the religion of Islam doesn't mean they're in favour of the burkah either. People's views about religion will differ. Nevertheless, plenty of people actually are talking about the burkha being a security threat. It's mentioned all over the place. What we could do with is a little more respect for the women who are actually wearing the damn thing and Pat does not feel inclined to contribute to this since it would conflict with the "healthy and honest" world he wants us to live in.
Pat has the audacity to claim that women who wear the burkha are condoning the oppression it is often used to achieve. That they are enablers. But what is Pat enabling? It wasn't so long ago that there was a big hoo hah over politician Jack Straw insisting that women uncover their faces when they speak to him. It was rightly pointed out in Straw's defence that he was not insisting that women do away with the burkha or nikab, but rather that within certain scenarios it might be necessary to remove it for pragmatic reasons. He certainly wasn't insisting that we forcibly unveil Muslim women, but unfortunately that was the sentiment that developed. This, it seems to me, is where the other side of the coin really comes into play. If you ban the burkha isn't this just another example of women having their rights limited by a patriarchal over-zealous authority? In the end shouldn't this be about choice. In Iran they have seen both sides of this coin, going from being forcibly unveiled to forcibly veiled and the debate today in Iran is much over personal freedom than this nonsensical issue in France of whether the burkha should be banned or not. (And let's not forget that in France there is a lot of racial tension in regards to those with Algerian roots which might influence the debate there.)
Pat also asks why feminists aren't talking about this. Clearly he hasn't bothered to look. Feminists are talking about this all over the place. Some will agree, some will disagree and most will recognise that the debate is far more complicated than he is making it out to be. In any case, Pat's criticism isn't really over silence but inaction. If we don't agree with Pat and actively campaign for the burkha to be banned we are morally culpable. It's at this point where my conspiracy theory alert starts ringing:
ZOMG THE MUSLIMS ARE TAKING OVER!
Seriously, allowing women the right to wear the burkha is not wearing down women's rights. We are still going to strongly criticise people being forced to wear clothing against their will and the chances of the burkha causing bad effects for anyone outside the religion of Islam is around about nil. There is an issue of the burkha being forced on Muslim women against their will and there is an issue of the burkha as a negative result of indoctrination. Nevertheless, to insist that this will have consequences for the daughters of 'western women' is pure shock tactics. This whole idea that Islamic ideas are going to take over the country and undermine our liberties is nonsense. The labour government is in a much better position to do that than any Muslim....