Burkha or bikini?

by Mary Jackson (September 2006)


All too often, when non-Muslims venture to suggest that the burkha, abaya and niqab are oppressive to women, back comes the retort, “Well? Your women dress in bikinis/like sluts/half-naked/naked.” In fact, while I regularly see women swathed in black with slits for their eyes in such everyday places as the supermarket, I have yet to see any naked or bikini-clad shoppers. Were this to happen, some of the rich Arab men you see swaggering down Oxford Street with shrouded trailing wives might suddenly discover feminism and take to doing the weekly shop. Be that as it may, the implication of this reaction is that the only alternative to oppressive veiling is near nudity. Burkha or bikini? Niqab or naked? Slits or sluts?


A recent documentary about British converts to Islam featured a niqabed young Scottish woman, whose broad Glaswegian accent seemed incongruous with her appearance and words. This dozy bint – my term for a Western woman who assumes the yoke of Islam – had married a Pakistani and gone to live with him in Pakistan, as his second wife. When asked if she minded being a second wife – and what woman would not mind? – she snapped, “Well? Western men have lots of affairs.” The alternative to polygamy must be promiscuity. The alternative to austerity and oppression must be wild hedonism. Not Sharia or Shakespeare, but Sharia or Celebrity Big Brother.


Non-Muslims fall into this trap as well. Ian Bell, writing in The Herald about the reaction of the holidaymakers boarding the Malaga to Manchester flight to the two Arabic-speaking “Asians”, asks rhetorically:


Who would you rather sit beside on a flight from Malaga? An obnoxious Mancunian drunk, or a pacific, and perfectly innocent, young Muslim?


Pacific and perfectly innocent versus obnoxious, Mancunian and drunk? A tough call. Of course, this is not the choice that we are faced with. A number of Muslims subsequently found to be terrorists might have been described as “pacific”, or “innocent” in their demeanour. In fact one reads so often about how quiet, devout and studious they were. Quietly devoted to studying the verses of the Koran that promise paradise to “martyrs” as a prelude to blowing themselves up in a crowded place.

Islam is not a religion that allows compromise, whether in women's dress or in politics. Any softening, any doubt or weakness and the whole house of cards could collapse, for what cannot bend must break. Many argue that Christianity is also uncompromising. As regards salvation, perhaps it is. But it has always had to compromise in this world, since separation of Church and State, of God's and Caesar's, is essential to Christian doctrine. Not so Islam, where there is no separate sphere for religion. As Theodore Dalrymple put it in a recent article in City Journal:

The specific (and baleful) contribution of Islam is that, by attributing sovereignty solely to God, and by pretending in a philosophically primitive way that God’s will is knowable independently of human interpretation, and therefore of human interest and desire—in short by allowing nothing to human as against divine nature—it tries to abolish politics. All compromises become mere truces; there is no virtue in compromise in itself. Thus Islam is inherently an unsettling and dangerous factor in world politics, independently of the actual conduct of many Muslims.

I agree wholeheartedly. As Ibn Warraq said, there are moderate Muslims but there is no moderate Islam. A distinction should be made, not between fundamentalist and moderate Islam, or between Islam and "Islamism", but between Islam the ideology  and Muslims the people. Muslims may or may not practise Islam. To the extent that they practise it, they are a danger to society. If they do not practise it, or practise only certain rituals, but do not renounce it, the true Islam remains intact for the next generation to discover.

The fundamental question is whether Islam as a private faith would still be Islam, or whether such privatization would spell its doom. I think it would spell its doom. In this sense, I am an Islamic fundamentalist. The choice is between all and nothing.

A bleak conclusion, but a realistic one. All or nothing. Burkha or bikini. Islam or the West.

Back to our fellow passanger on the flight. To paraphrase Churchill, while the Mancunian may be obnoxious and drunk, tomorrow he will be sober. For you, your fellow passengers and the pacific, innocent-looking Muslim sitting quietly beside you, there may be no tomorrow.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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