Philadelphia Has a Burqa Crisis?

Daniel Pipes’ wrong-headed plan to stop “Muslim garb” crimes in Philadelphia.

muslim-garb

[UPDATE: Daniel Pipes has responded to Joel Mathis in the comments.]

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was a dude dressed like a nun who tried to rob a Philadelphia Wells Fargo Bank this week. What would be the reaction?




Would we become scared of Catholics? Would we consider curtailing their rights and religious practice? Would we call for a full ban on veils and habits?

Or would that all just be a silly, massive overreaction?

Remember your answer. And keep that in mind next time you hear from Daniel Pipes — which will probably be soon.

Pipes, after all, is the Philadelphia writer who runs the Middle East Forum website. He’s not a celebrity in the city, but he is well-known in conservative circles — he’s spent a fair amount of time on Fox News — arguing against radical Islam. Which doesn’t sound so bad (hey, we all remember 9/11) until you realize that he counts as “radical” just about any modest expression of Islamic faith in public life.

Consider this scene from a 2007 Philly Mag profile of Pipes, in which he worries that Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota will no longer be required to carry passengers who are carrying booze with them. Such rules, he suggests, threaten America’s way of life:

ON THIS AFTERNOON in early October, Pipes has just finished hammering out a piece for the New York Sun, where he has a regular column, concerning a group of Muslim taxi drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who have demanded the right to refuse to pick up passengers carrying alcohol. Instead of simply canceling the drivers' licenses or asking them to forfeit booze-laden fares, airport authorities are considering a compromise: Drivers will be allowed to place an extra light on their roofs signaling their willingness to ferry the offending cargo. “From the airport point of view, this is completely satisfactory,” explains Pipes. “Passengers are not stranded. Taxi drivers are content. But from the larger point of view, this has incredible implications: The sharia is now in effect in Minneapolis airport with two different lights. … Think of all the people the drivers might not want to take: Hindus, homosexuals, unmarried couples. … I mean, where does one stop?”

American conservatives — particularly of the war-making neocon stripe — tend to lap this stuff up, though you’ll notice that they never apply the same logic to, say, Hobby Lobby, pharmacists who don’t want to dispense birth control, or even cake makers who don’t want to serve gay weddings. Yes, it would be awful if Americans providing public service refused to serve homosexuals, wouldn't it?

What does all this have to do with bank-robbing nuns? Well, full confession: That aforementioned Wells Fargo Bank was actually robbed by a man wearing a niqab — female Muslim garb. And you won’t be surprised to learn that Pipes is having none of it.

He hasn’t commented on this week’s incident yet. But for a year-and-a-half, he’s been steadily documenting the phenomenon — such as it is — of niqab-wearing men committing robberies in Philadelphia. Before the latest event, he had documented 17 such incidents in seven years, leading him to proclaim the city “the capital of the Western world as regards female Islamic garb as an accessory to crime.”

His headline? “Philadelphia’s Burqa Crisis.”

Some crisis: If this week’s robbery makes 18 incidents in seven years, that’s still less than three crimes a year where the technique has been used. I’m not sure that three robberies even counts as a bad week in Philadelphia.

More problematic, though, is what Pipes would do about all of this: “This problem has an obvious solution: Ban the niqab and burqa in public places, as the national governments in France and Belgium have recently done.”

Well, sure. Clearly the First Amendment doesn’t apply to Muslims, does it?

It does? Well, maybe somebody should tell Pipes: Niqabs don’t rob people. People rob people. We don't even know if the robber was Muslim, only that he wears the clothing. It's not the same thing.

Pipes’ views on this issue wouldn’t matter if he weren’t so influential. And the question might not be so resonant if conservatives and liberals weren’t already in a battle over the limits of government, religious expression, and public life that threatens to make hypocrites of us all, depending how we contort for one side and against the other. (Do I favor requiring Hobby Lobby to provide birth control coverage to employees while contesting Pipes’ proposal to ban the niqab in the name of public safety? Yes. The difference for me? Hobby Lobby doesn’t have a soul. It can’t go to heaven. Individuals do. It’s an important distinction.)

So maybe this is simply a good place to apply both logic and the Golden Rule. Crimes using Muslim garb as a disguise are so infrequent as to be nearly nonexistent. And if we get eager to infringe on somebody else’s religious decisions, we should ask ourselves: “What if that was me and my religion?”

We don’t always do a good job of asking that question. This time, though, it’s easy: We wouldn’t take a nun’s clothing away over such a trifling provocation. Let’s not do it to our Muslim neighbors, either.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

 

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  • Dude

    Um, a catholic habit does not cover the face….

  • Oliver

    In Saudi Arabia, everyone wears those getups, but they don’t have a problem with bank robberies. Hmmmm…could the problem be the gun and not the getup??? I wonder why Pipes doesn’t suggest we ban guns instead of getups??? Because, you know, getups don’t kill people, guns do.

    • Not in favor of gins

      In Saudi Arabia they cut off your hands for stealing and you your head for murder. Just a thought.

      • Oliver

        Yea, I know that’s what Americans think of Saudi law. But it’s a gross exaggeration – they do have the death penalty, but they do not cut off hands for theft. I mean, after all, they could say the same thing about murderers in USA, couldn’t they?

  • http://www.phillymag.com/ Philadelphia Magazine

    Daniel Pipes responds to Joel Mathis:

    In his article “Philadelphia Has a Burqa Crisis?” Joel Mathis dismisses my call for a Philadelphia ban on niqabs and burqas from public places.

    I make this call because 18 crimes – including murder and the abduction-rape of a small child – have taken place in the Philadelphia area over the past seven years, each of which one way or another depended on Islamic full-head-and-body coverings as accessories.

    Mathis dismisses my concern with three arguments: These crimes are “so infrequent as to be nearly nonexistent” and they are but “a trifling provocation.” He compares niqabs and burqas to nuns’ wimples, implying they are harmless. And he raises 1st Amendment rights freely to express oneself with whatever clothing one wants to wear.

    To which I reply:

    · Tell the victims and their families of those 18 incidents that the pain and grief they suffered are “nonexistent” and “trifling.” Let me know how they respond.

    · How many niqab-and-burqa-assisted assaults must take place before you no longer dismiss this problem as “nonexistent” and “trifling”?

    · There have been many fewer than 18 terrorism incidents in Philadelphia over the past seven years; to be consistent, you must also call for the dismantling of the huge and expensive counterterrorism infrastructure that protects the city. Will you do so?

    · The Catholic wimple covers only the hair, leaving the face visible; its Islamic counterpart is the hijab, which I do not seek to ban. There is no way males could put on a nun’s wimple and look anything but absurd. In contrast, the niqab and burqa are effacing tent-like garments which allow, say, machine guns to be invisibly transported. There simply is no comparison.

    · As for 1st Amendment rights, anti-face-covering laws have been on the books for a century across the United States (mostly intended against Ku Klux Klan garb); to the best of my knowledge, these have never been struck down on freedom-of-expression grounds.

    · This is not about the right to express one’s Islamic beliefs but about public safety. Walking around in a niqab or burqa is far more threatening. Question for Mathis: if you owned a store, would you buzz in someone wearing a ski mask?

    Yours sincerely,

    Daniel Pipes

    • Joel Mathis

      I’m grateful to Daniel Pipes for responding to my piece. Since he poses a series of questions, let me answer them:

      • “Tell the victims and their families of those 18 incidents that the pain and grief they suffered are “nonexistent” and “trifling.” Let me know how they respond.”

      I’m certain that each incident was traumatic for each person concerned, and I don’t want to downplay that. Still, as a sum total of Philly crime, 18 incidents over seven years is so minuscule that to call it a “trifle” might be granting the phenomenon too much weight.

      In 2012, there were 7,984 robberies in Philadelphia. Let’s say all 18 of the niqab incidents took place in that year: 18 incidents would constitute just two-tenths of one percent of one category of crime — that doesn’t include all the crimes in Philly. Now spread that over seven years: Statistically speaking, Pipes’ documented niqab-burqa-wearing crimes are all but nonexistent.

      * “· How many niqab-and-burqa-assisted assaults must take place before you no longer dismiss this problem as “nonexistent” and “trifling”?”

      More. That’s all: Just more.

      * “· There have been many fewer than 18 terrorism incidents in Philadelphia over the past seven years; to be consistent, you must also call for the dismantling of the huge and expensive counterterrorism infrastructure that protects the city. Will you do so?”

      If any directly impede the ability of citizens to practice their religion as they see fit, we should certainly think about it. I’m not against defending against terrorism. I am against unduly burdening civil liberties against extremely remote threats.

      * “· The Catholic wimple covers only the hair, leaving the face visible; its Islamic counterpart is the hijab, which I do not seek to ban. There is no way males could put on a nun’s wimple and look anything but absurd. In contrast, the niqab and burqa are effacing tent-like garments which allow, say, machine guns to be invisibly transported. There simply is no comparison.”

      Perhaps the nun example wasn’t my best comparison. I was thinking more in terms of the First Amendment’s religious freedom rights than in face coverings, admittedly.

      Mr. Pipes here has pulled a bit of a bait and switch. True, many nuns wear a wimple and modern skirts … but it’s not been so long since most nuns habits — flowing tunics of the sort that would be … awesome to carry machine guns under.

      And if flowing, tentlke garb is the problem, we’d probably want to ban mum us and loose sweatpants as well. Except: I don’t think Mr. Pipes’ purpose here really is to offer a defense so much as it is to burden practitioners of Islam. His proposal makes the most sense viewed in that light.

      • “· As for 1st Amendment rights, anti-face-covering laws have been on the books for a century across the United States (mostly intended against Ku Klux Klan garb); to the best of my knowledge, these have never been struck downon freedom-of-expression grounds.”

      As Mr. Pipes well knows, the First Amendment governs not just freedom to express oneself, but the freedom to practice one’s religion more or less as one chooses, and it’s odd that he would ignore the clear religious discussion in my original piece. And in the case of freedom of religion, America and its courts have been extremely deferential to the religious. Anybody want to suggest that a corporation can invoke religions to evade federal mandates on birth control, but that courts wouldn’t allow an individual to dress as she thinks is pleasing to God?

      Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, anything is possible. Maybe Hobby Lobby *will* be more free to practice Christianity than Muslims will be to make their own small demonstrations of faith. That wouldn’t be surprising. It would be disappointing. And wrong.