Philadelphia Has a Burqa Crisis?

Daniel Pipes' wrong-headed plan to stop "Muslim garb" crimes in Philadelphia.

[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.