I dressed up in a burka to wander around the streets of Canterbury recently, to see what level of Islamophobic abuse and discrimination I suffered from the infidel locals. This was a groundbreaking piece of campaigning journalism done at the request of the Sun newspaper, which had bought me an XXL black nylon burka just for the job. I still have the burka and wear it on occasions, when nobody else is in the house. It frightens the dog. It yaps and yaps at me, with an uncomfortable expression on its face, exactly the same expression it uses for wasps. Wasps the insects, not Wasps the ruling and oppressive hegemony: it doesn’t mind them.
Anyway, the burka thing went OK until the police got involved. Up until that moment, the infidels of Canterbury had done nothing more Islamophobic than look at me funny, a bit like the dog does, and on occasion step out of my way with exaggerated deference as I lumbered along the pavement. So when the patrol car approached and I was asked to identify myself I thought, look, here’s a proper story, Muslims can’t even walk the streets without being given the once-over by the plod, it’s a scandal, etc. I started to make my liberally inclined protestations to the copper and he explained that someone had rung them up saying there was 15-stone transvestite northern bloke in a burka, carrying a bright yellow Prada handbag and stamping around the centre of town on the very day Justin Welby was to be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury, something’s going on. I forgot to mention that, the enthronement bit, didn’t I? And also the handbag — which I’d thought was the final, utterly convincing touch to my disguise. All about detail, journalism, you see.
But it occurs to me — and in fairness, it occurred to me at the time — that this was the reason people looked at me funny. Because I appeared absurd. Not because I was a Muslim, but because I looked more like someone taking the piss out of Muslims — which really hadn’t been the intention. ‘Probably be better if you took that thing off,’ the copper said, patiently, while some armed monkey from the anti-terror unit hovered in the background in a macho manner, walking about bow-legged like he was constipated.
All these slightly embarrassing details came back to me when I watched a local BBC documentary on the programme Inside West, which is produced in Bristol but is no less a prisoner of the cringing bien-pensant London mindset than the BBC’s national output. In the edition I saw the team claimed that they had uncovered horrible Islamophobic discrimination in Bristol and linked this, in the intro, to lower levels of employment among youngish Muslim men than among youngish infidel men. What followed was, of course, arrant crap. They sent two similarly aged journos, one dressed normally, the other kitted out in Muslim hat and Muslim beard and Muslim robes, but with identically fabricated CVs, to chase a bunch of jobs and claimed that the disparity which resulted — the infidel got offered more jobs than the Muslim — was evidence of grotesque discrimination. The first job, as I remember, was working in a bar, serving alcoholic drinks. If you ran a bar and someone who seemed to be an observant and pious Muslim came in for a job, you’d have your doubts, wouldn’t you? Uh-oh, I thought, as the documentary unfurled: next it’ll be a post in a pork-pie packing plant, followed by a job as security guard at the Israeli embassy. But in fairness, the next bunch of jobs involved working in supermarkets or driving vans and the result was pretty much the same — the Muslim bloke was dealt with politely and not offered a job. The clean-cut young non-Muslim was, in most cases, hired almost on the spot. But still, but still.
You see, while some regional journo might be forgiven for believing he’s stumbled across a great story, just like Woodward and Bernstein, I think this is less a case of institutionalised Islamophobia than — as one of the Bad Racist Employers actually explained it later — a simple case of employers finding it easier to get on with the bloke who wasn’t dressed in a manner which set him apart from 97 per cent of the population. Because whether we like it or not, appearances matter in job interviews, especially interviews intended to select people who will be dealing with the general public.
This is no more racism and Islamophobia, I would suggest, than the same sort of thing which you read in your daily newspapers about the brain-dead lummox from, say, Barnsley who complains that she was denied a job on account of all the tattoos on her face, or the multiple piercings, or her fantastic, almost magical obesity.
None of us, not even Guardian leader writers (try turning up for an interview there wearing pink cords and a tweed jacket and carrying a hunting horn) can put aside first impressions; it is how we as humans are genetically programmed to react. I think the proposal to ban the burka is a grotesque infringement of personal liberty; but by the same token, if you dress in a way to emphasise your difference to the norm, don’t be surprised if you’re afforded fewer job opportunities as a consequence.