‘Mr. Bean’ Backs Boris on the Burka

Comedian Rowan Atkinson said Boris Johnson should not apologize for saying the burka looked like a letterbox
August 10, 2018 Updated: August 12, 2018

Rowan Atkinson, the comedian who played the iconic Mr. Bean, said that prominent UK politician Boris Johnson shouldn’t apologize for his joke about the burka, the face-covering attire worn by some Muslim women.

Johnson had been under fire for days over an article in which he criticized the recent ban on the burka in Denmark, but also added some critical remarks about the face-covering, including that it made women look like “a letterbox.”

Atkinson, one of Britain’s best-known comedians, who starred in “Jonny English” and “Blackadder,” said in a letter to the Times that “all jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them.”

Johnson, who is considered the favorite to replace Prime Minister Theresa May as Conservative Party leader, has been accused of stoking “Islamophobia” by some members of his own party.

He is currently facing investigation for potentially breaking his party’s code of conduct with the remarks.

Two women wearing Islamic niqab veils stand outside the French Embassy during a demonstration in London on April 11, 2011. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

But Atkinson described the joke as an “almost perfect visual simile.”

Writing to the Times, he said, “Sir, As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one.

“You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

‘Uniform of Medieval Patriarchal Tyranny’

The burka and niqab are banned in France, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, and some parts of Germany.

Denmark’s ban was enacted Aug. 2, with a 28-year-old woman already having been arrested for breaching the new law.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at a press conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray in London, on Oct. 19, 2017. (Reuters/Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool)

Johnson said he supports a ban in limited circumstances, but that a total ban would “play into the hands of those who want to politicize and dramatize the so-called clash of civilizations.”

Some Muslim organizations and leaders have criticised Johnson for his remarks as “racist” or “islamophobic.” But with full-face veils already a controversial issue within the Muslim community itself, other Muslims support Johnson’s remarks.

Only a very small proportion of Muslims wear the burka or niqab—less than one percent, according to Dr. Omar Khan, director at the Runnymede Trust, a think tank that deals with race equality. Estimates range from 3,000 to 14,000. (The UK population is around 65 million).

Reformed Islamic extremist Maajid Nawaz, who once founded an Islamic extremist organization, described the burka as a “uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny” that “victim-blames women for their beauty.”

“I’m not advocating banning this monstrosity, but I refuse to defend it,” he wrote on Twitter. “It deserves to be ridiculed.”

To some analysts, Johnson’s article—and the particular choice of words—was a finger in the wind by a would-be prime minister, with opinion polls already suggesting that the majority of Brits would support a ban on the wearing of the burka.

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Supporters of Johnson have said that the flood of criticism was a witch hunt from inside and outside the party, driven by those who are nervous about him as a potential leader.

Johnson hasn’t spoken on the issue since the article was published on Aug. 5, but aides are reported to have said he has no intention of bowing to calls to apologize.

Complaints within the Conservative Party triggered an investigation into whether he broke the Party’s code, according to a party source, Reuters reported on Aug. 9.

Johnson recently resigned from his position as foreign minister over the government’s “soft” stance on Brexit—in doing so, staking out a position to the right of the prime minister and escaping the proverbial straight jacket of his ministerial role. A poll on Aug. 1 by Conservative Home gave him a 10-point lead over rivals to replace May as party leader.