British comedian Rowan Atkinson has been severely criticised by fans and former colleagues after coming out in support of Boris Johnson’s recent remarks on women wearing burkas, which have been described as inflammatory and “Islamophobic”.

The 63-year-old actor, known for his comedy performances in Mr Bean and Blackadder, said Johnson’s political remarks were “funny”.

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – caused outrage earlier this week after describing Muslim women wearing veils as looking like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said his comments risked “vilifying Muslim women”and described them as “inflammatory and divisive”. Boris Johnson stood by is comments, despite facing a possible investigation into breaches of the Conservative Party code of conduct.

But comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson came to the former London Mayor’s defence.

Comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson has described politician Boris Johnson's "inflammatory" comments towards Muslim women as "funny"Eva Rinaldi
Comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson has described politician Boris Johnson’s “inflammatory” comments towards Muslim women as “funny” in a letter to The Times

In a letter to The Times, Atkinson noted:

“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.”

He added: “All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. ‘You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

However, former colleagues and fans of the Johnny English star condemned his remarks, calling him out for failing to differentiate between comedy and political oppression.

A Muslim woman wearing the face veil, known as a 'niqab' but often mistaken for a "burqa"Steve Evans
A Muslim woman wearing the face veil, known as a ‘niqab’ but often mistaken for a “burqa”

Writer Richard Littler felt Rowan Atkinson was naive in being unable to differentiate between a comedian making jokes about religion and a politician supporting very dangerous right-wing political discourse.

“While I’ve always agreed [with] Rowan Atkinson that we should be allowed to joke about religion & be free to offend, I don’t think Boris was joking as such. His comments play into the much wider issue of accelerating populism & the tacit endorsement of far-right political discourse,” he wrote.

Twitter user Fosh added: “Boris isn’t a comedian, he wasn’t making jokes to make people laugh he was using the language of the far right and deliberately othering Muslim women because it plays to the racist Tory base.”

Public historian and author Greg Jenner, who has worked with Rowan Atkinson, stated:

“I worked with Rowan Atkinson on Horrible Histories. I wrote a song for him. I’ve never seen anyone dissect comedy with more forensic precision. He’s fastidiously meticulous about joke mechanics. But in this case he’s failed to see *why* Boris Johnson made that Burka reference.”

Radio host James O’Brien tweeted:

“Call me psychic but I have a feeling Rowan Atkinson isn’t going to be subjected to the usual ignorant right-wing insistence that wealthy ‘luvvies’ should stay out of politics…”

While disability activist Liz Coys responded:

“My view of Rowan Atkinson has completely changed. I’m disgusted that anyone would defend Boris Johnson’s comment let alone someone so high profile. Kids that love Mr Bean are watching a man they look up to defending racism. Shameful.”

Satirical journalist alter-ego Jonathan Pie – creation of comedian Tom Walker – wrote:

“I always found Blackadder to be predominantly white men childishly lampooning the history of other white men. That show would thankfully NEVER get made in these enlightened times. Thank God. And Rowan Atkinson it turns out is an Islamaphobic CUNT! Surprise Surprise. #OUTRAGE”

Award-winning journalist and author Hugo Rifkind commented:

“Rowan Atkinson is normally worth listening to on speech, but he seems to have missed the point with Johnson. Usually, when he defends religious jokes, he does so on the basis that they are just jokes, where humour is the aim, and thus aren’t doing precisely what Johnson was.”

S. J. Watson, author of New York Times bestseller Before I Go To Sleep, didn’t feel Rowan’s comments made sense in light of the context of the current political climate.

“Rowan Atkinson’s comments would make sense if they were referring to a joke a comedian had made. But they’re not. It’s not a politician’s job to make jokes, no matter how incompetent he is,” he wrote.

The “burka” is the name commonly but mistakenly used in Britain to describe a loose garment worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in the UK, which includes a face veil (niqab) and a long gown, known as a ‘jilbab’ or ‘abaya’.

Although the combination of clothing are frequently referred to as a “burka” or “burqa” by political and media commentators, the term actually only refers to the full-body gowns worn in parts of Afghanistan; an item of clothing rarely seen on British streets.

Rowan Atkinson has previously spent years campaigning against legislation making inciting religious hatred an offence.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which became law in 2007, was repeatedly attacked by free speech campaigners prior to becoming law.

The law was designed to punish extremists who incite religious hatred – to protect faith groups, particularly Muslims, from attacks – but Atkinson described it as a ‘wholly inappropriate response’. At the time, Atkinson claimed aspects of the legislation could stifle freedom of speech.

In light of Rowan Atkinson’s latest comments, many on social media have highlighted that the comedian’s brother Rodney Atkinson stood for the leadership of UKIP, but there is no indication Rowan is a supporter of the right-wing political party, commonly associated with former leader Nigel Farage.

Meanwhile, Rowan Atkinson has had some support, including from former Daily Mail writer Toby Young, who earlier this year resigned from the Office for Students after misogynistic and homophobic Twitter comments attributed to him were uncovered.


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