Monday 6th August 2018. The Telegraph publishes an article by the former foreign secretary opposing a ban on niqabs and burkas in the UK. In that same article, Boris Johnson goes on to refer to Muslim women wearing such headwear as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” – comments which, since the article’s release some weeks ago, have led to a media storm, backlash from his own party, and, many argue, an emboldening of Islamophobic voices. But just what was Johnson trying to say; and what are the likely long term implications of his words?
In the article in question, Johnson opposes a full ban in the UK, claiming that it would be interpreted as “intended to make some point about Islam”. The ex-foreign secretary also asserts that he disagrees with “telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business”. However, he argued that some “restrictions” did seem “sensible”, and it is from these – or rather, from Johnson’s lively and bombastic language – that controversy has arisen.
Johnson argued that a woman who turns up to school or university “looking like a bank robber” should be asked to remove their burka or niqab, just as Johnson said he would feel entitled to ask the same of a constituent who attended an MPs surgery. He also added that businesses should be able to enforce this in their dress code.
His apparent defence of a woman’s right to wear a burka was further undermined by comments that “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”, and that it was “weird” to do so.
Since the article was published, there has been outcry from the public, media and politicians alike. Johnson has been called on to apologise by Theresa May, Lord Eric Pickles, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi amongst other senior Conservative figures. He is however yet to do so.
Johnson has been called on to apologise by senior Conservative figures – he is however yet to do so.
The Conservative party has issued an independent panel to investigate the complaints made against Johnson and to ascertain whether the party code of conduct has been breached. In the meantime, Johnson remains MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and The Telegraph continues to publish his weekly column.
The Conservatives and Islam
Johnson’s comments have led some to question future relations between the Conservative party and Muslim voters.
Historically, British Muslims have been far more likely to vote for the Labour party than the Conservatives on the whole. In the 2015 general election, it is estimated that just 25% of Muslims voted for the Tories, whilst 64% voted Labour. In addition, in the 2017 election, all of the 25 constituencies estimated to have the largest Muslim populations re-elected Labour MPs with increased majorities.
Furthermore, numerous allegations of Islamophobia within the Tory party have arisen. In May 2018, the Muslim Council of Britain wrote an open letter demanding internal investigation within the Conservatives following what it describes as “more than weekly occurrences of Islamophobia in the party last month”.
Johnson’s article seems to have further perpetuated a narrative of prejudice within the Tory party, and some party members argue that this is self-sabotaging. Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who became the first female Muslim cabinet minister in 2010, has previously suggested that a loss of support amongst Muslims and ethnic minorities has contributed to the Tories losing ground in recent elections.
Strengthening voices of intolerance?
Whilst many public figures have been quick to express their disgust at the comments of what they see as a “pound-shop Donald Trump”, many have also defended the former foreign secretary.
Numerous polls conducted since the article hit headlines have indicated that a majority of the public don’t believe Johnson need apologise. Results from a ComRes poll published in the Sunday Express revealed that 53% of those surveyed felt the MP shouldn’t face punishment, whilst a Sky Data survey indicated that 60% of respondents thought his comments were not racist. The Daily Mail also reported that the vast majority of its reader’s letters supported Johnson’s comments.
Johnson’s article seems to have further perpetuated a narrative of prejudice within the Tory party
Many defendants of the article feel that it was simply an expression of free speech- a freedom often in contention with political correctness. However, the concern for others is that Johnson has diminished the freedoms of those at the brunt of his jokes.
In an article written for The Guardian, Baroness Warsi expresses her fear that by belittling Muslim women, Johnson has validated the views of the alt-right, leaving British Muslims more vulnerable to hate crime. Indeed, there is evidence to support this. Boris Johnson’s official Facebook page has become flooded with Islamophobic comments in recent weeks. The online abuse includes worrying inflammatory attacks on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and calls to ban Islam. And this comes at a time in which hate crime is on the rise. In 2017 there were 1,201 reported Islamophobic attacks in the UK- the highest number on record and a 26% increase on the previous year.
For a man who was one of UK’s key representatives to the world until a matter of weeks ago to demean those that fall victim to these attacks with relative impunity may very well cause voices of intolerance to become louder and potentially more aggressive. Many share Baroness Warsi’s fear that “the odd bit of toxic campaigning ends up in attacks on our streets”.
Doubtlessly, Johnson’s article was an almost genius work of rhetoric. In it, he presented a liberal argument in favour of expressive freedoms, written in the language of the alt-right. His refusal to apologise, perhaps frighteningly, implies that his choice of wording was not incidental. Instead, it seems deliberately divisive at a time when the Conservatives and wider post-Brexit society are already deeply fractured, and also perhaps represents an attempt keep his name in the headlines following his resignation from his powerful cabinet position.
Yes, freedom of speech is foundational to democracy and must always be defended, of course. But is it not the case that free speech exists to protect citizens against their governments?
This is not only entirely irresponsible of a powerful politician – it is extremely dangerous.
Because this seems to be a case of a politician attacking a group of citizens to gain political ground. Johnson’s exercise of freedom of speech appears to have taken a minority group as collateral in order to galvanise voters’ support from the right. This is not only entirely irresponsible of a powerful politician – it is extremely dangerous.
Towards the end of the article which has sparked so much debate, Boris Johnson writes that we must not “play into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations”. The irony (or not) is, that in his calculated words and his subsequent refusal to apologise, it seems that it is Mr Johnson himself who has done exactly that.