Boris, Burqas, free speech, and Islam

Have we all lost our mind?

On Monday, Boris Johnson wrote in his weekly Telegraph column about Denmark’s recent Burka (or more commonly worn Niqab) ban. To be fair to Boris, his article outlined the illiberalism around banning it. But the backlash surrounding comments in the article centre around two phrases he used to compare women in veils; “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.

There’s a number of issues to unpick around Boris’ comments. First, let’s look at why people are objecting to his comments. I think the main criticism is not the criticism of the Burqa itself, of religion and Islam, or even ridiculing the Burqa. Those that are criticising Boris seem to find issue with aiming comments at Muslim women. Muslim women, in particular visibly religious women, make up the majority of anti-muslim hate-crime. I don’t think there’s an overwhelming number of people saying that you can’t criticise religion or the burqa. Rather Boris shouldn’t have compared innocent Muslim women to ‘bank robbers’.

But shouldn’t have is different to saying he he couldn’t. Boris’ comments seem to have also started a debate about free speech. But what is free speech? Seems a simple enough idea, and it is. Boris, just like anyone else has the right to say what he did. But free speech is the right here. He’s not immune from criticism. He’s not free from people saying he shouldn’t have said it. No one should question his right to say it. But whether he was right to say it. He should know that his words carry weight, that he has a responsibility to act with sensitivity. I don’t want my politicians, of any stripe, to think that they don’t have a responsibility to keep society united and harmonious; politics should not be about relishing in dividing society.

The Jewish Chronicle put it best with their editorial “Imagine the outrage if a leading politician — a man, indeed, who could well be our next Prime Minister — had been revealed to have spoken sneeringly about Chasidic Jews, attacking their clothes and hats and implying that they somehow did not belong in Britain.”.

While Boris’ comments were offensive, could be harmful, and sow disunity, I don’t think they constitute Islamophobia but we have seen plenty of examples of Islamophobia within the party, comments such as a Conservative councillor appearing to support Muslim’s internment and a councillor appearing to call Muslim’s parasites (not sure you can say comparing Muslim’s to parasites is a criticism of Islam). I don’t, however, think the party is institutionally Islamophobic. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have called for an inquiry, and it’s true they’re perhaps not the most representative group, as highlighted by Sajid Javid, but they haven’t been alone. Baroness Warsi has called for one, leading Imam’s, Tell MAMA and even the Conservative Muslim Forum. This isn’t just the MCB, this is Muslims across the country, including Conservative members.

Boris’ comments, the idea the burqa and Islam can often morph into theological debates. We seem to be having theological debates alongside political debates but here we are. There’s the idea of oppression. I think it’s hard to deny the niqab, burqa, hijab, chador etc are often used as tools of oppression in Middle Eastern against women and their freedom. If you haven’t checked out My Stealthy Freedom yet, I’d definitely recommend it. Not sure anyone wouldn’t champion those seeking freedom to live how they wish. But what about other societies. Men can still force women in the UK, and the West, to wear and act in a certain way. There’s no doubt this is also oppression. But what about the idea behind the clothing being a symbol of oppression, and therefore should be banned (an idea a number of people have supported including Nadine Dorries). I think that’s where it gets complicated.

I definitely have sympathy with that argument. Islam, and religion in general, is inherently patriarchal and misogynistic. However, banning it because of the symbol of misogyny engulfs a whole load of religions. It removes agency from the women themselves to choose themselves. Women may be following a patriarchal belief system, however many religions operate with a patriarchal structure. Catholicism, Judaism, clear strands of patriarchy. The ingrained religious misogyny stems across many faiths and isn’t a reason to ban women fo the faith from wearing the burqa/niqab.

The debate stemming from Boris’ comments has now involved ‘leading Imams’ coming out in support of a ban.

I don’t make major comparisons between Boris’ comments and Labour’s antisemitism problems (antisemitism much more horrific than Boris’ insensitive remarks) but this is the Muslim equivalent of saying “ah! Look at this fringe Jewish group that thinks there is no issue with antisemitism at all”. The ‘leading imam’ is a fringe character. Taj Hargey links halal food to extremism, blamed imams for grooming gangs, and blames British Muslims for not calling out terrorism. He’s entitled to his views but ridiculous to give him a platform as a leading imam when he’s so far away from the mainstream.

The parallels with Labour’s antisemitism problem doesn’t end there. The way that some Corbynites cheer when Labour MPs, concerned by antisemitism, call it out. Some Corbynites accused Tom Watson of being disloyal when he said Labour could “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment” if it didn’t deal properly with antisemitism. Responding to Watson’s concerns, some Corbyn-supported started the hashtag #ResignWatson. Similar trends can be seen in Conservative MPs concerned by Boris’ comments. Comments such as “Let’s hope Boris becomes leader to get rid of this turd” or tweets like the one below.

People gleefully talking about Brexit when MPs like Grieve threaten to resign over Boris’ comments if he became leader are similar to those on the hard-left that revel in the idea that a Corbyn-sceptic Labour MP threatens to leave the party of Labour’s anti-semitism.

Even if you think Boris’ comments are harmless, why would you by happy that it’s offended a minority community and MPs are worried about that? Why would you revel in that? Similar parallels can be found when Conservative MPs think Boris’ comments aren’t great and people highlight they voted Remain and are undermining a Leaver. This is akin to a Labour MP that is critical of antisemitism and people jumping on them saying “you didn’t back Corbyn!!!” or the like.

Of course there are massive differences between Boris’ comments and antisemitism. Boris’ comments were offensive. Antisemitism is ugly, dark and dangerous in itself. Jewish people are a racial group, while Islam and Muslims are a religious idea, that should be open to scrutiny and debate. I would say those that do say that “Islam isn’t a race” are copping out however. It may not be a ‘race’ but it doesn’t stop it being linked, it doesn’t stop racists from shouting anti-Muslim hate when they see a brown person. So when talking about religion in public, on a platform that Boris has, it’s important to do it carefully and responsibly.

A silver lining out of this whole sage has been the way Jewish and Muslim groups have backed each other up. Already references the brilliant Jewish Chronicle editorial, the Board of Deputies and Tell MAMA both stood shoulder to shoulder in standing up to hate. It’s my Jewish friends that have understood best the nuances and issues with Boris’ comments and the debate surrounding it.

Below is a tweet that sums up the solidarity between Muslims and Jewish people over this.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Boris should face an investigation or be suspended. You’re allowed to debate the burqa and ridicule religion. Just think he should, as a senior politician, know that his words carry weight, that he has a responsibility to act with sensitivity. Boris is a smart man. He should know his comments may inflame tensions and toxify a serious debate.

With little real debate about the burqa, he may have had the right to say what he did but whether it was wise and helpful is another question.