It Was Always Islamophobia, Never A ‘Gaffe’: How Attention Is Now Being Deflected Away From Johnson

Chris Allen
Aug 9, 2018 · 4 min read

It’s interesting how quick coverage surrounding Boris Johnson’s Islamophobic ‘jokes’ about Muslim women wearing the niqab is being transformed.

While a handful of commentators continue to focus on whether his comments were Islamophobic (see below) or if he’ll apologise (I doubt it), some commentators and mainstream media outlets are already deflecting attention away from Johnson and onto Muslim women themselves.

Cue Sky Data.

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Yesterday it ran a poll about whether to ‘ban the burka’. That poll suggested that 59% of Britons support banning the niqab. Ironic that Johnson’s original article in the Telegraph not only set out to oppose “heavy handed attempt[s]” to ban the ‘burka’ — as in Denmark most recently — but also defend the freedom of Muslim women to wear the religious clothing they choose “in a public place” in Britain.

Today, Sky Data have published the findings from another poll, this time asking whether it is racist to say that Muslim women who wear the niqab look like “letter boxes” and bank robbers”. Accordingly, 60% of the public believe that it is not racist.

And so it was Muslim women who were at fault all along.

Should we be surprised that attention is being deflected and that the mainstream media would appear to be complicit? Not really.

As we saw with the recent #FreeTommy (Robinson) protests prior to him winning an appeal last week, while Robinson was imprisoned for contempt of court — and pleaded guilty to this — the emphasis of the media and right-wing was on freedom of speech. The same with Andrew Gilligan’s “hipster fascist” piece in the Sunday Times. Instead of being concerned by Generation Identity’s nationalist agenda and ideology, the piece was more concerned with the British leadership’s penchant for New Balance trainers and skinny jeans.

Appearing on talkRadio earlier this week, I was asked my opinion on Johnson’s comments. I said that I thought they were at once insulting, cowardly and extremely clever. My opinion hasn’t changed.

Undoubtedly Islamophobic, they were insulting in that they mocked, dehumanised and demeaned Muslim women who wear the niqab. Bad enough that he included a couple of playground ‘jokes’ in a national newspaper article that purported to be serious, the insults deliberately drew on wider tropes about the perceived oppression of Muslim women, the need to treat with suspicion, and how the niqab clearly has an ulterior motive.

It was cowardly in that he deliberately exploited the unprecedented platform afforded to him by the national media in conjunction with social and political privilege to mock and attack a tiny minority of women that have no opportunity for public recourse whatsoever. It was also cowardly in that he targeted a tiny minority of people who is known to be disproportionately targeted for street-level hate. It wasn’t in any way a fair fight.

Johnson’s mocking was also extremely clever. He knew that his ‘jokes’ — as did the editor(s) who gave the piece the go ahead — would appeal to the lowest common denominator in today’s Britain, affording him an opportunity to ride the wave of populism created by others on the radical right. He knew that it would bring him into conflict with the Prime Minister and the Conservative mainstream, confirming his position as a future leadership candidate ready for when May’s tenure comes to its end. He also knew that his comments would be picked up by the mainstream media that would eventually, begin to debate — again — whether the wearing of the niqab should be allowed in Britain.

And let’s not forget that by including all of this in an article arguing against a ban, Johnson would be able to rebuke criticism and accusations of Islamophobia by reminding us that he was in fact defending those same Muslim women.

While the mainstream media seem to love presenting Johnson as a loveable buffoon, the reality is that he is far cleverer and calculated than we are lead to believe. For this reason, don’t believe anyone who claims that his recent comments were mere ‘gaffes’. They weren’t. They were Islamophobic.

Which brings me back to conversations I’ve had over the past few days. One journalist in particular repeatedly asked me to explain why Johnson’s “gaffes” could be construed as being Islamophobic. Despite presenting a number of reasons, their reply was that this was only my “opinion” as there was no governmental definition of Islamophobia against which to assess it.

Despite repeatedly countering this with the fact there are no governmental definitions of racism, homophobia, sexism or disablism either despite the fact we all know exactly what these are, this sorry experience merely reinforced a somewhat depressing theory of mine: that the ongoing ‘need’ to define Islamophobia before we can understand it and then respond to it is utter nonsense.

A smokescreen created by Islamophobes, they have been able to deflect attention away from the realities of Islamophobia onto something that is in many ways quite meaningless and unnecessary. It is they who argue that Islamophobia is ‘different’ and ‘exceptional’ and incomparable to other forms of discrimination, bigotry and hate.

So the next time a public figure seeks to make ‘jokes’ or ‘gaffes’ about Muslim women or says something about Muslims they wouldn’t say about other minority religious communities, bear this in mind. Remind yourselves — and importantly others — that there would be far more merit in looking for Islamophobia in the treatment of Muslims as opposed starting another debate about how to define it.

If we do, then hopefully we’ll be able to shape the debate before it gets deflected back onto the victims that rarely have a voice.

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