Boris Johnson and the burqa cypher

Few have sought to engage with Johnson’s views on the issue on a non-superficial level.
Thursday 09/08/2018
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson talks during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland, last June. (AP)
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson talks during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland, last June. (AP)

The issue of the burqa returned to the headlines in the United Kingdom with a vengeance after former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson caused a storm of controversy following the publication of a newspaper article.

Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson said Muslim women wearing burqas “look like letter boxes” and compared them to “bank robbers.” He said that, despite this, full-face veils should not be banned in the United Kingdom.

Johnson’s colourful language, rather than the issue of whether the burqa should be banned, became the main topic of conversation, with op-eds and editorials bashing or backing Johnson. The phrase “Tory Islamophobia” trended on Twitter. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, one of the Conservative Party’s most high-profile Muslims, accused Johnson of making “hate crime more likely” while Lord Mohamed Sheikh, another senior Muslim, called on the Conservative Party to kick Johnson out.

Johnson’s comments and the controversy around them reveal the fragile nature of British politics when the government is amid tortuous Brexit negotiations and the Conservative Party is desperately clinging onto power.

The juxtaposition between Johnson’s inflammatory language and the recommendation not to back a burqa ban are interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that few have sought to engage with Johnson’s views on the issue on a non-superficial level, rather than seeking to use the uproar to score political points.

“If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree — and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Quran,” Johnson wrote.

Where is all the analysis on this point? Do Warsi and Sheikh agree or disagree?

While the burqa has been a hot-button issue in many European countries, such as France and Denmark, where the full-face veil is banned, this has never been as controversial in the United Kingdom with few outside of fringe parties backing a ban. Even Johnson acknowledged that supporting a ban would encourage radicals.

So why has Johnson chosen, in almost his first comments after his resignation as foreign secretary, to court such controversy?

The answer is simple. Boris Johnson is doing what Boris Johnson does best: Keeping his name in the headlines and ensuring his political future. That political future includes securing the sympathy of those on the right wing who say political correctness has gone too far.

“Keeping a high profile is important to Mr Johnson,” said BBC political correspondent Susana Mendonca, analysing the furore. “He is seen by some in the Conservative Party as a contender for leadership — particularly since his resignation in which he criticised the prime minister’s plan for Brexit.”

This was summed up even more succinctly in a tweet from Times columnist David Aaronovitch: “Britain today: a furious argument about a non-existent problem started by a notorious attention-seeker.”

The uproar about Johnson’s comments is more intense because the Conservative Party is facing mounting calls to convene an Islamophobia inquiry, part of a campaign championed by the largest Muslim organisation in the United Kingdom and backed by many senior Muslim politicians and public figures.

However, the fact remains that the supposed examples of Islamophobia made by a few Conservative MPs and councillors pale when compared to anti-Muslim statements routinely being made by elected officials in France, Italy, Austria and elsewhere in Europe.

League party leader Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, has described Islam as “incompatible” with European values, threatened to shut down mosques and warned that Italian culture and society are “at risk” from Islamisation. His comments led to the far-right party’s best election results.

British Prime Minister Theresa May quickly backed calls for Johnson to apologise, saying that his remarks “clearly caused offence.” UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said Johnson should have chosen his comments with greater care and Middle East Minister Alistair Burt acknowledged there was “a degree of offence” in Johnson’s language.

“It is helpful at this point to pause for a moment and explain the role the burqa plays now in political discourse,” wrote Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik on the same day as Johnson’s comments. “It is now merely a device, a symbol for people to appear muscular or to telegraph, as it were, a message. The issue of the burqa itself, its merits, demerits, whether it is worn by choice or through coercion, is now meaningless.”