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Boris Johnson is in hot water again. The almost-candidate for leader of the Conservative Party and one of the chief architects of the official Brexit campaign, is now facing an internal party investigation and widespread criticism over an article he wrote in The Telegraph.
In the week following the article, The Guardian alone published 42 different pieces and cartoons covering the matter. That’s an average of six per day. With this plethora of public criticism, opinionated objections and rally cries for a resignation, you could be forgiven for not having time to read the article that started it all. However, why would you need to? Surely having read the discussion of the article, you would know exactly what it was all about? Indeed, Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of the anti-Muslim hate organisation, Tell Mama, has said that ‘[t]here is a direct link with Mr Johnson’s comments and an impact on visibly Muslim women’, following a spike in incidents that involved women wearing face coverings. Surely if people have been inspired to hurl abuse at Muslim women, whatever he said or however he said it must have been racist or incendiary?
But let’s take a step back and re-examine Boris’s article, starting with the headline:
‘Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it’
There’s a lot in that headline, to think about, to twist, to extrapolate along the lines of what we assume Boris will have said or will be thinking. Just like you could be forgiven for not having read the article, you could also be forgiven for assuming that Boris had called for a ‘burka-ban’ when in reality, he critiques the act of ‘telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear’. Boris cites an incident where the Danish police imposed a fine on a woman – the first woman to suffer the legal consequences of a new ban on face-coverings. ‘What has happened’, he invites us to ask, ‘to the Danish spirit of live and let live?’
His most controversial paragraphs acknowledge criticisms of Islamic face-coverings. These are not well characterised by the few words that seemed to have caused outrage. He concedes he thinks it ‘absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes’. However, he simultaneously notes an absurd example of how Muslim women are forced to cover their faces in various parts of the world: Chechnya, where the head of state has praised vigilantes for shooting uncovered women with paintball guns. Boris also mentions that he ‘can find no scriptural authority for the practice’. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Muslim women in the UK don’t wear them.
In the second of these paragraphs, he says that schools ‘should be allowed to converse openly’ with their students if they ‘[turn]up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber’, meaning they should be able to mandate that the student uncover their face. Boris doesn’t actually say that woman wearing niqabs or burqas look like bank robbers. He merely asks us to consider whether we think schools should be within their rights to ask a student to reveal their face. It’s also worth pointing out that the government advises schools that they are well within their rights to do such a thing, even if the student is in fact wearing an Islamic face-covering.
It’s ironic, given all that’s followed his piece, that he later warns banning the burka would ‘play into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations’. How funny those words must read to him now, with people attributing blame to him for others abusing Muslim women wearing religious dress. How funny, now that an opposition MP is reporting him to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for implying he might refuse to meet with a constituent who doesn’t lift their veil. How funny it must seem to the Brexiteer that UK legislation can be thought to make such a thing illegal, while the European Court of Human Rights upholds blanket bans on wearing face-coverings in public.
There are many ways we could have responded to Boris’s article and its slight mockery of Islamic garments. We could have welcomed his arguments for liberty and his rebuke of street violence against a woman ‘seen wearing a niqab in a shopping centre’. Instead, we constructed a new Islamophobic Boris who inflames tensions and inspires the far-right. If we were truly worried about what Boris had said, surely the last thing we’d want is to make him worse by removing the context and pretend his mockery was disgusting and brazen?
I am reminded of a panel I attended about liberty and offence after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As it turned out, over half the room hadn’t seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, with one man stating that he didn’t need to see them as he’d already heard enough about them and thought they were the product of racists. But he could easily have held the opposite belief depending on where he’d heard about them, given Charlie’s reputation as left-wing, anti-racists.
And so I’m left wondering, have the critics actually read the article? If not, I wonder where they might have heard about it from, and what picture of Boris Johnson those sources painted…