I was going to observe a dignified silence over British MP Boris Johnson’s latest stunt. His aim was to gain attention and notoriety, and I didn’t think he deserved any help from me. But with a week gone and the story still being run prominently by BBC Radio 4, my silence must be broken.
The stunt was Mr Johnson’s regular column in the Daily Telegraph, published last Monday. I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to. Nobody disputes three salient facts. First that its subject was the banning of face-covering garments in public places, recently enacted by other European countries, such as Denmark. Second that Mr Johnson said that such bans should not be enacted here, based on good liberal logic. And third Mr Johnson expressed his dislike of such garments as worn by some Muslim women (the niqab, the face covering with a slit for the yes, and the burqa, a total body covering) by making two derogatory comparisons. Unlike the BBC, who do so at every possible opportunity, I will not repeat these here.
Deliberately or not, this was a very clever piece of work. The first fact allows Mr Johnson to claim that the article is part of an ongoing and legitimate political debate, and the second that his views on the subject are liberal. But the third picks up on public hostility to women who wear the burqa or niqab. It was what attracted all the attention, drawing condemnation from Muslim members of the Conservative Party, and admiration from those with less liberal views, and those who think Muslims have no place in this country. The timing was impeccable. The BBC had just given wall-to-wall coverage to the Labour Party’s troubles with antisemitism, so they could hardly downplay coverage of the story without being accused of bias. And, comfortably into August, there has not been much competing news; even the drought was abated by some welcome rain. Also Mr Johnson was on holiday, so he could evade interviews. As a politician that loves attention, things could hardly have gone better.
Could it damage him politically? That’s hard to see. His liberal comments allow him to maintain injured innocence; the people who are condemning him were by and large hostile to him anyway. Brexit supporters have stuck with him. And large parts of the white British middle and working classes are hostile to Islam, and his derogatory comments resonated well. This is especially true of Conservative grassroots members, who most suspect are the main audience he had in mind. Mr Johnson surely wants to take over from Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister. That ultimately depends on a vote by party members, should Mrs May step down or be forced out (not to be taken for granted). He is maintaining his already high standing with the grassroots. His main difficulty is his weak standing with MPs, who must pick the top two candidates for the membership vote. But his charisma far outshines potential rivals (except Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose standing among MPs must surely be even weaker) and he may yet be able to pick a path through that minefield.
The context is very depressing. Islamophobia is rife in Britain, as it is in most of Europe. Even respectable people can be heard saying that Islam is a repressive ideology, and alien to traditional British or European culture. Many people are open about this in a way that they are furtive about antisemitism – a bit like antisemitism in the 1930s. This is a remarkable turn of events. The British Empire included many Muslim subjects, who were recruited into the armed forces (especially in India) as they were considered to be good soldiers. These were then brought over to Europe to defend the homeland in both world wars. I remember my cousin, a senior colonial administrator in British Sudan, speaking warmly of Muslims.
It is not all that hard to see how the modern hostility came about, though. Militant Islamic terrorism, especially after the 9/11 attacks, is one reason. Muslims may regard these groups as nutters on the fringe of their society, but Islam is central to their identity, and they comprise a large part of what ordinary British people know about Muslims. And, over the last 50 years, there have been high levels of immigration from Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many people feel threatened by immigration, which becomes a scapegoat for modern ills generally. Many of these Muslim groups are conservative and have made little attempt to integrate. People find women dressed in the niqab or burqa, though rare, especially provocative. I have to confess that I’m not comfortable with them either – it seems insulting somehow. The real problem with Mr Johnson’s comments is that they will invite even more people to abuse these women in public. Indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Since the Brexit rebellion, hostility to all groups of immigrants has risen, and this has broken out into public abuse more often. It is why we all have to be careful in what we say.
Meanwhile most Muslims are good, law-abiding citizens, and harmonious integration proceeds apace. The fears of Islamophobes are fantasies. And yet it is these good citizens that will suffer the most. Mr Johnson well knows this (his family has Turkish roots after all), but he is happy to exploit anti-Muslim prejudice.
There are parallels with antisemitism. Just antisemitism disguises itself as perfectly legitimate criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, so Islamophobia masquerades as criticism of extremist terrorists, or conservative social customs, such as the niqab. Legitimate topics for political debate get subtly subverted. Mr Johnson’s subversion was particularly subtle – he just poked a bit of fun. Unfortunately this makes these legitimate topics harder to discuss.
So the anti-liberal backlash continues. I still believe that it will peak in Britain and other countries, and then turn. Partly this will be because the anti-liberals will be unable to deliver anything of actual value. But also I hope that liberals will buck up their ideas about how to help, and appeal to, left-behind people and places. Meanwhile we must call out prejudice when we see it.