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Reaction to the ‘Boris burka row’

October 2018

Boris Johnson

In August, Boris Johnson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph saying the ‘burka is oppressive and ridiculous, but that’s still no reason to ban it’. In his article he described those who display only their eyes as ‘looking like letterboxes’. The commentariat exploded into a frenzy of outrage. Here is a selection of quotes from some of the more sensible and thoughtful responses, including secular voices.

Carl R Trueman — First Things

The controversy highlights two serious matters. First, it underlines the problem of fundamentalist Islam for the Western Left. The veil puts women in their place — not a very Leftist idea, one would have thought…

It is some years since Nick Cohen, perhaps Britain’s most impressive radical journalist, offered his moving lament on the Left’s betrayal of itself through its hatred of the West, and especially of America. Gone was the traditional socialist concern for the poor and working class. Identity politics was far more important. And any regime, country, or cause, no matter what its domestic record on women, gays, or other minorities, was deemed worthy of support as long as it hated the West…

Second, Johnson’s article reveals that the burka presents a challenge for the Right… I want to see the face of the woman who is standing before me and to whom I am speaking, because a fundamentally different relationship obtains then than would obtain if her face were covered. I am tempted to say that I should typically have the right to see her face… The debate over the burka is a reminder to conservatives that religious freedom is not in practice an unqualified right, nor should it be.

Brendan O’Neil — Spectator blog

Boris didn’t victimise any minority. He defended their rights while also criticising the choices they make. Is criticism of minority practices a thoughtcrime now? Does this mean we cannot criticise the Ultra Orthodox Jewish sect, Belz, which has members in London, and which forbids its female members from driving? Can we not criticise Jehovah’s Witnesses over their attitude to blood transfusions? Would these criticisms be prejudice too? Belzphobia, perhaps? Anti-Jehovah’s hate speech? Or is it only Islamic practices we can’t question?

… As to those comparing Boris’s comments to some of the anti-Semitic comments made by elements within the Labour Party — please, you’re embarrassing yourselves. You cannot compare anti-Semitism, which is the racial hatred of an entire people, with public criticism of one small and actually quite contested aspect of the religion of Islam.

That is like comparing the white supremacist who thinks all black people are inferior with a cultural critic who simply doesn’t like the use of the N-word in gangsta rap. The former is racism, the second is criticism. As it is between Corbynista anti-Semitism and Boris’s comments on the niqab: the former has the whiff of racial hatred, the latter is perfectly legitimate commentary on a religious practice.

Archbishop Cranmer — archbishopcranmer.com

A number of clergy (quite a few, actually) have expressed their disgust at Boris Johnson’s disparaging of women who wear a burka. In comparing them to letterboxes and bank robbers, he clearly caused offence (or people chose to take offence), and cries have gone up of Islamophobia (notwithstanding his being of Turkish-Muslim heritage). The Bishop of Liverpool said Boris’ similes were ‘dreadful’ (or is he saying Boris is dreadful?); the Bishop of Bradford said his similes were ‘harmful’. But this isn’t a post about Boris, bishops or similes. Nor is it a post about bandwagon-jumping.

It is simply to ask these bishops (and other anti-Boris bandwagon-jumping clergy) why they so readily pour scorn and brimstone upon Boris’s head, but remained totally Trappist when Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said she wouldn’t let a woman wearing a burka look after her child or elderly mother; and when the Guardian mocked the garment mercilessly as a scary Halloween costume, a fire-blanket and a letterbox; and when the BBC broadcast that very same ‘letterbox’ simile; and when Polly Toynbee said the burka was like something sinister out of a horror film (or three horror films, actually), and ‘an instrument of persecution… a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality [because it] transforms any woman into an object of defilement too untouchably disgusting to be seen’? Is it not preferable to be likened to a letterbox than to be judged ‘untouchably disgusting’?

Peter Hitchens — Mail on Sunday

How we love fretting about the wrong thing. While the country convulses itself about Islamic face veils, a truly disturbing event, affecting our freedom and our future, goes almost unobserved. This is the creepy and totalitarian treatment of a Christian nurse, Sarah Kuteh, sacked from an NHS hospital for daring to suggest that a patient she was treating might like to go to church and (horror of horrors) ‘inappropriately gave a Bible to a patient’. The good news is that Ms Kuteh, whose abilities as a nurse have never once been questioned, has now been allowed back to work by the political commissars who increasingly control our country…

To regain the favour of the commissars, she has had to write a ‘reflective’ screed in which she ‘incorporated your obligations in relation to having clear professional boundaries and not expressing your personal beliefs in an inappropriate way’ and ‘set out the steps you have taken to address the deficiencies highlighted in your practice. You have addressed how you would act differently in the future’. In other words, she has confessed her thoughtcrime and promised not to repeat it.

… I doubt the same horrible process would have been imposed on a nurse who suggested her patients attended a mosque, or gave them a copy of the Koran. For while the British state loathes Christianity, it fears Islam. So do lots of other people. It is this fear that has driven much of the stupid frenzy which followed Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson’s not especially funny or original remarks about niqabs, burkas and letterboxes.

… As it happens, I have quite a lot of sympathy with some bits of Islam. On a visit to Iran I was much impressed by a beautiful and highly intelligent young woman, a schoolteacher, who made out a powerful case for modesty in dress, and clearly had not been forced by her husband (very much her equal) into the night-black robes she wore. I’ve come across similar views in Turkey and Egypt. Forced veiling is another matter, but I cannot see that state bans or public jeering are going to make much difference to that.

We have Muslim fellow-citizens among us, for good or ill. They are our neighbours. We’re going to have to work out a civilised relationship, in which we can talk frankly to each other. I’ve never found any of them upset by serious argument. Many are saddened by much of what they see around them. So am I. Many wish this country was more Christian. So do I. One of the supreme achievements of a free civilisation is the ability to disagree without hating your opponent. We need to relearn it.

Paul Goodman — conservativehome.com

The burka and the niqab are expressions of a certain kind of Islamic fundamentalism. Unlike the hijab, the headscarf that is a feature of mainstream Muslim practice, and worn by millions of devout Muslim women worldwide, the niqab and burka cover the face. They are thus at odds with modern norms about women’s freedoms — and sometimes associated with views that are at odds not only with social integration but with liberal democracy itself.

This presumably explains why other European countries such as Germany, France and Belgium … have introduced bans for the face-covering burka and niqab. Which brings us to Johnson’s recent Daily Telegraph article about whether we should do the same.

The former Foreign Secretary once said that writing a column can be like hurling a brick over a fence, and waiting for the tinkle of broken glass. By first dangling the prospect of a ban, and then snatching it away again, the piece was designed to match the biggest possible tinkle with the smallest possible breakage. But that there were any shards at all only highlighted the difference between what columnists and politicians do — conventional ones, anyway.

For while breaking glass is all in a day’s work for journalists, most politicians specialise in papering over the cracks. They don’t say (as Johnson wrote) that ‘it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes’. The column was bound to be flung at Downing Street and CCHQ, complete with accusations of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice.

So what should Number Ten have done? It isn’t wisdom after the event to suggest roughly as follows. A) Say that it didn’t agree with Johnson’s illustration, and understood why some people found it offensive. B) Point out that, nonetheless, he was making a serious argument — much the same as that put by the author of the government’s own review into integration. C) Add that the burka and niqab aren’t worn by the majority of Muslim women in Britain.

In short: ‘we don’t agree with the way he put his case, but it is arguable that he had a point’. That would have quelled the controversy within a day outside specialist Islamic media outlets (and the Guardian).

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