by LAUREN CODLING
PRIME minister Theresa May has been cautioned against “whitewashing” any inquiries on former foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s remarks about burqas, as a leading charity has warned hate crime aimed at Muslim women had spiked since his divisive comments.
In a letter on Monday (13), the Muslim Council of Britain said no one should be allowed
to “victimise minorities with impunity”.
Conservative MP Johnson compared women in burqas and niqabs to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” in a newspaper column earlier this month, sparking a debate among fellow politicians and community leaders.
May criticised Johnson’s comments last Wednesday (8), stating his remarks had caused offence and it was “wrong to have used [the] language”.
Calls for an urgent inquiry by the Conservative party have been made by leading politicians such as Tory peer and former party chair Baroness Warsi, who has previously accused the governing party of harbouring Islamophobic views. The Conservatives deny the allegation.
Lord Sheikh, the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said last week that Johnson should have the whip withdrawn.
Labour MP Rushanara Ali said Johnson’s comments were an “indefensible and dangerous attempt” to stir up hatred towards Muslims at a time when Islamophobia has spiked in the UK.
“Johnson is pandering to the far-right instead of standing up for British values such as the protection of minority rights, including freedom of religious expression,” Ali, who represents Bethnal Green and Bow, said.
Fellow Labour MP Rupa Huq, who represents Ealing Central and Acton in London, shared
Ali’s sentiments, calling Johnson’s comments “deliberately calculated and divisive”.
Meanwhile, Tell Mama, a national project which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents
across the UK, has reported a spike in incidents of abuse aimed at Muslim women since the comments were made public.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE, the founder of Tell Mama, confirmed a “direct link” between the politician’s comments and an impact of Muslim women.
“Mr Johnson thinks his flippant comments were funny, and while his comments were about
the burqa, perpetrators see any visibly identifiable woman and off they go with their bigotry and prejudice,” Mughal said.
The Muslim Council of Britain also confirmed they had received hate mail which referred to the same derogatory language as Johnson used in his column.
Mohammad Yasin, a Labour politician representing Bedford, told Eastern Eye it was “unacceptable” women have been subjected to abuse due to Johnson’s comments.
“His unnecessarily offensive and calculated comments were not about opening a fair and honest debate, but an insult to women of a minority within a minority group,” Yasin said.
“We have now had over a week of public comment and opinion and political argument within government over whether it is acceptable to sneer at Muslim women in religious dress.
“In my view, this is precisely the divisive conversation Mr Johnson knew his comments
would provoke in the country.”
Labour MP Afzal Khan told Eastern Eye he had called for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the
Tory party for some time now, but had always “been rebuffed”.
The representative for Manchester Gorton also noted the Muslim Council of Britain had presented the party with “irrefutable” evidence of conduct which fell foul of the party’s code of conduct.
“Until the party launches an independent inquiry examining the problem, it will not convince Muslims or other minorities that its house is in order,” he said.
Both politicians shared similar sentiments on the use the burka, stating women should be able to choose what they wear.
“It is for women for all faiths and none to decide how they wish to dress,” Yasin said.
However, there has been some support for Johnson. Comic Rowan Atkinson wrote a public
letter to The Times last week advising him not to apologise and former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell said the MP had used “colourful language”, but Johnson should not refute his comments.
In an opinion piece in The Telegraph last Saturday (11), Dr Qanta Ahmed wrote she was thankful for Johnson’s comments. She added much of the hysteria was focused on his analogies rather than his points.
“The nation fails to recognise that Mr Johnson generously – but, in my view as an observant Muslim woman, mistakenly – welcomed British Muslim women as free to choose to wear the veil,” Dr Ahmed said. “…Like many other Muslim women, I am thankful Boris said what he did. To criticise the niqab and to criticise Muslim women are two very different things.”
However, Muslim campaigner Shelina Janmohamed said if Johnson was genuine in addressing the issue, he would have spoken in a more “respectful way”.
“I think people should not be distracted by the fact that there are strong opinions about the
burqa and realise this is one more example of an environment where it is okay to talk about minorities in a way that generates hatred, bigotry and violence,” Janmohamed told Eastern Eye.
“As a nation, we need to have a moment of soul-searching about why it is okay to whip up hate against a minority.”
Janmohamed admitted she had suffered from “vast” amounts of abuse on social media since the comments had come to light.
In 2016-17, information from the police across England and Wales showed there were approximately 80,400 reported hate crimes. This was a 29 per cent an increase from the year before. An estimated 78 per cent of these crimes are racially motivated.
Shaista Gohir OBE, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK), told Eastern Eye Johnson deliberately used language similar to racists. She thinks it is to target “intolerant voters”.
“Rather than challenge their attitudes, he is pandering to them because he wants to be the next PM,” she said. “Someone like him is not for fit nor responsible enough to lead the Tory party or be leader on this country.”
Qari Muhammad Asim MBE, a senior Imam, told Eastern Eye the column has “[fanned] the flames of Islamophobia.”
Asked for his view on burkas and hijabs, Asim – who is worship leader at Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds – stressed it was not a compulsory garment.
Asim further highlighted that not only did the “derogatory” statements play into the hands of the far-right, but also to extremists inspired by militant ideology.
“They try to radicalise young people by saying there is no place for you in British society, then a senior politician is ridiculing members of the Muslim community,” he said. “It is a huge concern.”
As Eastern Eye went to print, Johnson had yet to comment on his remarks.