Munira Mirza is a former Deputy Mayor of London, and co-author of the Policy Exchange report ‘Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism’.
It is hard to know whether Boris Johnson’s comments about the burka would have provoked the same hysteria had they been made outside the August silly season, but one suspects they would not have received much notice if said by almost any other senior politician.
Ken Clarke has argued for a ban on wearing the burka in law courts, describing the garment as “a kind of bag”. None of the people now lining up to attack Johnson were vocal about Clarke’s comments. Emily Thornberry said she wouldn’t want a woman in a burka looking after her child. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police didn’t seek guidance as to whether her remarks constituted a criminal offence.
If Jeremy Wright and Ruth Davidson truly believe that anyone who describes the burka in derogatory terms is ‘crossing a line’, then we must ask why they have never criticised the many other senior politicians who have done so, such as Anna Soubry and Sadiq Khan.
In fact, Johnson’s article was reasonable, balanced and a thoughtful defence of Muslim women’s right to choose how they live. Unlike supposedly liberal leaders in the EU, like Emmanuel Macron, who ban the burka in their countries, Johnson argued that Muslim women should be free to make their own minds up.
However, what he refused to do was pretend to be neutral about the burka itself. He didn’t use clever words to avoid expressing his views, as politicians often do. He said what he believed, and in doing so, expressed what many people – including crucially, many Muslim women – believe.
A cursory look at the internet will reveal numerous Muslims – Gina Khan, Qanta Ahmed, Sabria Jawhar, Taj Hargey, Suad Farah – who share his opinion about the burka and agree that ridiculing it is a legitimate way of discouraging people from wearing it. They are not indifferent to its effects, but actively want to reduce its use. You have a right to wear what you like – and we have a right to express disapproval. If this is ‘bullying’, then what is the complete prohibition that operates in many places in Europe? It is ironic that many of Johnson’s fiercest critics are the same people urging us into an ever closer union with burka-banning EU countries.
There are some people now trying to argue that you should be critical of the burka but without using critical language. And that mocking people’s religious choices – no matter how extreme – is tantamount to racism. Did gay rights campaigners tread on eggshells about Christian beliefs when they argued for legalising gay marriage? Were feminist politicians in the UK supersensitive about Catholic beliefs during the abortion debate in Ireland? No, they disagreed powerfully, sometimes offensively, in a bid to persuade the public of their views. Mockery of religious practices is not everyone’s choice of tactic, but to act like it is beyond the pale is disingenuous and hypocritical.
Johnson genuinely dislikes the burka, and has felt this way for as long as I’ve known him. Not because he is ignorant about Islam. Quite the opposite. He knows far more about Islam and Islamic cultures than most of the politicians who are now lining up to attack him. He sees that the burka is a recent cultural accretion, which has been championed by extremists in many countries around the world and is actively opposed by moderate Muslims. That some women in the West freely choose to wear it doesn’t make it any more palatable. It remains a symbol of gender inequality (if it wasn’t, why don’t men wear it too?) and it is intended quite literally to limit the interaction between Muslim women and other people.
Johnson is the one treating Muslims as equals, expecting them to be part of the debate rather than left in a ghetto. He has bothered to learn about their customs, read their literature and understand the internal debates within their religion. He knows how badly many Muslim women are treated around the world and made girls’ education a priority whilst he was at the FCO. He made the issue of FGM in the UK a priority whilst he was Mayor of London. He met Muslim ‘community leaders’ yet also questioned them if he suspected they did not represent the full diversity of opinion amongst Muslims.
Recent polls show that a majority of British people want to follow the example of France and Denmark and ban the burka outright. Johnson disagrees and seeks to hold the line for liberal values. Those who have piled on him with wild accusations of Islamophobia and pandering to the hard right are either confused or disingenuous. By spinning his critique of Islamist fundamentalist practice as an ‘attack on Muslim women’ they throw moderate Muslims under the bus and empower the unrepresentative grievance mongers and extremists who masquerade as Muslim community spokesmen. Worst of all, by enforcing a rigid code of political correctness utterly at odds with public sentiment they destroy the middle ground of politics and open the door to the real extremists.