Writing for the Telegraph earlier this week, Boris Johnson explained why a ban on the burqa was wrong. He did so while mocking both it and the niqab – describing them as “ridiculous” and rendering those who wear them liable to resemble “letterboxes” and “robbers”.
The intention behind Johnson’s article is easy enough to understand. Far from an unforced gaffe the aim is to be viewed as a defender of liberty – upholding freedom of religious expression – while publicly bullying a tiny minority of women.
In no time that article became a conduit for the ‘free speech’ debate, an argument which continually re-emerges – whether its with Milo Yiannopoulos doing US campus tours or Tommy Robinson potentially causing mistrials for people charged with sexual assault.
On Thursday Rowan Atkinson, an advocate for free speech absolutism – although perhaps more well-known for playing Mr Bean – wrote to the Times commenting how Johnson’s joke about “wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one […] you should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”
Atkinson’s point, however, is based on a profound misunderstanding. The same standards do not apply to a politician – or indeed anyone in public life – as they would for a private citizen. Whether Johnson’s comments indeed constitute ‘hate speech’ is immaterial, he repeatedly continues to fall short of the most basic standards expected in public life – indeed that is nearly always his intention. This is a man who consistently lies to his employers, helps organise the beating of journalists, refers to gay men as “bumboys” and thinks the Libyan city of Sirte may be the new Dubai just as soon as Libyans “clear the dead bodies away”.
What’s more, his intervention illustrates why context matters. In what is a clear crisis of Islamophobia in the Conservative party – and a broader national folk politics openly hostile to Muslims – his comments are arguably tantamount to incitement. That he is viewed as a respectable national figure makes them all the more insidious.
The statistics speak for themselves. According to TellMama, last year saw a record number of attacks on Muslims, with 60% of victims being women. A video published by Momentum reveals what this often looks like, from being sprayed with cleaning products to being screamed at by people using the very same words as Mr Johnson. In one viral Facebook post a young woman described how her mother, also pictured and wearing a niqab, was urinated on by young men when visiting the local shop. Between 2016 and 2017 the number of recorded attacks on Muslim places of worship doubled.
Given these broader dynamics, it’s obvious that Johnson’s comments serve to undermine a free society rather than enhance it. The former Etonian is the thin end of a wedge making life miserable for a substantial religious minority which is routinely intimidated.
Such threats extend beyond street harassment, assault and property damage however. Last year Darren Osborne killed Makram Ali and injured nine others in an attack near Finsbury Park mosque. During his subsequent interrogation he candidly spoke of his intention to kill Jeremy Corbyn and the country’s leading Muslim politician, Sadiq Khan.
His opprobrium was not isolated, with politicians who centre the rights of minorities viewed as national traitors by those of a similar bent. When Thomas Mair murdered Jo Cox a year earlier he shouted the words “Britain First”, remarkably similar to Osborne saying “I’ve done my bit” as he was restrained on a North London pavement. In June Jack Renshaw, a former member of the BNP, was found guilty of planning to murder his local MP – Labour’s Rosie Winterton. For any talk of a Corbyn government being an existential threat to Britain’s Jews – an absurdity truly fit for the Twitter age – Renshaw’s politics centre around an antisemitism so violent it is hard to comprehend. While at the opposite end of the continuum, this fascist ideology finds fertile ground in the casual racism that increasingly defines the Conservative party.
Indeed if you look at recent comments on the website ConservativeHome – “the home of conservatism” – it becomes clear that certain views approximate those of Renshaw and Mair, even if those expressing them lack their capacity for violence. One reader writes: “If you are saying that we have let in too many Muslims (and others) and that they cannot be absorbed as previous influxes have been, then of course you are right”. “Do we English wish to be integrated with the foreign populations colonising, displacing and replacing us?” another asks rhetorically. The claim of a “Muslim take-over of Britain,” made by yet another individual, captures the general spirit of the comments board. This is now the reality of much of the Tory party’s base.
On his recent trip to Britain, Steve Bannon met with Boris Johnson having publicly praised him as a fine candidate to replace Theresa May. This is a man who, in 2007, pitched a movie called ‘The Islamic States of America’. In it, Islamists take over the US with help from mainstream media outlets, American Jews, the FBI and the White House – a confection almost cliched in its similarity to neo-Nazi conspiracy theories. Elsewhere he has referred to Islam as a “fifth column”. The question must be asked – what was his input into Johnson’s recent column? And what will his role be if Johnson aims for the top job?
Make no mistake, the far-right is on the march – and Boris is keen to impress them. Without their support he knows can never enter 10 Downing Street.