Boris Johnson’s comments should not be taken as a joke, they show how dangerously and increasingly present Islamophobia is in national and political figures’ discourse. As we all well know by now, the MP and former Foreign Secretary, has recently mocked women who wear the niqab by comparing the way they look to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” in a column for the Telegraph. Mr Johnson is currently undergoing an internal Conservative Party investigation over his comments, with the Prime Minister, stating that she and the government believe that “the question of how a woman should dress is matter for a woman’s individual choice”.
Johnson has a long history of employing derogatory expressions and having to apologise for them such as for his reference to black people as “piccaninnies” and spoke about “watermelon smiles”.
These statements made in public carry the risk of legitimising hate speech within society. The inflammatory language used by Boris Johnson is suspiciously echoing of extreme right-wing speech. By publicly saying these deeply offensive words, he may be trying to further his own political ambitions and playing into a leadership bid, but at what cost?
At the cost of Muslim women, who suffer from verbal and physical attacks and to the society as a whole for not condemning comments which are pandering to dangerously divisive attitudes. The rise of the extreme right-wing in Britain has been confirmed by Sir Mark Rowley, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter terrorism unit, warning that we have to ‘wake up’ and start preventing it from spreading across British society. Proof of the direct correlation between Johnson’s comments and the door it opens to hate speech within society, lies in his own Facebook page. Even though a source close to Johnson claimed that he “totally condemns the hateful views posted by a small minority”, the lack of acknowledgment of his comments’ consequences and the as of yet refusal to apologise do little to lead us to believe that his motivations were other than fuelling hate speech and gaining sympathy of extreme-right potential future voters. The latter is seen expressed in the hundreds of Islamophobic comments that can be found on his Facebook page, including a #islamophobicandproud.
As a BAMER women’s charity, working with Muslim women for nearly 30 years, we know all too well how this type of language fuels hate crime against Muslim women especially. We condemn these dehumanising statements in the case of the comparison to bank robbers; solely based on what these women are wearing. This increasingly divisive and suspicious environment is palpable when looking at the rise in numbers of insults and abuses against Muslim women, a spike allegedly “directly linked to Boris Johnson’s comments”. Some of our beneficiaries sent us their reactions on the day these comments came out; “he should step down…or be forced to resign.” At the core of local community and directly working with women who directly impacted by Johnson’s comments, JAN Trust agrees with Lord Sheikh’s vision, Mr Johnson should lose his conservative whip over his comments. By removing his whip, the Conservative Party would set a more positive and credible step towards standing against Islamophobia and bigotry.