Leading UK Politician Sparks Uproar With Comments About Burqa-Clad Women

By Patrick Goodenough | August 13, 2018 | 4:45am EDT
Conservative lawmaker Boris Johnson is a former Foreign Secretary and former mayor of London. (Screen capture: YouTube)

(CNSNews.com) – One of Europe’s most liberal countries has joined several others in outlawing the burqa, but when a prominent British politician argued in a column against such a ban he sparked an uproar – for suggesting that women who wear the Islamic covering look like mailboxes or bank robbers.

So vilified has Boris Johnson been in recent days, there is even talk of the possibility he could be kicked out of the ruling Conservative Party – a party some have predicted he could lead one day, along with Britain itself.

Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary in July over differences with Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union, now faces a party disciplinary inquiry.

Critics hope the kerfuffle may spell the end of Johnson’s ambitions to become prime minister, while others suspect those ambitions are precisely what’s driving the campaign against him.

“Could it be that there is a nervousness that a once and probably future leadership contender is becoming too popular and needs to be stopped?” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a fellow lawmaker on the right wing of the Conservative Party, wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday.

Rees-Mogg called the party disciplinary probe a “show trial” and warned the row was merely helping the opposition Labour Party – which has been grappling with a crisis of its own over anti-Semitism.

On the face of it, Johnson’s comments were typical of the tousled-haired former London mayor Boris – entertaining but also thought-provoking.

Taking Denmark to task for its decision to ban the Islamic head covering – the move was approved by lawmakers in May and came into force on August 1 – Johnson wondered in a Sunday Telegraph column what had happened to “the Danish spirit of live and let live.”

He made the serious point that banning the burqa plays “into the hands of those who want to politicize and dramatize the so-called clash of civilizations,” and fans “the flames of grievance.”

In doing so, Johnson compared banning the Muslim garb to a parent dealing with a rebellious teenager who wants to wear a bolt through her nose: “you run the risk that by your heavy-handed attempt to ban what you see as a bizarre and unattractive adornment you simply stiffen resistance.”

Ironically, while he argued against banning the burqa, his jocular description of what women who wear it look like caused the tumult.

Not only would he agree that wearing the burqa appears to have no basis in the Qur’an, he wrote, “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”

He also agreed that female students or government employees should be expected to show their faces in their places of work or study, throwing in a reference to a student arriving at school or university “looking like a bank robber.”

Boris Johnson wrote that ‘it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.’ (Screen capture: YouTube)

The head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, a statutory monitoring body, called Johnson’s language “inflammatory and divisive,” and May, the prime minister, backed calls by the party chairman, Brandon Lewis, for Johnson to apologize.

“Some of the terms that Boris used in describing people’s appearance obviously have offended people, and so I agree with Brandon Lewis,” she said last week.

The Muslim Council of Britain has been leading calls for action against Johnson, issuing four press statements in the days following the column’s publication, accusing him of “Islamophobia” and demanding that the party respond.

“This episode once again has exposed the simmering underbelly of Islamophobia that exists in sections of the Conservative Party,” said MCB secretary-general Harun Khan in one of the statements.

But a lot of the criticism has also come from Johnson’s critics inside the Conservative Party, especially those who differ with him on the Brexit issue, including Lewis, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

‘You should really only apologize for a bad joke’

The president of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohamed Iltaf Sheikh, a member of the House of Lords, told the BBC that Johnson should be expelled from the party.

After receiving a number of complaints, including one from Sheikh, the party opened an investigation.

At issue is whether Johnson breached the party’s code of conduct, which says members may “not use their position to bully, abuse, victimize, harass or unlawfully discriminate against others.”

If the complaint is upheld, the code provides for the party leader (May) and/or chairman (Lewis) “to take such action as they see fit. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, suspension of membership or expulsion from the party.”

While the issue has stoked a lively debate in traditional and social media Johnson himself is on summer vacation and has not spoken about the controversy.

He returned at the weekend, and reporters camped out outside his house hoped they may get a comment when he emerged on Sunday – but only to offer them mugs of tea.

As they pressed him for comment, he said, “I’m here solely on a humanitarian mission because you have been here all day.”

“I feel very sorry for you because I have nothing to say about this matter, except offer you some tea.”

British comedian Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean”) came out in support of Johnson, saying in a letter to the London Times, “You should really only apologize for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

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