Boris Johnson's Burqa Comments: Evidence of a Divided Nation?

By Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen

The mixed reactions to Johnson’s burqa comments are indicative of a divided nation

In all the furore over Boris Johnson’s recent Telegraph article on face veils, it seems almost ironic that he was arguing against outlawing them. Writing about the ‘burqa ban’ that came into force in Denmark last week, the former foreign secretary’s argument was simple: the practice of Muslim women covering their faces is oppressive and ridiculous, but an official ban is not a feasible way of discouraging it. 

There seems to be a sizeable number of people in the UK who are genuinely astounded that the opinion piece has caused such uproar, perhaps pontificating that a truly equal society means being able to criticise anyone, regardless of their background. Several polls, including two Yougov and Sky, from over the last few years indicate that a majority of British people would support the introduction of a burqa ban. While they no doubt have their reasons for thinking that way, it is important that everyone takes a moment to try and understand why Johnson’s article has caused so much hurt. 

Firstly, there is the way Johnson articulated his comments. Having stated his opposition to the veil, he then declared his intention to ‘go further’, by openly questioning why Muslim women would want to appear like ‘letter boxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. Many Muslims feel dehumanised and criminalised by this kind of language, and fear it will make it more socially acceptable for racists to attack them in the streets. Eric Pickles, a Conservative MP, takes the position that Johnson was within his rights to say he opposes the burqa, but that he should apologise for the way he said it. In a Sky News interview, Pickles said, “You can't defend liberal ideas by using illiberal language”. Interestingly, while 59% of Sky customers supported a ban on wearing burqas in public, only 48% thought Johnson should not have to apologise for his comments. That indicates that, even among those who take a harder line on the subject than Boris (remember he opposes the ban) there are people who object to the way he has made his point. 

However, there are certainly those who do not agree with Eric Pickles that Johnson’s ideas are ‘liberal’. Several major news outlets have published letters from Muslim women arguing that, as a powerful white man who does not share their lived experiences, he has no place weighing in on the debate, because he simply does not understand it. It is also hard to miss the irony in someone championing freedom of expression while telling others the way they have chosen to dress is wrong. 

If the very nature of Johnson’s opinion is indeed offensive, it indicates just how divided the British political spectrum has become. These are comments which prominent political figures - some of them fellow Conservatives - have deemed so egregious that they have called for Johnson to be expelled from his party. However, the comments clearly have support from a substantial proportion of the public. Who is right? Is the political establishment embedded with out-of-touch liberals who are too scared to engage in proper debate? Or are more than half the population bigots trying to bully a marginalised minority into conforming to the status quo? If either hypothesis has even a ring of truth to it, we are in big trouble. 

Sources and Further Reading

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