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Boris is back in the news and for the first time in a while it has got nothing to do with Brexit. But in typical Boris style, he’s waded into a debate which is no less politically and culturally divisive. In his latest column for the Daily Telegraph, he attempted to bat for both sides in the debate over the burka ban. On the one hand, he made the liberal case for opposing a blanket ban whilst on the other, he indulged in offensive slurs in order to express a reactionary distaste for an alien religious dress.
As ever, Boris is partially right but his immunity to nuance and careful discussion means that yet again he’s grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons. His essential point is that even though he regards the burka as oppressive and obstructive, it would be wrong for the government to legislate on what people are permitted to wear in public spaces. This isn’t unreasonable.
But to articulate this, he did not need to dabble in bigotry. Comparing women in burkas to letter boxes and bank robbers is crass and distracts attention from the debate that needs to be had. What’s more, it alienates the Muslim community and stokes religious antagonism, precisely what Boris rightly lambasts the policy of a burqa ban for doing in his following paragraph. Yes, I know, Boris being contrarian… shock! horror! But this latest display of carelessness and buffoonery in the column inches of the Daily Telegraph, is yet another reminder to many as to why he is wholly unsuited to high office.
Those looking at this with half an eye on the Tory leadership will also be struck by its political folly. With Labour and Corbyn under intense fire over anti-Semitism, the Tories were enjoying a brief period of respite following the intense media spotlight on the party’s feud over Brexit. It is elementary political practice to keep shtum while your opponents are willingly engaging in a strategy of self-immolation. However, Boris’ gaff has shifted the attention back onto the Tories.
Sayed Warsi, the former party chairman and a practicing Muslim, has long argued that the Conservatives have a problem with Islamophobia within their ranks. Until now, the issue had not gained much traction, mainly because the party has a strict code of conduct and disciplinary process. And until yesterday, the issue did not extend to the top of the party, unlike in Labour. Whilst the Tories have largely been able to take the moral high ground over Labour’s appalling anti-Semitism scandal, the retort from Labour and the media will now be ‘yeah but what about Islamophobia in your party?’ Any political capital the Tories hoped to make out of the scourge of anti-Semitism engulfing the Labour Party has been undermined by their blundering erstwhile Foreign Secretary.
Brandon Lewis, the party chairman, has asked Boris to apologise. Whether Boris obliges or not really depends on the intent behind his article. Interestingly, Iain Martin argues in today’s Rapid Reaction podcast that this is another Boris blunder. But in the context of recent reports that Boris has been in contact with Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, many have interpreted his remarks as a political manoeuvre designed to pander to the Right.
Whatever his intention, he has hit upon an important debate which is worth some consideration. The burqa is one of those issues which forces us to question the extent of our tolerance. Many people will agree with the thrust of Boris’ argument. The burka raises serious challenges in terms of social interaction and integration. What’s more, women completely concealed behind a burka or niqab appears repressive to many people in progressive Britain. Where such a tension exists between multi-culturalism and Western liberal values, we are made to feel that perhaps there is a choice to be made. Can the two exist in their totality and in perpetuity? Simply put, where do we draw the line?
A liberal and multi-cultural society requires both respect for alternative cultures and the freedom to criticise something which to many appears oppressive. Religious pluralism and free speech must exist in conjunction. Both require tolerating things which one may find offensive or uncomfortable, but they are integral to the maintenance of a free society.
However, Boris’ remarks were just rude and totally inappropriate for a politician of his magnitude. Imagine how Muslim women must be feeling walking the streets after recent days. They already face the threat of racism and intimidation. Tensions have been high since last year’s terrorist atrocities and Boris need not add fuel to the fire whilst making a relatively uncontentious argument. He should apologise.
Balancing a multi-faith society with social harmony is an important debate and one which is necessary if we are to resist the far Right’s infiltration of our politics. But next time, let’s not leave it to Boris.