By Sayeeda Warsi
8 Aug 2018
On Monday, in a column in the Daily
Telegraph, Boris Johnson compared fully veiled Muslim women to “letter boxes”
and “bank robbers”. Thankfully, both the prime minister Theresa May and the
Conservative party chair Brandon Lewis have asked Johnson to apologise. Others
in my party and in the media have seen fit to defend him. I’d like to set out
precisely why his remarks are indefensible, and have no place in the modern
Conservative party – and the action I think needs to follow.
I do not underestimate the issues around
integration that we as a country face. In fact, it is precisely because I take
them seriously that I find Johnson’s words so reprehensible. I’ve spent decades
speaking and writing about what it is that drives integration, and what
contributes to alienation.
People identify with the country they live
in when they feel a sense of belonging, and when they feel they matter. When
they can take part in the national conversation and national life as
individuals with equal worth and value.
And that’s why language is so crucial.
Politicians and policymakers particularly have a responsibility to help make
the space of belonging bigger, to ease that path towards integration. To send a
signal to certain groups of people that they don’t matter, that the way they
choose to dress is “ridiculous”, others and excludes them.
In his Telegraph piece, Johnson was making
a liberal argument. He was saying that we shouldn’t ban the burqa, as Denmark
has done. But his words signalled something else. He said – not only to those
Muslim women who veil, but to many more who associate with a faith in which
some women do – that you don’t belong here.
I refuse to accept that these phrases were
some kind of mistake, and the offence inadvertent - Johnson is too intelligent
and too calculating for that. No, this was all quite deliberate. His refusal to
apologise supports that.
And the purpose was to mask the argument he
was making. He set out a liberal position, but he did it in a very “alt-right”
way. This allowed him to dog-whistle: to say to particular elements of the
party that he’s tough on Muslims. Yet again, he’s trying to have his cake and
But as a feminist what really disgusts me
in this whole episode is that Muslim women are simply political fodder, their
lives a convenient battleground on which to stake out a leadership bid. This is
not the first time an Old Etonian has used “Muslim women” to make a political
headline or set out his agenda. Many will recall the distorted and offensive
way in which David Cameron collectively defined Muslim women as exhibiting
“traditional submissiveness”. It triggered a meme that went global from
doctors, lawyers, politicians, athletes and other highly successful Muslim
women who thought laughter was the best response.
And in 2016 once again my party sold a
perfectly reasonable policy of increasing funding for English language classes
as “English classes for Muslim women to stop terrorism”. It was yet another
announcement ridiculed by Muslim women.
There is a pattern here – Muslim women are
a quick, easy way to make a point that furthers your interests with certain
sections of the media and my party – a useful political football. Where’s the
harm in that, you might ask – it’s just politics. Well, this approach is not
just offensive, it is dangerous.
Johnson’s words have once again validated
the view of those that other Muslims. They send out a message that Muslim women
are fair game. What starts as useful targets for “colourful political language”
and the odd bit of toxic campaigning ends up in attacks on our streets. In 2017
there was a 26% rise in recorded hate crimes against Muslims, compared to the
previous year. The figures are at their highest since records began. Those hate
crimes are predominantly aimed at Muslim women. Of Muslim women, the small
minority who wear a full veil are particularly at risk. So, as much as Johnson
thinks he’s being his usual clever self, he’s helping to create an environment
in which hate crime is more likely.
An apology is now due. But what happens if,
as looks likely, it doesn’t come? Every time incidents like this occur in the
party and there are no consequences, it sends out a clear message that you can
get away with Islamophobia. It means that ugly comments can actually enhance
reputations, rather than ruin them. If my party follows up on a demand for an
apology with real action then these comments would eventually become rare.
This past weekend I’ve had two more people
contact me about issues in their local party. One was called “my Paki friend”
by a fellow member. The second said they had heard concerns being raised about
electing Muslim councillors because they would “collaborate” with their Labour
co-religionists, “because these people put their religion first”. This
disgusting stereotyping and peddling of tropes is not unusual – I’ve been on
the receiving end of it for years.
As far as Boris Johnson is concerned, this
is surely time for the promised diversity training scheme to kick in. I’m more
than happy to educate the man myself if he wants to come and meet members of
the British Muslim community, although you would think that a couple of years
as foreign secretary would mean that wasn’t necessary. Evidently not.
Yesterday, the imam of the Finsbury Park
mosque, who is a national hero for protecting worshippers from a racist attack,
said that “despite the rising scale and severity of Islamophobia and
anti-Muslim hatred, the response from the government has been lacklustre, or
worse, in denial”. His assessment reflects my experience – the party’s response
has been lacklustre too. The very organisation that Brandon Lewis has said he’s
engaging with, Tell Mama, told BBC Radio 4 that there had been little follow-up
from him after a meeting earlier this summer. This looks very much like the
party saying “we’ll make the right noises and hopefully it will go away”.
It won’t. Which is why I stand by my calls
for an inquiry into the issue – now more than ever?
• Sayeeda Warsi is the former co-chair of the Conservative party