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 eat it.
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