Boris Johnson caused a stir this morning with an article in the Daily Telegraph. The former foreign secretary used his weekly column to argue that the Danish government were wrong to bring in a burka ban. Johnson said that although he thought that it was frankly ‘absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes’, he was uncomfortable with the idea of the state telling a ‘free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business’.
Critics were quick to go on the offensive over his decision to compare Muslim women dressed in full veils to postboxes and ‘bank robbers’. The Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement condemning Johnson’s ‘regrettable’ comments. As for Labour, Naz Shah – the shadow equalities minister – said Johnson’s ‘racist insults cannot be laughed off’ while David Lammy called Johnson a ‘pound-shop Donald Trump’ – accusing him of ‘fanning the flames of Islamophobia’ to boost his leadership chances. The incident comes at an awkward time for the Tories given that the Conservatives have faced calls from Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister, to launch an inquiry into Islamophobia within the party.
So what exactly is Johnson playing at? Is this part of a cynical ploy to win over the hard right ahead of a leadership challenge or is it just Boris being Boris? While the comment falls into the ‘crass’ category, his allies insist that he had no malign intention. They say that he was trying to make the point that tolerating things one might not personally agree with is part and parcel of living in a liberal democracy.
Downing Street have waded into the row by reiterating the government’s longstanding position of not supporting a ban on the wearing of the veil in public; ‘such a prescriptive approach would be not in keeping with British values of religious tolerance and gender equality’. The burka and niqab are banned in France, Belgium, Austria and now Denmark. That it is not banned in the UK is because the government shares Boris’s view that policing what people wear rarely benefits society.