Nation special report
LONDON: The statement of former Secretary of State Boris Johnson regarding ‘burqa (veil) has become hot issue in Britain and Conservative party chiefs have asked him to apologise for his claim that Muslim women in burqas resemble letter boxes and bank robbers.
The Tory chairman, Brandon Lewis, said he had asked the former foreign secretary to say sorry for his controversial remarks in an attempt to draw a line under the Islamophobia row.
It came after Alistair Burt, the minister for the Middle East, who worked under Johnson, described the comments as offensive and said he would never have said anything similar.
The former Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi has accused Johnson of “dog-whistle” Islamophobia and criticised the lack of action by the party on the issue.
In June, Lewis said diversity training would be offered to all members, and local associations would report back on how complaints were handled. “A single case of abuse is one too many, and since becoming chairman I have taken a zero-tolerance approach,” he said.
Lewis’s intervention makes him the most senior Tory to publicly criticise Johnson, and will put Theresa May under pressure to condemn the inflammatory remarks.
Johnson’s comments, in response to Denmark’s introduction of a ban on burqas in public places, prompted an angry reaction from Muslim organisations and MPs, who accused him of stoking Islamophobia for political gain.
Earlier, Burt told the BBC that Johnson had been defending Muslim women’s right to wear the religious dress. But he added: “I would never have made such a comment. I think there is a degree of offence in that, absolutely right.
“What he was trying to make a serious point about is that the UK government will not enforce any kind of clothing restriction on anyone. I wish he hadn’t accompanied it with a comment that I certainly wouldn’t make and I think many people would find offensive, yes.”
Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell Mama, which campaigns against anti-Muslim violence, said Johnson’s comments “clearly” amounted to Islamophobia.
“These are the kind of comments we have seen that have been made by extremist far-right groups and people who have been maliciously attacking Muslims, so clearly it does fit that bracket,” he said.
In his column for the Telegraph on Monday, Johnson said Muslim women wearing burqas looked like bank robbers and that schools and universities should be entitled to tell students to remove them.
He said it was “absolutely ridiculous” that wearers should “go around looking like letter boxes”, and he would expect his constituents to remove them in his MP’s surgery.
However, Johnson said he did not support a blanket ban on the face veil in the UK. “You risk turning people into martyrs, and you risk a general crackdown on any public symbols of religious affiliation, and you may simply make the problem worse,” he wrote.
Denmark introduced a burqa ban last week, with fines of about 1,000 krone (£120), following similar moves in France, Austria and Belgium.
Labour MP David Lammy branded Mr Johnson a “pound-shop Donald Trump” and accused him of “fanning the flames of Islamophobia” for political advantage.
Denmark last week followed France, Germany, Austria and Belgium in banning the burka in public places.
A fine of around £120 has already been imposed on a woman wearing one in a shopping centre in the town of Horsholm, after another woman reportedly tried to tear it off.
Boris Johnson said Muslim women should be free to wear face-covering garments on the streets of Britain (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson said he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP’s surgery, and said schools and universities should be able to take the same approach if a student “turns up … looking like a bank robber”.
“If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you,” he wrote.
“If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Qura’n.
“I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of ‘modesty’.”
Businesses and government agencies should also be able to “enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers”, including by allowing them to see their faces, said Mr Johnson.
But he added: “Such restrictions are not quite the same as 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.
“I am against a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam.”