Boris is wrong – and right

by Kevin Meagher

There’s something especially crass about Boris Johnson as a politician. Childish and superficial, an undoubtedly clever man who enjoys playing the fool.

His comments about the Muslim burqa in the Daily Telegraph the other day, referring to women who adorn it resembling ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ are already subject to much heat and fury. His choice of words was, to put it politely (something he failed to do), poorly chosen and insensitive. His choice of target, however, was entirely warranted.

The burqa and niqab are unnecessary cultural affectations in our society. How Muslim societies operate, and what is deemed acceptable and why, are not matters for me to comment upon – I don’t live in one. But in modern Britain, a liberal democracy, it is not unreasonable to require that some cultural norms are enforced. Some overlap, in order for our society to function properly and develop greater levels of communal interaction and solidarity.

Different groups are at liberty to do pretty much as they please most of the time, but they should cleave towards majority opinion when it comes to how we all live together in a shared space. We have enough language and cultural barriers that remove Muslim women from mainstream society without enveloping them – literally – in even more division and mistrust.

There are times when we cannot and should not accommodate difference, where our cultural assumptions must intertwine. Taken to its logical conclusion, freedom of difference permits me to drive on the right-hand side of the road if I so choose, or to refuse to do jury service, or avoid paying my taxes. Each of us needs to accept we make accommodations for the common good.

This row is not about freedom of religion as much as it is about freedom to be different. We’re not dealing with a clash of civilisations per se, but a clash of liberalism; between those who defend – absolutely – the individual choices of Muslim women to cover their faces; and the liberalism of those of us that seeks to defend our free society, where women are equal and not subjugated.

No-one wants to tell Muslim women what they can and cannot wear, but the burqa and face veil are symbols of a passive-aggressive cultural separation – one that must be engaged with and overcome by our political leaders. But this should be done through dialogue and reason, not by stupid insults or indeed through bans (to be fair, Johnson said he was against one).

As a society we have been slow to realise the integration of different faiths and cultures is not something that automatically occurs; some inexorable process of gentle, unforced assimilation. We have been overly tolerant; too reluctant in raising the red card on practices and behaviours that we should have loudly condemned.

The failure to tackle female genital mutilation, for instance, is an appalling stain on British society – with a five-fold increase in alleged incidents in recent years but not a single successful prosecution 30 years after the practice was outlawed. True, we have had some successes elsewhere. A generation ago, we casually referred to the ‘Asian community.’ No-one uses that term nowadays, because Hindus and Sikhs are so well-established in British society.

In stark contrast, many Muslims are not and the situation is, if anything, getting worse.  A study of babies born in Bradford five years ago showed the city had twice the national average number of birth defects, attributable to the prevalence of marriages between first cousins in the Pakistani community. As a practice it’s effectively playing Russian roulette with genetic illnesses. Worryingly, the study concluded the situation is getting worse.

In March, the then Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, claimed between 60-70% of the 777,000 people in the UK who can’t speak English well are Pakistani or Bangladeshi women.  Moreover, Muslim women are three times more likely to be unemployed than British women generally, with the wearing of the burqa and niqab making gainful employment all but impossible.

The enforced isolation of Muslim women from our society is a tragedy for them, but at its extreme, this elective separateness is utterly malignant. We should not be inhibited from speaking out about cultural differences we think are harmful for our society. Particularly those stemming from mass migration which change who we are as a country, or, worse, leave them to metastasise into something dangerous.

Boris Johnson is an idiot because has little interest in exploring these issues honestly and intelligently. The infuriating thing is he will put off others who should be speaking out from opening their mouths.

Frustratingly, it is Labour MPs representing seats with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities who see all this but are invariably too cowardly to act. (After all, eight out of ten Muslims vote Labour and MPs will do anything for a quiet life). British politics is now so risk-averse and devoid of figures willing to broach difficult issues that the basic fabric of our democracy is eroding before our eyes.

Over at The Spectator, libertarian writer Brendan O’Neill claims we are witnessing the reintroduction of blasphemy laws that now makes it impossible to critique Islamic practices.

We’re not there (yet), I would argue, but British politics has now given itself over to such virtue-signalling frenzy that our reaction to events is utterly homogenised, with anyone standing outside this forced cyber-consensus immediately rendered a foaming bigot. Perhaps as O’Neill suggests, force of law comes next?

Boris Johnson was wrong to speak in the way that he did, but absolutely right to criticise the burqa.

Kevin Meagher is the associate editor of Uncut


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7 Responses to “Boris is wrong – and right”

  1. Anne says:

    Agree with last sentence, and agree the face veil appears to be about cultural separation, but surely it is also about communication which is more than just the spoken word. For example would Nadyia Hussain, cook from bake off, be as successful if her face was hidden with a face veil.

  2. Keith says:

    Well written courageous article.

    I would add that wearing the burka should be discouraged because we should be trying to bring all communities together in Britain, and everything about the burka is anti-integrative. Furthermore, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women are forced to wear the burka and have no choice in the matter. By wearing the burka here they are, pressurising others who may not want to wear them – such as through pressure from boyfriends, brothers, fathers, or friends. There is also the difficulty in talking to someone you can’t see. As Jack Straw once said “he felt uneasy talking to people he could not see when describing burka wearing constituents at his surgery meetings” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/oct/06/politics.uk). These are not trivial issues. Whilst some of Boris’s remarks were disrespectful, it is not Islamaphobic to dislike the wearing of the burka – and we should be free to say so. To say otherwise, as some Left commentators have, is a sign of cowardly, lazy, political correctness.

  3. Ian says:

    Sometimes I wonder why no-one reads this site.

  4. Vern says:

    This is less about what was said and more about who said it and in part is no different to the anti-semitism furore surrounding JC. People on the Left and the
    Media have decided they dont like Boris and that he represents a danger to the Left. Similarly, those on the right see Corbyn as a threat.
    Those responsible for amplifying the noise and hostile narrative that has accompanied this are the media and should hold some accountability here.
    In Boris’ case, blown out of context and proportion and in Corbyn’s case the result of failing to recognise the issue and responding in a timely manner.
    The difference – the press want to mark Boris and the Conservatives as Islamaphobic whilst Labour are leaving people in no doubt that they have an Anti Semitic problem.
    Its not going away anytime soon for either party but I sense it will be much worse for Mr Corbyn who peaked 2 years ago and has been in decline ever since.

  5. paul barker says:

    No, Boris is not a fool, he knew exactly what he was doing & produced the effects he hoped for.
    This will be hard for Labour supporters to grasp but real “Liberal Values” are quite simple : broadly speaking, everyone should wear what they want. Those who make fun of others appearance often slide over into bullying. Bullying is the opposite of Liberal .
    Boris & Corbyn both know what they are doing & there are no excuses for either. Neither is fit to be an MP, let alone PM.

  6. millsy says:

    The real problem here is religion and how it treats women. Solve that problem, and the rest sorts itself out.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Well said millsy but how exactly, criticise the burka, the segregation of seats that has seen non Muslim men hwvung to stand in public places as Muslim men don’t want non Muslims sitting next to their wives
    Or the ignoring of the northern rape gangs,and labour coveredit up calling critics such as the police racist, even arresting those who highlighted it, inprisoning them on fake charges
    And there’s still at least 2000 men who got away with it, even if there has been a few charges

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