• 25 Aug - 31 Aug, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

The news about former British Foreign Secretary (read minister for the Pakistani equivalence) Boris Johnson’s outrageous remarks about Muslim women who wear the burqa, in which he likened them to letter boxes and bank robbers, has already reached Pakistan and been the subject of much comment here in the UK. Quite apart from the moral and political aspects of his absurd comments, no one, however, has even tried to establish the complete lack of physical accuracy in the images drawn by the former foreign secretary. Letter boxes are red in colour and although Muslim fashion is advancing, I have never yet seen a red burqa. As for bank robbers, there has been one robbery in which the robbers dressed up in burqas, but surely one instance serving as a base for the wholesale generalisation of a community is a bit over the top even by the generous standards that Mr Johnson has often allowed himself according to which ‘over the top’ has often meant over the stratosphere.

Muslim groups, of course, have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Mr Johnson’s remarks as have political rivals and most sections of the Tory Party, including the Prime Minister. But Mrs May was rather slow in coming to the condemnation and there are quite a few in Tory ranks who feel that Mr Johnson was making a valid point – the point being that if you migrate to another country, some heed should be paid to the cultural norms of that country and some attempt made to assimilate with the values of that country and further, that the burqa does not even begin to do any of that.

Although the British generally have exhibited a fair degree of broad mindedness in accepting very diverse norms of dress and behaviour the likes of which had never been witnessed in these islands till about sixty years ago, the fact of the matter is that the number of Muslim women in burqas seen on the streets of the UK today are far greater in number than those seen even about thirty years ago, although primary immigration from Muslim countries to the UK during the last three decades has been reduced to a trickle. The reason is that most of these Muslim communities here in the UK have been more connected with their communities ‘back home’ than the broader British community in the UK, the Pakistani community unfortunately leading in this practice. And as society ‘back home’ has shown a greater shift towards a more visible form of Islam, so have the communities here in the UK.

But what is really instructive about Mr Johnson’s comment and the response to them is the huge difference that defines the response to his palpably anti-Muslim rant and the allegations of anti-semitism that have consistently been levelled against the Labour Party and which came to the fore recently when a prominent member of the party said that Jews support US President Donald Trump. Politicians from both sides of the divide and many who are not on either side of it fell over each other in condemning the comment and pages after pages of newsprint were spent on Labour’s anti-semitism problem and how Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was simply not doing enough to stamp it out. This, even though unlike Mr Johnson’s openly Islamophobic comment which quite a few Tories have supported, not a single member of the Labour party defended the remark that drew such an avalanche of opprobrium against Labour. And so, while Mr Johnson’s comment will pass into oblivion in a day or two, the anti-semitism stain on Labour will linger on and on and will come up at the next general election whenever that happens.

There is nothing in writing on this, but the atmosphere clearly spells things out and what it says is that while an anti-Muslim comment is opposed only on the rather dubious and largely discredited grounds of political correctness, the feeling against anti-semitism is much more rooted in the population and is part of the popular culture here in a way anti-Islamic utterances are not. Part of it may have to do with World War II and Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews for which the west has a deep rooted guilty conscience in that it was after all a country so integral to the western cultural process that perpetrated perhaps the greatest crime in modern history. But it perhaps goes a bit further than that as today, Muslims are the most visible presence of the ‘other’ in the west. The ‘other’ has never been popular in the west and the more visibly ‘the other’ is identifiable, the more unpopular they will be.

The extent of this feeling can perhaps be gauged by an incident that took place in a nursery school in Hove, Sussex, the county for which Imran Khan played a lot of his cricket. A government initiative called ‘Prevent’, not very popular among Muslims, requires, among other things, educational institutions to watch out for signs of extremism and Ofsted, the official body that is responsible for maintenance of standards in education, in a recent inspection of this nursery school in Hove criticised the school for failing to spot if children were at risk of extremism. Keep in mind that being a nursery school, some of the children in question were as young as two and those at the top end of the age spectrum were only four. The Ofsted inspectors judged that staff did not know enough about how to protect children (aged between two and four!) from extremist views and called on them to improve their understanding of this aspect of their duties.

Meanwhile on the continent of Europe, a 28-year-old woman became the first person in Denmark to be banned for violating a new law banning full face veils in public places. The Muslim woman wearing the niqab was attacked in a shopping centre by another woman who tore off her niqab although by the time the police came, the Muslim woman had managed to put it back on again. The fine for a first ‘offence’ is 120 euros but could rise to a 1000 euros for repeated ‘offences’.

Boris Johnson knew exactly what he was saying and why it may be politically profitable to say it. •