Religious freedom is one of the core principles of any modern liberal society. As a secularist, I defend the right of religious people to send their children to faith schools, have their children circumcised, or wear the burqa. This does not mean I approve of any of these practices; they should be permissible but not protected from criticism. We should be free to ridicule, lampoon, chastise, critique, etc. every aspect of religious belief that we tolerate.
This is, more or less, what the U.K.’s former Conservative Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in his now infamous newspaper column in the Telegraph last week. Yet all hell has broken loose. It was greeted by near-hysterical outrage and shrill denunciations of Johnson’s alleged dog whistle racism; reports of civil war in the Tory Party over the matter; the now ubiquitous demands for an apology for causing offence (or else), which was backed in this instance by the Prime Minister. Boris’s is now the subject of an internal Party inquiry. It’s worth untangling this sorry tale as a snap-shot of today’s offence culture and how chilling it can be to a free society.
Johnson has been ‘called out’ as Islamophobic for arguing against – yes against – a ban on the burqa and for defending – yes defending – the right of any “free-born adult woman” to wear what she wants “in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business”. His column is predominantly an excoriating critique of Denmark’s betrayal of its own “spirit of liberty” and “the spirit of Viking individualism” by its decision to impose a state ban on the burqa or niqab (although he is not being indicted for caricaturing Danish culture). He rightly notes that being opposed to a ban should not be interpreted as approval and goes on to say – albeit in a somewhat crass manner – that “Muslim head-gear that obscures the female face… looking like letterboxes… like a bank robber…is absolutely ridiculous”.
As similes go, no doubt Boris could have been more tactful. I am no fan of BoJo-style private school wit. Indeed, I can understand that veil-wearing Muslim women – whom myriad journalists throughout the country have stopped on streets to ask if they like being compared to criminals or inanimate objects – would find the analogy offensive. But should all political comment on religion have to pass an offense test to be allowed? I am pretty sure that my two aunts – who are Catholic nuns – would be pretty offended if they heard my atheist mates’ denouncing as backward mumbo-jumbo a religion that believes the host and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ. But that’s the deal – a free society affords religious tolerance for nuns, imams, rabbis; and conversely liberty for others to stick the metaphorical boot into their beliefs.
Are Boris’s critics demanding respect for all religious practices regardless of whether they consider them backward, wrong-headed, or oppressive? Should we bite our lip in case we offend? We seem to have forgotten that we once all declared #JeSuisCharlie – a brief but inspiringly unapologetic defense of free speech after cartoonists for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were brutally butchered in Paris for daring to publish cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. Should they have shut up until they learned to become more tactful?
Naturally, cheap sectarian Tory-bashing has driven some of the outrage. Supporters of the Labour Party, recently afflicted by an anti-Semitism scandal that is still rumbling on, were quick to denounce the “gross Islamophobia” in the article, even though criticism of the burqa has been commonplace in Labour and feminist ranks over the years. Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (and Boris’s shadow until his recent resignation), declared on BBC’s Question Time in 2013 that “I wouldn’t want my four-year-old looked after by somebody wearing a burka. I wouldn’t want my elderly mum looked after by somebody wearing a burka. They need to be able to show their face. I wouldn’t mind if they worked in records in the hospital.”
Being banished to the back office, hidden away from view, is arguably far more insulting than being compared to a letterbox. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who, in a debate with me on the topic on BBC’s Newsnight, queried Boris’ motives as malign, herself wrote a book entitled Refusing the Veil, in which she argues that veiling “conceals abuse, propagates eating disorders… distorts Muslim values and strips women of all autonomy and individuality”. I think I’d rather be compared to a bank-robber than robbed of all agency and seen as a hapless victim.
One may also suspect the affair has been blown up to serve the cause of Brexit-bashing since Boris was Britain’s leading Brexiteer. When former attorney general Dominic Grieve (and poster-boy for a soft Brexit) says Johnson’s “very embarrassing” comments about burqas show that he is not a “fit and proper” person to lead the Tories, it would be naïve in the extreme to imagine his primary concern is Muslim women’s sensitivities.
To be honest, the festishisation of burqa-wearing from critics and even supporters is often a proxy for a range of other issues. Denmark’s decision to ban the garment – along with France, Germany, Austria and Belgium – illustrates the inability of Western governments to hold the line when it comes to defending Western values. It’s illustrative of the problems many European societies have had in inspiring recent immigrants to integrate (by offering them little to integrate into), or indeed winning the hearts and minds of many second and third generation immigrant Muslim youth to a positive view of citizenship of their various nations. Instead, Western societies have opted for an illiberal, technocratic solution. Lashing out at the most superficial expression of this failure avoids the harder arguments.
In Britain, where very few British Muslims actually wear the burqa, right-leaning commentators often imply that burqa wearing is interchangeable with an Islamic takeover, failing to note that British values, culture and literature are more likely to come under assault from intersectional, anti-colonial ‘Christian’ British students than by niqab-wearing mums in Birmingham or Bradford. Conversely, many young women adopt the veil (often to the horror of their jeans-wearing Muslim mums) less as an act of religious observance than as an act of political defiance, a sartorial finger to a British way of life, trotting out the justifications-de-jour of identity politics and feminism. “How dare you criticize what I wear… As a Muslim woman, I find that offensive!” is a demand to shut up and back-off, a threat that anyone who dares to challenge their choice of dress will be met with accusations of Islamophobia.
Interestingly, Johnson’s article is sensitive to how the burqa has become a politicised symbol. He argues that he’s against “a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam”. He was wary of a ban that might “fan the flames of grievance”. It is telling that even his argument against a Burqa-ban and for liberal tolerance has led to a wildfire of grievance-mongering, indicating how debates about Islam have become embroiled in an unhelpful culture war.
There is something cowardly and self-defeating about the cross-party condemnation of Johnson. With no sense of irony, former Tory chairman Lord Pickles warns that Johnson’s “illiberal language,” risks “closing down” debate. But the real threat to liberalism and open discussion is Pickles et al endorsing a backlash that deems any criticism of Islam off-limits. And if liberal, if sometimes crass, criticism is off-limits because it is interpreted as being illiberal, then the only “acceptable response” – and the end result of this Boris-bashing episode – is to close down free speech and fair comment.
What hope is there that we – the public – can have a frank, open-ended discussion about some of the huge societal challenges we face – such as problems of fractured communities and cities in which inhabitants live segregated lives – if even one of the U.K.’s most powerful men gets denounced as a pariah for writing a provocative column about religious dress? We are effectively telling ordinary citizens who may, for example, want to explore through open discussion what drives British-Asian youth to blow their peers to smithereens, or trek to Syria and film themselves beheading fellow Westerners: “You can’t discuss that.”
If questioning a fringe religious practice is assumed as evidence of bigotry against all Muslims, surely that implies that any and all Islamic practices and beliefs should be surrounded by a ‘do-not-criticise’ barrier? More broadly, the risk is that the moral of the Boris story will be that any criticism of anyone who happens to be a Muslim, regardless of their behaviour, is verboten. Of course, that type of walking-on egg-shells approach is precisely the reason that council officials looked the other way as gangs of predominantly Pakistani Muslim men sexually abused hundreds of white working-class girls, and why the Labour MP Sarah Champion was demonised and dumped by Labour’s front bench for daring to say so.
We cannot allow “not causing offence” to be a get-out-of-jail-free card. And, of course, chilling discussion of these conversations on tricky, sensitive issues does not mean they go away. These just find a home beyond the mainstream. Enter stage right Tommy Robinson: the self-styled leader of the tell-it-as-it-is anti-Islam movement. While it may be galling for many of my own colleagues on the left, the former English Defense League poster-boy now claims to be the champion of free speech and saying the unsayable. Those who are gleefully hounding Boris are handing Robinson a cheap win – and boosting his moral authority ten-fold. Now, when Tommy and pals claim, ‘they won’t let us criticise Islam,’ he has proof.
But this goes beyond personalities or the aspirations of political leaders – whether alt-right populists or Johnson’s alleged bid to take the top job at the Tory party. What is at stake here is the freedom for the rest of us – regardless of our religious or political affiliations – to speak, argue, and worship freely – without being horse-whipped into silence as heretics.
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