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Boris and the Burka: discussing the Danish Ban

Image: Sky News
Image: Sky News
Image: Sky News

Much has been said in recent weeks about the controversial comments made by Boris Johnson in an article he penned for the Daily Telegraph, concerning the recent law banning the burka in Denmark. In the cacophony of noise, rage and moral panic surrounding his comparing of Muslim women wearing burkas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, there has been shockingly little discussion on the actual substance of Mr Johnson’s article.

After browsing many articles from various sources, some vilifying the former Foreign Secretary as rampant bigot and others praising him as a hero of free speech, I realised I still didn’t know exactly what Mr Johnson’s position on the Danish ban was. One would think the far more important question – “what does the potential future Prime Minister actually believe about a legal ban on the burka?” would be a far more helpful metric in judging the man’s character than a couple of off-colour risqué jokes, probably thrown in merely as an attention grab, and to double-down on the “bad boy of Brexit” image he has been capitalizing on since the referendum.

So, in the interest of throwing some light on the discussion of whether Mr Johnson is a rampaging Trumpian racist, or a slightly buffoonish contrarian with basically liberal views, I’ve decided to review Mr Johnson’s original Telegraph article. Pity me, comrades, for I have had to cross the aisle and subscribe to the Daily Telegraph to bring you this article (though I must begrudgingly admit, Telegraph columnists are all impeccably dressed).

Johnson’s article starts with a lyrical account of his own experiences of Denmark, which he gushingly describes as a kind of liberal paradise – a country populated by towering Viking individualists, proudly defending their own currency, chewing on their “carcinogenic tobacco” and diving, in the bracing morning winds, into the waters of the Copenhagen Harbour. Johnson claims that if ever a country embodied the ideas of classic liberal philosopher J.S. Mill, it would be Denmark.

This entertaining start is followed by some predictable remarks about Denmark’s role in resisting the early growth of the European Union (in the form of voting down the Maastricht Treaty of 1992). Not wanting to get bogged down in a debate about Brexit, I will leave this Eurosceptic posturing for another time.

This small point aside, Johnson then begins discussing the Danish burka ban, which passed on August 1st, outlawing the niqab, burka and all other “attire and clothing masking the face in such a way that it impairs recognizability”. He talks about the passing of the law in Denmark with surprise, which is strange considering how he chose to describe the country – the Eurosceptic and slightly nationalistic Viking wonderland which Johnson admires is not a million miles away, conceptually, from a nation which would support a burka ban in the interest of cultural integration, even if this also conflicts with a focus on individual rights, which Johnson also admires. In fact, this slightly contradictory image is indicative of a tight-rope Johnson has been walking ever since his soiree further to the right: his enthusiastic liberalism and individualism (especially in relation to economic activities), conflicted with his belief in old-school conservative values such as national independence and social harmony (allegedly to be achieved through greater controls on immigration).

These are the lynchpins of the kind of Eurosceptic right which Johnson is a part of which can lead to contradictions on specific issues. However, in the case of the burka ban, Mr Johnson shows his more liberal side in opposing it. This is an important thing to recognise among all recent conflict – as offensive as some may deem his comments to be, one of the most controversial figures on the mainstream right in this country doesn’t in fact believe in a legal ban on the burka.

Though, perhaps this is not so popular opinion with the base of Mr Johnson, which is potentially what led him to make the incendiary statements he did. “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you” he says, before launching into a paragraph criticising the institution of the burka on the grounds of women’s rights. I find myself in the unusual (and uncomfortable) position of agreeing with Mr Johnson here. For my money, there is no more potent a symbol of the religious oppression of women in the modern world than the burka, which has been denounced by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as being a rather modern and regressive tradition which has taken root with little scriptural grounding. An example of such denunciation comes from leading imam Dr Taj Hargey of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, who stepped in defend Johnson by saying “The burka and niqab are hideous tribal ninja-like garments that are pre-Islamic, non-Koranic and therefore un-Muslim.”

Of course, there are may other Muslims worldwide who would staunchly defend the burka, Muslim women included. Despite this, I see no issue in being able to criticise the institution as regressive, especially considering the vested interest all of us have in a liberal society, of tackling illiberal and regressive traditions. Mr Johnson goes on to discuss the restrictions he believes appropriate on the freedom to wear a burka – a nuanced and difficult debate that he does utterly no service to by pausing to say women in burkas resemble “bank robbers”. My own view on the appropriate restrictions on the freedom to wear burkas differ from Johnson. He argues that a female student in a University can be asked to remove a burka to aid in communication, and likewise in an MPs office, such as when Jack Straw MP asked a Muslim constituent to remove her veil while talking to him. His points here are weak and somewhat petty. While communication via facial expression is deeply important, this is not an excuse to demand a student or local constituent to remove a religious artefact – which they may very well feel more comfortable wearing in a public setting. In all but those cases where the burkas removal is absolutely necessary (for instance in the interests of security or identity verification), then to demand its removal simply seems needlessly insensitive.

Johnson is stronger when discussing the issues with a total ban on the burka, as instituted in Denmark. He says rightly that to institute a total ban will be construed as making a general point about Islam and all Muslims, thus feeding into a deeply unhelpful “clash of civilisations narrative” of the Christian West vs the Muslim World. Johnson is right to challenge this narrative, which has taken root in much political thinking in this area –the nationalistic far right and the identity politics of the far left both being guilty in part for trumpeting such a tribal view of world politics.

Mr Johnson concludes that the Danish law is heavy-handed and “not the answer” to the questions of Liberalism raised by the burka. His conclusion is sound, even if it was rather a rocky road to get there. My main reaction on finishing the article was being oddly disappointed at the lack of anything truly controversial about his stance – believe me, it would have been far easier to write yet another article slamming Mr Johnson for being a bigot and a buffoon.

As a matter of fact, despite his offensive locker-room jokes about the appearance of burka-wearers, Mr Johnson’s view tallies with what many people in mainstream politics think on the Danish burka ban: that it fights a minor social evil with an even greater one. I’m sure many people have taken genuine offense to the letter-box and bank robber comments. I’m also sure that Johnson threw out these “careless” terms entirely intentionally to drum up media attention and appease his base. Drawing from this, then, its probably wise that we conclude the whole discussion of what should be “done” to Mr Johnson. Nothing beyond baseless reprimands will be given, and the man really hasn’t said anything truly dangerous to merit a severe backlash anyway. The substance of Mr Johnson’s argument is mainstream social liberalism, made to sound radical with some politically incorrect jokes and light feminist critique of the burka sprinkled on top. The real question to be asked is, aside from his imminent bid for Prime Minister and his bombastic polemic style, is there really any good reason to be talking about Boris Johnson right now?