Ban Boris, not the burqa

Ban Boris, not the burqa
Comment: Boris Johnson's use of racist tropes to increase his popularity is proving disturbingly successful, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
09 Aug, 2018
Demonstrators gather to protest Boris Johnson's racist comments about the burqa Getty
This week Boris Johnson found himself at the heart of a national controversy once again, after whipping up Islamophobic and sexist hatred towards Muslim women who wear the burqa.

He thought it appropriate to compare these women to "letterboxes" and "bank robbers" and has since shown no sign whatsoever of regretting his words.

It is of course not the first time that Johnson demonstrates his preparedness to mobilise racist tropes in order to put himself at the centre of the public eye and shore up the support of the far right in society, and the hard right in the Tory party.

He has variously referred to citizens of the Commonwealth as "flag-waving piccaninnies", described Papua New Guinea as a place of "cannibalism and chief-killing", and invoked the "watermelon smiles" of Congolese fighters at the sight of the arrival of "the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird".

When it comes to Africa, he surmises that, "The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore."

Clearly, Johnson has form on the subject of insulting, racist, backward, and outrageous commentary on people of colour and the global South.

So when commentators refer to his 'gaffes' and his 'colourful' or ' provocative' language, they are not only normalising his outright racism, but also missing the point.

Indeed, Johnson is many things but he is not a fool. These comments are part of Johnson's calculated attempts to position himself as the candidate of the right of the conservative party in the upcoming leadership race to replace the failing Theresa May.

When commentators refer to his 'gaffes' and his 'colourful' or ' provocative' language, they are normalising his outright racism

Indeed, as one commentator pointed out, "just before he resigned, Johnson trailed fourth behind Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Conservative Home regular 'best next leader' surveys. Now he's back on top of the pile for the first time since 2016."

In many ways, this makes Johnson's comments so much worse. It is not that he is a deeply prejudiced man per se, it's more that he has developed a political strategy in which his road to power is defined by whipping up reactionary, nationalistic, and racist sentiments in his base and the electorate.

It was a similar approach that led him to take a vile anti-migrant pro-Brexit stance throughout the referendum that based itself not on a critique of the European Union's damage to ordinary people's lives, but on demonising foreigners, scaremongering about hordes of Middle Eastern migrants invading the country, and the imagined loss of British sovereignty.

In his recent resignation letter from the government, he even went as far as claiming that the EU was turning the UK into a colony. Given his previous comments on Africa, it is surprising that he thought this to be a bad thing.

However, as usual, the response from within the Tory party was muted at best, and actively encouraging at worst.

Indeed, while Theresa May limited herself to saying Johnson was "wrong", Lord Sheikh called for Johnson to lose the Tory whip, and Jeremy Wright said he should have been more "careful" in choosing his words.

Eric Pickles was the 'hardest' among senior Tories when he said: "The very sensible thing would be for him to apologise". This muted response is particularly striking when compared to the ongoing wall-to-wall coverage of anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

The Tory right has instead felt emboldened by Johnson's comments. Nadine Dorries for example, went on TV to defend him and attack what she claimed were the remainers inside the Tory party who took issue with Johnson's comments.

She did not stop there however. Dorries went further, and said Johnson should have called for banning the burqa all together, before making a slew of crude claims about women who chose to wear the burqa being beaten at home, forced into marriages, and forbidden from being lesbians.

Johnson has given a green light to the right to launch a new offensive and they are jumping at it with energy and gusto as they prepare for a rowdy conference season.

Read more: You can't take Islamophobia out of the Tory party

The fact that Dorries herself has repeatedly voted against gay rights in parliament, including same-sex marriage was not only ironic, it also points to a wider way in which Islamophobia has functioned in the West since the beginning of the War on terror.

Indeed, by constructing an image of Muslims as sexist, patriarchal, violent, anti-democratic and anti-lgbt (among a host of other things), Islamophobic discourses allow those who wield them to simultaneously construct themselves – and the system they defend – as exactly the opposite.

For Dorries, her homophobia, and that of her electorate is irrelevant because it does not wear a hijab, a burqa, or a beard. By not being Muslim, while targeting the Muslim community, she becomes – however untrue, but almost by magic – all the things that Muslims are not in her construction: Pro-women, pro-lgbt, pro-democracy, etc.

Of course, Johnson's comments do not occur in a vacuum. Not only has the Muslim Council of Britain been raising concerns about institutional Islamophobia within the Tory party for some time, but there is also a much broader and more sinister process at play.

Indeed, the growth of the far right both in the UK and internationally, often on the basis of violent and rampant Islamophobia, is a real and pressing danger.

Tens of thousand of racists and fascists have marched in the UK in recent months, and the fact that a leading government official gives credence to their bigoted ideas about Islam, will be received by many as a green light for more of the same.

While Boris Johnson is playing with fire, and with the security and safety of Muslims and people of colour in the UK, it is imperative that we focus not only on critiquing him but also on building a vibrant and powerful grassroots alternative to racism.

Recently, shadow chancellor John McDonnell called for the formation of a new national campaign against the far-right, based on street mobilisations and cultural events, modelled on the anti-national front campaigns of the anti-Nazi League. Organising counter-protests, mass rallies, cultural events and concerts to fight both the far-right and stop the dissemination of their ideas across society is becoming an increasingly pressing political task.

It would protect those currently under attack, while putting some manners on spineless opportunists like Johnson and Dorries. This is now no longer among a list of political tasks for the left. It is the absolute priority for anybody wishing to stop the growth of the far right and build a better, more progressive society.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff