Tory politician Boris Johnson has provoked a scandal by writing, in a Daily Telegraph article opposing Denmark's ban on Islamic face veils, that women who wear them“look like bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. There have been calls from within his own party for disciplinary action to be taken against him, with many arguing (fairly, on the evidence) that his comments are expressive of a deep seam of anti-Muslim bigotry in the Tory party. Others have defended Johnson with claims that he was simply defending “liberal values”, and that the right to criticise religion and religious practise must be defended.
Indeed it must. But criticisms of religious and cultural ideas and customs sincerely intended to serve an authentic and consistent defence of “liberal values” must be separated from hypocritical demagogy intended to serve as a nod and a wink towards bigotry. Context and intent matters, and not simply the immediate context of the whole article from which quotes are drawn.
The wider social context is one of burgeoning nationalist and anti-migrant feeling, demonstrated in extreme form by the largest mobilisations of the far-right in Britain since the 1930s. Muslims have been increasingly “racialised” since 9/11, and critiques of Islamic religious ideology and practise are frequently exploited by those who are not merely atheist or secularist opponents of religion but who oppose Muslim immigration, or non-white immigration, or, sometimes, any immigration at all, to Britain.
In practise, anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice invariably targets those with a perceived “Muslim appearance”, including darker skin, and therefore takes on a racist character. According to the monitoring group Tell Mama, anti-Muslim hate crime rose by 26% in the last year, with women disproportionately targeted. Since Johnson’s comments, there have been a number of reported attacks on women wearing Islamic dress, many recycling his language. Pedantic repetitions of the statement that “Islam is not a race” cannot possibly meaningfully address these dynamics.
Some have argued that the Tories’ “Islamophobia crisis” mirrors Labour’s “antisemitism crisis”. In fact the two “crises” don’t neatly mirror each other: the forms of bigotry involved have quite distinct political roots and the power dynamics involved in each are quite different. But there are some parallels. Those on the right who defend Johnson’s remarks simply by asserting “it’s not racist to criticise Islam” are in some ways the analogues of those on the left who ignore or deny antisemitism by endlessly repeating “it’s not antisemitic to criticise Israel”. Both these statements are, in and of themselves, true. But they ignore the ways in which some criticisms of Islam can be racist, just as some criticisms of Israel can be antisemitic.
Whether Johnson’s choice of words were deliberately calculated to insult and offend, he cannot but have known that this would be their impact. Saying that a veiled woman “looks like a bank robber” is hardly a criticism of the use of the veil as an instrument of patriarchal power, but merely an attack on its aesthetics, and inevitably feeds into a post-“War on Terror” climate of suspicion of any Muslim-background person as a dangerous “other”.
It is unlikely to be coincidental that the article, which was lobbed like a hand grenade into public discourse before Johnson took off on holiday, came days after Johnson met with Donald Trump’s former strategist, the far-right Steve Bannon. It is reasonable to infer that Johnson intended the article as a dog whistle to a section of the Tory/Brexit base for whom hostility to Islam is a constituent element of a wider anti-migrant nationalism. Defending Johnson’s comments as if they are just liberal-secularist, even feminist, critiques of gender oppression within Islam ignores Johnson’s wider record and his fundamental politics.
Situating Johnson’s comments in these contexts, and making reasonable inferences about his likely intent based on his wider politics, are what reveals them as bigoted, or dog-whistling to bigotry, more than the mere words on the page. Indeed, some have argued that because others, including some writers from Muslim-backgrounds, have used similar language to Johnson in the past, his remarks are more-or-less fair enough. It is true that his comments, and indeed even his choice of analogy, are not unique. Compare, for example, the following quotations discussing issues around Islam and Islamic religious dress (the last is from Johnson’s piece):
“[There is] a sort of ‘purity culture’ that is promoted everywhere by the religious right, with its obsession with women’s bodies, its notion of modesty that unfairly burdens girls and women and its glorification of female virginity.”
“When you see a bearded Muslim, dressed in the ‘traditional’ garb, make no mistake: he is bad news […] There is unfortunately now an awful lot of such bad news in many of Britain’s towns and cities acting as a serious obstacle to progressive thinking and practice.”
“A Muslim woman knocked on my door last night. I didn’t open the door – I just talked through the letter box to see how she likes it […] When I was growing up […] nobody wore the veil, burqa, dustbin liner, whatever, and now when I go back everyone’s wearing it.”
“If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
The first is by feminist activist Mona Eltahawy, in a 2015 New York Times article entitled “My Unveiling Ceremony”. The second is from the 2003 article “How the left should work with Muslims”, by Rumy Hasan, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex. The third is by comedian Shazia Mirza, from a 2006 post on her website. Johnson’s comments appear, superficially, to mirror Eltahawy’s, Hasan’s, and Mirza. Is the furore an overreaction, then? Is Johnson being pilloried unfairly? Or, conversely, were Eltahawy and Hasan also making Islamophobic or racist arguments?
Again: context and intent matter. The authors’ wider politics, their political records on issues of women’s rights and human rights in general, and the political discourse to which the writing contributes all matter. Elhatawy and Hasan are activists with long records of opposing injustice and oppression, including within Muslim communities and majority-Muslim countries. Mirza is a Muslim-background comedian, often writing in a deliberately “offensive” register, about her own family and heritage. The fact that they are Muslim-background writers writing about "their own" communities is an important dynamic, but this is not a matter of only certain people being "allowed" to speak on certain topics. Especially in Elhatawy and Hasan's case, their comments are part of political lifetimes dedicated to fighting injustice. Their political ideas and activist contribution give their words their context.
Boris Jonson, by contrast, has a long history of racist remarks, from his references to black children with “watermelon smiles” to his use of arcane racist terms such as “piccaninnies”. He certainly has no record as an advocate of women’s rights, or a defender of “liberal values”. Indeed, he is a consistent defender of the UK’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most barbaric and savagely repressive regime on the face of the earth today. Evidently, his concern for the freedoms of Muslim women stops when such concern might threaten lucrative arms deals.
The feminist activist Amina Lone wrote, pithily: “Boris Johnson is a twat. He has racist form with his ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’ [comments] about black people.” But she added: “He is also saying what lots of people think about burkas. I hear ‘letterbox ninjas’ from Muslims too.” In other words, it is more than simply attacking religious or cultural ideas or practises, even in offensive terms, that gives a statement a bigoted character. Context and intent matter.
By way of analogy: in the late 1800s, Jewish socialists and anarchists in London, New York, and elsewhere maintained vibrant traditions of anti-theistic and anti-religious agitation, which included organising “Yom Kippur Balls”, raucous and bountiful parties on the religious day of atonement, when the faithful were fasting. The more provocative amongst them even organised “ham sandwich parades” outside synagogues on the Sabbath to mock the culinary superstitions of the pious.
Whatever one thinks about the usefulness of such a provocation, such actions in the hands of Jewish socialists fighting obscurantism and religious oppression within their own community had one meaning; in the hands of the Boris Johnson’s political antecedents, who were driving through the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first border control, to limit Jewish immigration, these apparent “attacks” on Judaism would have had quite another. Similarly, a critique of face-veiling, even one that involves mockery or “offence”, from the pen of a feminist with a record of fighting for women’s rights has a different meaning to a critique from the pen of a high-Tory buffoon pandering to chauvinism in order to corral an electoral base.
Much of the left has a poor recent record when it comes to standing up for secularism and universal human rights against religious conservatism. In the early-mid 2000s, the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP’s) disastrous entente with political Islam, specifically the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood), via the Stop the War Coalition and Respect involved such shameful episodes as participating in the gender segregation of public meetings and pressuring non-Muslim women to cover their hair on demonstrations. This entente represented an abandonment of an elementary duty of solidarity with those the left should have been supporting: the apostates, dissenters, feminists, secularists, and other radicals fighting against oppression, conservatism, patriarchy, and enforced modesty.
As the Bangladeshi socialist Ansar Ahmed Ullah, active in East London, put it: “The SWP gave them [the Islamists] a boost. The decision to focus on Islamist organisations, instead of drawing support from smaller secular organisations, had a serious adverse affect on the Bengali community. Some community activists argue that it helped create a schism within the community, and the Islamists gained further ground, both ideologically and organisationally.”
Rumy Hasan argued at the time of the SWP’s alliance with MAB for a radically different approach: “Left organisations need to seek out those from an Islamic background who are already progressive and secular, and undertake all kinds of united front work with them. The aim is to generate some ripple effects within the ‘Muslim communities’ so that the influence of religious ideas and organisations can be challenged and slowly broken down, and a space opened up for secular, progressive, and socialist ideas. This, in turn, will help the struggle against the external shackle of racial oppression as well as removing the internal oppression of reactionary religious and cultural practices and beliefs.”
While (rightly, in my view) opposing state bans on religious head-coverings and veils, much of the left has tended to relate to the issue of religious modesty codes for women as if they are solely a matter of “choice”, with the heavy implication that it is only the choice to wear the veil or headscarf that is under threat, ignoring the often coercive enforcement of such codes and their use as an instrument of patriarchal power within religious communities.
In its entente with political Islam and communalism, the left gave immense ground to a form of cultural relativism, turning away from its own best traditions of secularism and anti-religious radicalism: the Bolsheviks and the pre-Stalinist Soviet government produced stridently anti-clerical propaganda (of an anti-Islamic and anti-rabbinic, as well as anti-Christian, character) at a time when Muslim and Jewish minorities in Russia were far more acutely and directly oppressed than either group is in Britain today. The Bolsheviks managed to combine unwavering hostility to religious oppression, attacking, often in satirically mocking terms, the obscurantism and backwardness of religious superstition, with a similarly unwavering solidarity with these communities against the racist pogroms and colonial oppression of the Tsarist Empire.
The Bolsheviks saw no contradiction between their agitation against religion and their agitation for the rights and freedoms of oppressed peoples from mainly-religious ethnic or national minorities. Then, as now, the day-to-day business of socialist activity was a matter of solidarity, of picking sides, sometimes in ways that might seem superficially contradictory but are consistent when situated within the context of a positive socialist programme. Hal Draper, the foremost writer and theoretician of unorthodox Trotskyism, expounded this theme in his pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, writing: “When Cuba was invaded by Washington’s puppets, the question was: which side are you on? And when the Cuban trade unions are taken over by the commissars of the dictatorship, the question is also: which side are you on?”
We have an elementary duty of solidarity with victims of racist oppression. We understand context, and, seeing Boris Johnson’s comments for what they are, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslim communities, especially Muslim women, against a rising tide of nationalist bigotry. And we should also take to heart the words of the Algerian socialist-feminist Marie Helie-Lucas, asked for her views on the global left’s failure to do more to make solidarity with those struggling against political Islam: “For us, it is Munich everyday. We feel like the anti-Nazi Germans and the Republican Spaniards must have felt; abandoned by those who should have been our allies.”
In light of current debates, using Draper’s formulation, the left should ask of ourselves and each other: when Muslim communities are attacked by the state; by the racist right; when Muslim-background migrants’ rights are threatened; when nationalist politicians use dog-whistle invective to whip up xenophobia and hostility to minorities; the question is: which side are you on? And when feminists, secularists, and other radicals organise against oppression and for universal human rights, including in ways that “offends” the sensibilities of religious conservatism, the question is also: which side are you on?