In the last month several Iranian women have been sentenced to long years of imprisonment in the country’s harsh jails for the crime of removing the burka in public. Wearing a garment that covers most of the body and head is mandatory in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Demonstrations by women against this and similar rules have been spreading in both countries and have subsequently been broadcast on Twitter, YouTube and other social media. It’s a movement of great cultural significance, and the women who lead it meet street attacks as well as official punishments. They are extraordinarily heroic.
Yet if you type the single word burka into Google, the first three visual stories that pop up are all related to the recent article by Boris Johnson in the London Daily Telegraph in which he criticised the burka as resembling a “letterbox”. If you then type in both burka and Boris, no fewer than 13 million links to stories involving both words then appear. If you have a morbid curiosity to find out about the rebellion of Iranian women against wearing the burka, however, Google will link you to 5 million stories—a solid number but only just over a third of the number involving Boris.
John O’Sullivan’s columns appear in every edition of Quadrant.
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To be fair, the Boris column generated a lot of secondary stories. There were attacks on him by Prime Minister Theresa May, by the chairman of the Tory party, Brandon Lewis, by “Muslim community leaders” and their “spokesmen” (denouncing his descent into Islamophobia), by various Tory MPs from the party’s Remainer faction (two of whom threatened to leave the party if he ever became its leader), by columnists from several newspapers, notably the Guardian, and even from faraway New York by the US news program the Daily Show, which issued one of its standard solemn moral reproofs in “satirical” disguise.
In short, Boris was better covered than the wives of the average Saudi prince or Iranian ayatollah.
One might suppose therefore that the Boris column was an especially fiery, controversial and crude expression of racial or religious prejudice. That is certainly what his critics said or implied. But their attacks bore no relationship to what Boris had written.
To start with, a large part of the column is a hymn of affection for Denmark, the Danes, and their cussed, practical love of freedom in everyday life or what he calls their “Viking individualism”. That affection is why he then goes on to express regret that the Danes should have fallen from their usual high standard of toleration by following the examples of France, Germany, Austria and Belgium and banning the burka.
That’s the main message of his column, which is not concealed in subtle asides and unspoken implications. The headline above it encapsulates his argument clearly: “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous—but that’s still no reason to ban it.”
It’s a liberal argument, and a balanced one too. On the one hand the burka is oppressive and bullying to women, often imposed on them by men, erodes the trust of others who cannot read a woman’s expressions face-to-face, has no religious warrant in the Koran, and finally renders its wearers absurd or sinister akin to letterboxes or bank-robbers. On the other hand, a legal ban would inevitably be seen as critical of Islam, foster a sense of grievance among Muslims, risk turning people into martyrs, and invite a general crackdown on any public symbols of religious affiliation. Boris thinks that modest restrictions on the burka can be reasonably justified for security or commercial reasons. But he concludes that “telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business” is not an argument he could wear.
So what explains the outraged reactions to the column? Two in particular deserve scrutiny. First, Brandon Lewis announced that he was referring Boris to an internal party inquiry that could in principle remove the party Whip from him. Second, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, revealed that she had asked her 500-strong unit dealing with “hate crimes” to examine the column but been advised that it did not rise to a level justifying prosecution.
Neither response is very comforting. There was nothing remotely like a crime in the Boris article. Even if the decision to refer it to the “hate crimes” unit was prompted by complaints, how does that justify revealing that the police had acted on the complaint? Such an announcement suggests to the world that the column was improper in some way—that it had violated some taboo on public speech that, unlike laws against robbery or rape, is usefully unclear until needed when it can be defined to suit the action. More and more media reports consist of the police reading newspapers and internet blogs before arresting suspects for threatening public order by offending others by their words, generally on matters connected with race, culture, migration, or the catch-all “diversity”. PC Plod is looking more and more like “the paramilitary wing of the Guardian”. That inevitably has a chilling effect on public discussion of sensitive questions and the “painful conversations” that Theresa May called for in the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester bombing but disapproved of when Boris was talking.
Did Boris fall foul of “diversity” then? It seems possible. When Brandon Lewis let it be known that Boris was being investigated, that led to widespread angry protests from the Tory rank and file which in turn prompted nervous leaks that in all likelihood Boris would only be required to undergo “diversity training”.
My guess is that this assurance won’t soothe the average Tory constituency chairman to any extent. Most Tories were probably surprised to learn that support for “diversity” is now a condition of membership in the party’s code of conduct. They will probably feel that “diversity training” is a close relation of that “political re-education” that the communists used to require of dissidents before being allowed back near power—and they won’t be far wrong.
Lewis, May and the high-minded Tory MPs like former Attorney-General (and Remainer) Dominic Grieve would benefit considerably by reading Ed West’s superb book, The Diversity Illusion, which lays out in great detail with full statistical support how the Blair government in alliance with Left sociologists foisted mass migration on Britain and followed that up with a series of laws and regulations to ensure that relations between the country’s new multicultural communities would be managed harmoniously by the simple technique of preventing “painful” conversations on difficult topics like the burka.
“Diversity” has never been passed into law, but it’s now the theory of the modern British state. And Boris seemingly offended against it.
Various faction fights are taking place under cover of this row. May and the Remainer Tories are using the debate to depict Boris as a reckless extremist who should be kept away from power if Theresa May is ousted in autumn, as most people expect. His leftist critics in Labour and the media are desperately trying to ensure that their structure of multiculturalism and diversity remains intact and continues to give them a political advantage in keeping ethnic and religious minorities within the Left coalition. And the Islamists are hoping to establish as a rule of UK politics that no aspect of Islam (by which they mean Islamism) can be open to criticism. These are all influential forces, not often found on the same side of any debate, and a week ago they must have calculated that their combined forces could hardly avoid victory.
But two forces have emerged, also in combination, to frustrate their calculations. Public opinion in several polls has come down firmly on Boris’s side, if also beyond his arguments. Between 50 and 70 per cent of Brits think that free speech is today facing too many restrictions—and that maybe the burka should actually be banned. Still more important, a significant number of reform-minded Muslims, including women who were themselves offended by the burka and the extreme and fanatical version of Islamism it symbolised, have made strong public statements that in effect endorse Boris.
And that has transformed a debate that was earlier conducted in a curiously theoretical atmosphere, especially by the anti-Boris Left, as if it were solely a question of protecting the sensitivities of religious minorities. Only a few references had been made to women being brutalised and imprisoned for not wearing the burka. But, as Barabas explains, “that was in another country and besides the wench is dead”. Except that increasingly it isn’t. Women in Paris, London and other European cities have been physically attacked, slashed, and had acid thrown in their faces for wearing “immodest” dress in areas where “radicalised” Islamists are a significant percentage of the local population. This violent intimidation is spreading, and the spread of the burka is a sign that some submit to it. We need to find responses that tell Muslim women they will have allies in resisting it and achieving emancipation. Jokes, ridicule and mockery do not seem disproportionate or uncivilised. They are traditional ways of persuading people to abandon folly. And Boris’s critics offer nothing better—indeed, they would prefer not to be told about the intimidation.
This issue is not going away. In fact it’s only just arriving.