In a newspaper column discussing Denmark’s recent veil ban, Johnson likened women who wear the burqa to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers,” as well as characterizing the clothing as “odd” and “ridiculous.”
Despite calls for an apology from senior figures including the prime minister Theresa May, Johnson has so far refused to express remorse.
The Muslim Council of Britain, a leading Muslim umbrella body, called Johnson’s remarks “unacceptable” and accused the former foreign secretary, who resigned in July, of pandering to the far-right. A Conservative member of the U.K.’s upper house called on Johnson to be expelled from the party, while another senior lawmaker said he would quit if Johnson ever became party leader.
What did Johnson actually say?
In his weekly column for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, a role he reprised after resigning his government post, Johnson described how following a recent visit to Denmark he was saddened by the country’s “heavy-handed” decision to ban the burqa.
Criticisms focused on his characterization of the veil, however. “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes,” Johnson wrote. “If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then…I should feel fully entitled…to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly.”
Why did he say it?
Although Johnson has a long history of making controversial statements, including comments that many consider racist or Islamophobic, this is his first time back in the news since resigning the position of foreign secretary.
“Since his resignation, very little attention has been paid to Boris Johnson, which is a situation unfamiliar to him in recent years,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. What Johnson wants, Ford says, is for people to be talking about him. “So he makes a comment in a newspaper article that he knows from years in British politics is certain to cause lots of angry attention.”
Johnson is widely considered to have ambitions to become prime minister. But his opponents fear that these comments represent a new tactic at angling for the party leadership—one that proved successful for U.S. President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Now, with greater distance from government, Johnson has the liberty to speak his mind.
“These were offensive comments but clever politics,” said former Conservative party chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. “This is literally the bigotry of Bannon and the tactics of Trump.”
Opposition politicians expressed similar views. “Our pound-shop Donald Trump is fanning the flames of Islamophobia to propel his grubby electoral ambitions,” tweeted Labour Party politician David Lammy, referring to the U.K. equivalent of a dollar store.
By refusing Theresa May’s calls to apologize, Johnson may be making a calculation to assert himself as her prime challenger. In the process, Warsi says, he is turning Muslim women into a “political battleground.”
But wasn’t he defending women’s right to wear the burqa?
On the surface, Johnson was protesting Denmark’s apparent lack of tolerance in banning the burqa. But, Ford argues, Johnson did so in order to be able present himself as a true liberal, while still appealing to illiberal voters. “It’s a clever move because it takes a lot of the language of multicultural liberalism and weaponizes it against them,” he says. “It’s also clever in another respect, because it is most likely to resonate with people who oppose diversity and Islam, and aren’t going to pick up on any of the nuances.”
How widespread is religious intolerance in British politics?
Johnson’s comments come at a time when the Conservative party is facing criticism for Islamophobia in its ranks.
“It is now widely acknowledged that the Conservative Party has a poor relationship with Britain’s Muslim communities,” said the Muslim Council of Britain, which called for an independent inquiry into islamophobia in the party.
The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, is also struggling with a religious intolerance issue of its own. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused by Jewish groups of allowing a climate of anti-Semitism to run unchecked in the party.
Does Brexit have anything to do with this?
Unsurprisingly, like most things in British politics today, this firestorm is related to Britain’s upcoming departure from the E.U., also known as Brexit. The campaign to leave the E.U., which Johnson supported, benefited substantially from anti-immigrant sentiment. “This is all part of a broader argument in politics between people who are liberal, cosmopolitan, individualist and people who are communitarian, uncomfortable with diversity and want cultural continuity,” Ford says.
Johnson chaired the official “Leave” campaign during Britain’s referendum on E.U. membership in 2016, a decision many saw as related to his long-held desire to lead the party. Although Johnson’s campaign did not utilize the more inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric that more fringe leave-supporting groups did, immigrant was a key issue for Leave voters. In a survey one week before the referendum, British research group Ipsos MORI found that more than half (52%) people likely to vote to leave the E.U. cited immigration as a key issue, compared with only 14% of those likely to vote to remain.
Johnson’s latest comments, as well his decision not to apologize for them, therefore come at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment has become more mainstream in British politics.