Boris Johnson’s blond ambition

Published August 13, 2018
BRITAIN’S former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.—Reuters
BRITAIN’S former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.—Reuters

JUST when you thought Britain’s ruling Conservative party couldn’t be in a bigger mess than it is in already, given its growing tensions over Brexit, along comes Boris Johnson to spray some more fuel on the fire. In a recent column in the right-wing Daily Telegraph, the ex-foreign secretary criticised burqa-clad Muslim women as looking like “letter-boxes” and “bank robbers”. Although he opposed a ban on full covering like the ones imposed in Denmark and France, he nevertheless came across as Islamophobic, something he has form in.

Predictably, his controversial article was greeted by a chorus of condemnation from Muslims and liberals across the UK. Even Prime Minister Theresa May demanded that Johnson apologise. But thus far, he is conveniently abroad on holiday, and his friends insist that he has nothing to apologise for. In fact, this controversy has opened up another debate about the freedom of speech, with a majority of Tories insisting that the subject of full burqas and niqabs should be open for discussion.

It is a fact that many in Britain feel uncomfortable at the sight of women covering themselves from head to toe. Even very tolerant Brits view this attire as a symbol of paternalistic control, even though they defend the right of women to wear whatever they like. Less liberal people feel strongly that such clothing has no place in modern society, and that eye contact, and the ability to see another person’s face during a conversation, was essential for meaningful communication.

This is a tricky area to navigate in a politically correct environment, and a majority of Tories think Johnson was right in raising the issue. But the pressure is on him to apologise for the offence he has caused Muslims. As it is, the case has now gone to a three-man Conservative committee that will determine if Johnson is in breach of party rules and discipline. If found guilty, he could be suspended or even sacked from the party.

Many think Johnson’s column was a bid for leadership of the Conservative party. Already a front runner in the polls to succeed Theresa May should a challenge to her position be mounted when parliament reconvenes after the summer break, he is seen as reaching out to the right wing of the party for support. He has learned from Donald Trump’s success in rallying the Republican base by agitating against non-existent threats and raising the spectre of hollow dangers to ‘the American way of life’. Ever an opportunistic politician with no principles or moral anchor, Johnson has no hesitation in triggering a controversy in his bid for power.

The Tories have a track record when it comes to Islamophobia. Recall that during the London mayoral campaign, Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate and Imran Khan’s ex-brother-in-law, smeared his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, with the charge of being an extremist. His party proceeded to echo the libel, much to the anger of Khan’s supporters. There are fears that Johnson’s words will cause a spike in attacks on Muslims. As Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former chair of the Conservative party, wrote recently in The Guardian:

“Johnson’s words send out a message that Muslim women are fair game. What starts as a useful target for ‘colourful political language’ ends up as attacks on our streets. In 2017, there was a 26 per cent year-on-year rise in recorded hate crimes against Muslims. The figures are at their highest since records began. Those hate crimes are predominantly aimed at Muslim women; the small minority who wear a full veil are particularly at risk. So, as much as Johnson thinks he’s being his usual clever self, he’s helping to create an environment in which hate crime is more likely.”

Martin Kettle, writing in the same edition of The Guardian, is even harsher in his appraisal of the Tory politician:

“He [Johnson] is very entertaining, if you like that sort out of thing. But he is neither an intellectually thoughtful nor a morally serious person. He ridicules not just foreigners but most people other than himself. He is very bright but not very wise. He possesses both bottomless self-regard and incontinent ambition. And among the many things I would not trust him with is my country.”

With the Tories in such disarray, you would think Labour is taking advantage in the opinion polls. You would be wrong: Labour is embroiled in its own crisis, with accusations of anti-Semitism being flung daily at Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing party leader. The source of this infighting is Corbyn’s reluctance in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in the labour party’s new code of conduct. The reason for this is that it would chill criticism of Israel.

And this, many Labour supporters of the Palestine cause assert, is the reason that many Jewish members as well as the right-wing media have ganged up against Corbyn. The prospect of a staunch pro-Palestinian politician becoming prime minister of the UK is obviously anathema to Israel and its British allies. Many Jewish organisations are threatening to leave Labour if it continues to drag its feet on their demand to incorporate the IHRA definition that prohibits people from equating Israel’s repressive actions in occupied Palestinian territory with Nazi policies. But many to the left in Labour do not accept this view and consider such a position to oppose their viewpoint.

Nevertheless, the controversy has damaged Jeremy Corbyn’s image as a leader who can mount a credible challenge to Theresa May. As it is, his ambiguous position on Brexit has confused his supporters as the majority of Labour members support a second referendum (if one is ever held), whereas Corbyn opposes it firmly.

Thus, the Conservative party is let off the hook, while the country remains confused about the future.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2018

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