Boris Johnson’s burka remarks are not about free speech, but hate

Boris Johnson. (Photo credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire via Jewish News)
Boris Johnson. (Photo credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Boris Johnson’s remarks are not only inappropriate and offensive, but also need to be seen within the wider context of other racist comments he has made previously – “picaninnies” and “water melon smiles” when referring to Black people, for example – together with his recent meeting with right wing ideologue Steve Bannon.

Johnson’s comments come at a time when politicians from different parties have been repeatedly caught out making racist comments.

This story is not about free speech; if it were, it would have been couched in very different non-derogatory language.

Issues of how religious minorities live – and how women’s rights are best protected – are valid areas of public discussion and we know that such debates are also occurring about orthodox Jewish communities, for example in the field of education.

The important question is the way in which these debates are conducted and whether the language used makes communities more vulnerable.

According to the monitoring group Tell Mama, there were a record number of 1,201 verified anti-Muslim attacks in 2017 – an increase of 26% on 2016 – and two thirds of these were face to face.

They also found that women were disproportionately the victim of these attacks. Careless derogatory comments about Muslim women are likely to add to the hostile environment many of them already face.

There is a danger that the apparent acceptability of hate speech will come to be seen as the “new normal” – just part of everyday life.

We should remember, however, that this controversy has come at a time when political developments in the USA, the UK and mainland Europe have led to increasing popularity of the extreme right.

In 2016, racial attacks increased generally after the vote to leave the EU and police and other authorities are now concerned about a possible further increase in hate crime after Brexit.

Politicians, of all parties, have a particular responsibility not to inflame the situation.

One thing we can do to counter these trends is to make sure that whatever political party we support, we should make it our priority to find out what transparent policies and procedures they have in place to deal with racism, whether directed at Black people, Muslims or Jews.

All parties should be challenged to ensure their procedures are robust and not merely words on paper.

One requirement would be for each of them to use their upcoming party conferences this autumn to explain fully, not only to their own members and supporters, but also to the wider British public, precisely what measures they are going to put forward and how they will be evaluated, which, in turn, would set a good example to other institutions.

All this needs to be accompanied by strong and unambiguous leadership to make it clear to politicians and party members that they will be held to account for unacceptable statements and behaviour.

It would also give confidence to different communities to work together to move beyond their own “isms”. In our current febrile political climate, such solidarity is vital.

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About the Author
Dr Edie Friedman is Executive Director of The Jewish Council for Racial Equality
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