Brendan O’Neill

Boris Johnson and the liberal criticism of Islam

Boris Johnson and the liberal criticism of Islam
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A truly bizarre thing happened yesterday: Boris Johnson was branded an Islamophobe and a bigot for writing in defence of Muslim women who wear the niqab.

In his Telegraph column, Johnson said it was wrong for Denmark to ban the niqab and burqa in public places because the state should not be telling any ‘free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business’.

Top-down burqa-banning risks ‘play[ing] into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations’, he said. That is, authoritarian state controls on religious dress are both illiberal and also seem ‘intended to make some point about Islam’ that could whip up those who believe the West is at war with that religion.

So he defended Muslim women’s right to wear religious garments in public and he expressed concern about the state appearing to be in conflict with Islam. A liberal, tolerant take on a difficult issue, right?

Apparently not. He’s been slammed everywhere as a racist, a borderline fascist, a poundshop Mussolini who if he ever gets to No10 will declare war on Muslims and other minorities. What is the basis to these shrill and wilful misinterpretations of what he said? Because alongside defending women’s freedom to wear the niqab and burqa, he expressed distaste for these garments. And, as we now know, you’re not allowed to say anything even remotely critical about Islam or its practices these days.

In the column, Boris said the niqab and burqa are oppressive garments. He said he dislikes the pressure some Muslim men put on Muslim women to don these black, shapeless ‘modesty’ garments. He said women who wear the burqa look like ‘letter boxes’.

And he said individual institutions, universities for example, should have the leeway to ask women who turn up to lectures looking like ‘bank robbers’ to remove their face-obscuring veils, because sometimes you need to be able to see someone in order to engage with them.

Also, echoing comments made by Jack Straw a few years ago, he said that if a woman arrived at his MP surgery wearing the niqab or burqa, he’d ask her to uncover her face. Because he wants to see her. He wants to converse with her openly and freely, to see her expressions and her emotions. What a fascist!

The rash reaction to Boris’s comments, the depiction of him as a hard-right tyrant, confirms that it is now tantamount to thoughtcrime to say anything critical about Islam. To make any kind of moral judgement about Islamic practices, to question its beliefs or its prophets or its garments, is to run the risk of being branded an ‘Islamophobe’, a racist, a fascist.

We’re witnessing the return of blasphemy laws by the backdoor. Only now it isn’t the Christian God and Christian beliefs that are protected from ‘contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous’ commentary, as was the case under the old blasphemy laws; it is Islam. Slowly but surely, informally, through the sly and hyperbolic demonisation of anyone who has any issues whatsoever with Islam, we have erected a moral forcefield around this religion to protect it from criticism or scepticism. Old blasphemers against Christianity were denounced as ‘heretics’; new blasphemers against Islam are branded ‘phobes’.

That Boris can be so publicly mauled for defending Muslim women’s rights while also criticising certain Islamic views shows how chilled and unforgiving the public discussion of this religion has become.

It also points to a profound confusion about freedom and tolerance among the modern commentariat. They seem to think that society doesn’t only have a responsibility to guarantee freedom of belief to its citizens, but also that it must respect what its citizens believe. This is utterly wrong. In a free society, people must have the right to adhere to whatever religious or moral convictions they consider best, but the rest of us must have the right to criticise and even ridicule those convictions. That is freedom in action.

What Boris’s shrill detractors are really demanding is that he respect everything about Islam. That he be unquestioning towards this religion. That he celebrate it and love it, unconditionally. But why should he? His responsibility, as a politician, is to never interfere with people’s religious freedom; he doesn’t have to like people’s religious beliefs.

The attacks on Boris are a reactionary, illiberal assault on his right to be critical of certain aspects of religious ideology. People are not demanding that he support freedom of religion, because it is clear from his column that he already does. Rather, they are demanding that he bow and scrape before Islamic values and never criticise them again. This is a medieval demand, a war on heresy, dressed up as a progressive critique.