In the last few days there’s been a groundswell of journalists vilifying Tory MP Boris Johnson for comments made in his recent Daily Telegraph article. Speaking on whether the UK should follow suit in adopting a veil ban similar to Denmark’s, Boris Johnson penned an impassioned harangue, jilting the idea of a ban as “wrong”. Johnson stressed “telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear” would give a boost to radicals, most of whom known for pitting Islam against the West. Further, Johnson forebodes such a ban as a slippery slope, leading to “a general crackdown on any public symbols of religious affiliation”.
What caught the ire of many commentators and politicians centres on Boris Johnson’s derisive liking of the Islamic veil to “letterboxes”, an approximation many argue amounts to bigotry, sexism and even racism. What confuses me about this position is that it is intellectually disingenuous given that the object of criticism is the Islamic veil, not women per se. Put another way, Johnson likens the veil to a letterbox, meaning that women who wear it will, by extension, look like letterboxes.
Many are calling for Boris Johnson to have the whip removed – meaning the MP would no longer represent the Tory party. Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi goes further in her ire, accusing Boris Johnson of making “hate crime more likely” and calling his remarks ‘dog-whistle’ Islamophobia.
What left me most consternated concerning the outcry over the reaction to Boris Johnson’s comments concerns the term ‘Islamophobia’. Accepting that his comments do indeed amount to some sort of bigotry, why not use the non-loaded term “anti-Muslim bigotry”, as many progressive Muslims such as Maajid Nawaz argue?
Islamophobia is defined as an “intense dislike or fear of Islam, esp. as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims”, meaning that Boris Johnson harbours an intense dislike or fear of Islam and Muslims.
However, four problems exist regarding the misnomer Islamophobia.
1. Labelling someone Islamophobic - as having a phobia about Islam and for Muslims – is preposterous. Medically, “phobia” implies an acute mental illness of a kind that affects only a small number of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims and/or Islam may be, it is erroneous to claim that it is merely a mental illness, and it surely does not merely involve a small number of people.
2. Labelling someone Islamophobic essentially absolves oneself of the responsibility, both intellectually and with empathy, why someone thinks and acts as they do towards Islam and Muslims, and attempt to modify their perceptions and understandings through engagement and argument.
3. Islamophobia suggests hostility towards Muslims is no different than other forms of hostility such as racism and xenophobia. Additionally, the way in which Islamophobia is understood suggests that it is a social disease bearing no connection with the problems in Islam. Islam, however, is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality; it is a set of ideas.
4. The term implies little difference between an animus for Muslim people within one country and an animus for groups (e.g. ISIS) and regimes elsewhere in the world, where those who identify as Muslim happen to be the majority, and with which ‘the West’ is in military conflict.
Screaming ‘Islamophobia’ when someone ridicules or criticises elements of the Islamic faith is an absurd riposte with terribly knotty repercussions. Ridiculing religious ideas should never be confused nor conflated with an animus towards a people.