Nobody doubts that Boris Johnson has waited for this moment the whole of his life. He has just been announced as the next prime minister and, in doing so, will bring with him a history that is peppered with successes, as London Mayor, as well as public relations disasters such as the time he was left dangling with his suit on with the British flag in his hand and a hard hat on his head. He looked like a political damp squib as he dangled aloft, with his shoes walking on empty air.
It is my firm belief that Johnson is not anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic, and it is not in his nature to carry such hatred and intolerance. Many might disagree with me on this, and his track record of statements does not bode well. However, a wider look at his statements about his great grandfather, Ali Kemal Bey, demonstrates a certain amount of pride in his heritage and in the end, what courses through the future prime minister is Turkish blood and DNA which will always act as an anchor to unabated anti-Muslim bigotry, even if it were to take root somehow. Furthermore, what Johnson is, is an opportunist, though within political life, which politician has not been an opportunist?
Johnson, to many, is the jovial, straight-talking politician, someone who can “deliver Brexit”. To others, and to many of my co-religionists, he is a man with a history of controversial comments that raise eyebrows. Take for example, his comments about letterboxes for women wearing the Niqab or face veil, which was followed by a rise in hate incidents against Niqab wearing women, which was tangibly measured by Tell MAMA. Or take the following essay that he wrote on Islam almost a decade ago, where he stated that Islam had left the Muslim world centuries behind. To counter this, Johnson has stated that as the Mayor of London, he worked to ensure communities were included in the social and economic development of the capital and that he advocated for a range of communities during his tenure. There is however, an underlying thread of apprehension that rests within large sections of Muslim communities around a Boris Johnson premiership, though many forget that just as it was when Johnson was the Mayor of London, the team of people he surrounds himself with, will be the power players and movers and shakers in his administration. Therefore a political team that believes in social inclusion can, in the future, offset much of the bad publicity that Johnson has received on the back of his flippant comments.
So here are my three points of advice to the prime minister on working to build bridges with Muslim communities. The first is to acknowledge the huge contributions British Muslims have made to this country from fighting for this country on faraway battlefields, through to the economic regeneration of local communities which were previously blighted by financial recessions. It is essential that Johnson speak about the positive contributions of communities, at a time when our country needs to be ‘talked up’, rather than ‘talked down’ by focussing on the negative.
Secondly, Muslim women in particular, took offence to the “letterbox” comments that he recently made. Johnson needs to take the time out to meet with Muslim women who wear the Niqab and put to rest, once and for all, the depressing debacle of the comments that he made. It is patently obvious that women who wear the Niqab, (and who make up less than one per cent of British Muslim women in the UK), suffer more hate incidents and reduced life chances because of the discrimination and hate they suffer. Johnson needs to hear their voices, learn and move on.
Thirdly, Johnson needs to drop the dog-whistle politics that he is currently playing. His recent comments in the leadership hustings about “speaking his mind” on matters, was meant to resonate with an audience, and one which may possibly think that “political correctness” is unacceptable. Whilst the prime minister has every right to say and do what he or she wants, the mixed signals that such language produces and how it is read within different communities, can create divides. In the end, Johnson’s natural position is not to speak his mind but what he thinks people want to hear. On this note, British Muslims want to hear acknowledgements of their positive contribution to this country and how they have been instrumental in civic regeneration in parts of our country.
I therefore am not apprehensive of a Boris Johnson premiership, since if there is one thing that we have learnt, it’s that public office constrains the temperament and tones down the language. The Johnson of old, will not be the Johnson in number ten, nor can he be. In one simple statement – the country simply won’t let him get away with what he said and did before.