It’s interesting how quick coverage surrounding Boris Johnson’s ‘jokes’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab looking like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” was transformed.
While some are continuing to focus on whether his comments were Islamophobic or more recently, if he’ll apologise (I doubt it), some within the mainstream media have already begun to deflect attention away from Johnson and onto niqabis themselves.
Cue Sky Data and its poll suggesting that 59% of Britons support banning the niqab. Ironic then that Johnson’s original piece was opposed to any “heavy-handed attempt” ban. According to Johnson, he was instead defending the freedom of British Muslim women to wear religious clothing “in a public place”.
Should we be surprised that the mainstream media are seeking to deflect attention?
As we saw with the recent #FreeTommy (Robinson) protests prior to the court of appeal overturning his sentence, while Robinson was imprisoned for contempt of court - and pleaded guilty to this - the emphasis of the media was on freedom of speech. The same with Andrew Gilligan’s “hipster fascist” piece in the Sunday Times. Instead of being concerned by Generation Identity’s nationalism, it was more concerned with the British leadership’s penchant for New Balance trainers and skinny jeans.
Appearing on talkRadio earlier this week, I was asked my opinion on Johnson’s comments. I said that I thought they were at once insulting, cowardly and extremely clever. My opinion hasn’t changed.
Undoubtedly Islamophobic, they were insulting in that they mocked, dehumanised and demeaned Muslim women who wear the niqab. Bad enough that he included a couple of playground “jokes” in a national newspaper article that purported to be serious, they also drew on wider tropes about the perceived oppression of Muslim women, the need to treat them suspiciously, and how wearing the niqab had an ulterior motive.
It was cowardly in that he used both his unprecedented access to the national media and his extremely privileged social and political platform to mock and attack a tiny minority of women that had no recourse whatsoever. It was also cowardly in that he targeted a tiny minority of people who are known to be disproportionately targeted for street-level hate. It wasn’t in any way a fair fight.
Johnson’s mocking was also extremely clever. He knew that his “jokes” – as did the editor(s) who gave the piece the go ahead - would appeal to the lowest common denominator in today’s Britain, thereby affording him an opportunity to ride the wave of populism created by others on the radical right. He knew that it would bring him into conflict with the Prime Minister and the Conservative mainstream, confirming his position as a future leadership candidate ready for when May’s tenure comes to its end. He also knew that by including these insults in a piece arguing against a ban on the wearing the niqab in public, he would be able to deflect rightful criticism and accusations of Islamophobia by reaffirming that he was in fact supportive of those same Muslim women.
While the mainstream media seem to love presenting Johnson as a loveable buffoon, the reality is that he is far cleverer and calculated than many of us seem to believe. For this reason, some would have us believe that his comments were mere “gaffes” as opposed something far more insidious.
This was evident in conversations I’ve had over the past few days. One journalist in particular repeatedly asked me to explain why Johnson’s mocking was in any way Islamophobic. Despite presenting a number of good arguments, the retort was that this was only my “opinion” as there was no governmental definition of Islamophobia.
Despite repeatedly countering this with the fact there were also no governmental definitions of racism, homophobia, sexism or disablism either, this sorry experience merely reinforced a somewhat depressing theory of mine: that the ongoing need to define Islamophobia before we can understand it and then respond to it is utter nonsense. A smokescreen created by Islamophobes, they have been able to deflect attention away from the realities of Islamophobia onto something that is in many ways meaningless and irrelevant. It is they who argue that Islamophobia is different and exceptional from other forms of discrimination, bigotry and hate.
So the next time a public figure seeks to make “jokes” about Muslim women or says something about Muslims they wouldn’t say about other minority religious communities, bear this in mind. Remind people that there would be far more merit in looking for Islamophobia in the treatment of Muslims as opposed a debate about Islam as a religion or how we define it. And let’s do this before rightful criticism and condemnation has begun to be deflected.