Written by: Nilufar Ahmed, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences, Swansea University
Boris Johnson’s inflammatory remarks about women who wear the burqa have sparked outrage and fierce debate on an issue that was already highly emotive. Since the European Union referendum, community relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have become increasingly fraught. There have been rises in race and hate crimes, many of which have been Islamophobic in nature – with the targets mainly being women of Asian ethnicity, assumed to be Muslim.
While some have tried to excuse Johnson’s comments – he referred to burqa wearers as letterboxes or bank robbers – this is not the first time he has made statements with overtly racist terminology. Some commentators have argued the former foreign secretary’s words are an attempt to remain at the forefront of politics, amid the possibility of a Conservative party leadership contest.
If this is an attempt to grab headlines, Johnson’s tactics are a copy and paste of what worked so successfully for US President Donald Trump and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Their campaign focused on evoking a sense of nationalism that had apparently been lost, and making contentious statements in the media that would provoke angry responses. Johnson appears to be in contact with Bannon who has endorsed him as a possible future Tory leader.
The success of the Trump campaign and the continued grassroots support the US president enjoys have illustrated that if politicians are able to create a shared scapegoat(s) that can be blamed for all social ills, then it doesn’t matter what the facts are. The narrative just needs to be repeated without pause.
The Trump administration’s ongoing criticism of Muslims, and his ban on travel from certain Muslim countries, has had an effect on the lives of Muslims in America. It has also led to an increase in hate crimes and targeting of Muslims in America.
At the heart of all of this are the communities being used for collateral in the furthering of political aspirations. When politicians make statements like those Johnson did, they legitimise racism – or at the very least ridicule and harassment.
Often these comments are taken to justify much darker actions. For those who already despise Muslims, the comments of a senior public figure who likens Muslim women to criminals could be an invitation to do harm. Earlier this year a young man was sentenced to a minimum 20 years in prison for repeatedly running over a Muslim woman in a hate crime. He reportedly said he was doing it for his country, and tried to blame the London 7/7 bombings for his actions.
Modes of dress
Muslims in the UK are feeling besieged by the constant threat they are under. The face covering veil, the niqab (a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes clear which is often referred to as the burqa in the media and popular discussion), which has come to define Muslims in Europe, is only worn by a tiny proportion of Muslims. Numbers are almost impossible to garner as generally statistics on women’s clothing are not collected widely. But based on figures available from other European countries it can roughly be estimated that with a UK Muslim population of 2.8m, around 836 women (0.001% of the UK population) will be wearing a niqab/burqa.
It is staggering that such a tiny proportion has created so much consternation and the need to fight so much negativity. At least 100 women who identify as wearing the burqa have written to the Tory party demanding action against Johnson, and women who wear face veils have spoken about their choices following his comments.
What has been interesting to note is that despite the growing rates of attacks on Muslim women, there is some anecdotal evidence of a rise in sales of niqab. While this might seem inimical to welfare given the situation, this act demonstrates a well understood phenomena of groups under threat. When a group feels that their identity is being challenged, they work hard to protect it, often by reinforcing and reproducing acts that clearly define them. In the aftermath of 9/11, the global backlash against Muslims resulted in more young American Muslims adopting more visible Islamic dress – the hijab (headscarf) for women and beards for men.
Now, the ongoing and resurgent Islamophobia requires a more elevated step in identity affirmation. And that may be one of the reasons why the niqab is becoming more visible in society. This points to the ironic fact that it is relentless attacks on Muslims that are creating a more visible Muslim presence in the UK. And as this visibility grows so do attacks and further tensions. It is imperative for community relations that this destructive cycle of attack and defiance is broken soon.
Nilufar Ahmed does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.