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Boris Johnson’s burqa comments gave impression Tories ‘insensitive’ to Muslim communities, review finds

Remarks from PM led to spike in reports of anti-Muslim incidents, inquiry told

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Ashley Cowburn
Tuesday 25 May 2021 14:23 BST
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Today's daily politics briefing

An independent review into allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party has been labelled a “whitewash”, as Boris Johnson faced calls to issue a “proper public apology” over his incendiary comments about Muslim women.

The probe — led by professor Swaran Singh — said the PM’s article about women wearing the burqa gave the impression that the Tories were “insensitive to Muslim communities” and said the leadership of the party “ought to set a good example for appropriate behaviours and languages”.

“Several” witnesses told Prof Singh’s investigation that they found Mr Johnson’s language in a newspaper column “discriminatory and unacceptable”, the report said.

And one witness told the inquiry that the comments led to “a large increase in anti-Muslim events” reported to the Tell MAMA project, which records incidents of Islamophobia hate.

A Tell MAMA report in 2019 found that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent the week after Mr Johnson’s article, with 42 per cent of reported racist abuse in the streets of the UK directly referencing his language.

But Mr Johnson refused to apologise for his comments to the inquiry, saying only that he was “sorry for any offence taken” and adding that he would not use the same language as prime minister.

He acknowledged that the struggle to eliminate discrimination from the Conservative party was “not yet over”, but insisted that the party had changed over the past 20 years and was open to “opportunity and talent”.

He told the inquiry: “If you are a young Muslim child and you want to grow up and be prime minister, you should join the Conservative Party. We believe in opportunity and talent. If we have an image problem, it is because the wider public is not aware yet of how much the party has changed in recent years.”

However, Labour demanded “proper public apology” from Mr Johnson, saying: “This report is a damning indictment of the discrimination rife in the Conservative Party, and it goes all the way up to the prime minister.”

Mr Johnson sparked fury in 2018 with a newspaper column in which he said that he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP surgery - and schools and universities should be able to take the same approach if a student “turns up... looking like a bank robber”.

Writing shortly after his resignation as foreign secretary, Mr Johnson said it was “weird and bullying” to expect women to cover their faces, adding:  “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”

In interviews during the 2019 general election campaign he said he was “sorry for any offence I have caused” but refused to apologise for the article, which he insisted was not written with the intent to offend.

During his oral testimony to the inquiry, Mr Johnson was challenged over these comments, as well as previous articles in which he referred to black people having “watermelon smiles” and said that fear of Islam was “a natural reaction” for any non-Muslim reading the Quran.

Describing his articles as “often parodic, satirical”, he insisted that the comments about the burqa were part of an “honest defence for a woman’s right to wear what she chooses”.

But asked if he would like to take the opportunity to apologise, he replied only: “I do know that offence has been taken at things I’ve said, that people expect a person in my position to get things right, but in journalism you need to use language freely. I am obviously sorry for any offence taken. Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am prime minister, I would not.”

Prof Singh said it was not within the remit of his inquiry to decide whether the PM’s comments breached the Conservative Party’s code of conduct.

But he added: “The investigation noted that several interviewees considered Mr Johnson’s language as discriminatory and unacceptable.

“Mr Johnson declined to add anything to his previously expressed regret that offence had been taken at his comments. He asserted that he would not make such remarks now that he was prime minister.

“While this could be considered leading by example, the investigation would like to emphasise that using measured and appropriate language should not be a requirement solely for senior people, but ought to be expected throughout the Conservative Party. “

Prof Singh said that an internal party investigation into Mr Johnson’s comments was regarded as a “whitewash” by some of those involved, because its deliberations were not made public.

“This case illustrates the need for complaints handling to be not only independent of the party structure but also for greater transparency about process and outcome on individual complaints, particularly those that might be considered ‘high profile’,” said the report.

“The leadership of the Conservative Party ought to set a good example for appropriate behaviours and language as a guide for the rest of the party to follow.”

The inquiry found anti-Muslim sentiment was seen at local association and individual levels but claims of “institutional racism” were not borne out by evidence of the way complaints were handled.

Responding to the publication of the report, the former Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim told The Guardian: “The manner in which this inquiry has been conducted means it is nothing but an attempt to whitewash deep-rooted issues out of sight”.

“It is difficult to identify any basis upon which this has been a serious attempt to address credible and serious matters or deliver on Boris Johnson’s leadership election pledge.”

Sajid Javid, the former chancellor who urged his rivals in the 2019 Tory leadership contest to commit to an inquiry, said: “Although the investigation didn’t find any evidence of institutional or systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, it did find distressing examples of anti-Muslim sentiment at local association and individual levels, as well as serious shortcomings in the party’s complaints process.

“Stamping out discrimination, whether against Muslims or any other minority group, is an issue where our country’s political parties have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership.

“I strongly urge the Conservative Party to adopt the independent investigation’s recommendations — unconditionally and in full”.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former minister who has campaigned against Islamophobia, said the report found “an inadequate, inconsistent and opaque system of dealing with complaints of racism”.

“The urgency & extent of change recommended & required by the report is an acknowledgement of the scale of the problem & evidence of a system that failed to protect victims of racism — it also highlights the victimisation of complainants painted as ‘troublemakers’ for speaking out,” she added.

“The detail of this report is crucial and tells a story that headlines do not. Each section reveals a deep & embedded issues of a party at best unable and at worst unwilling to deal with the issue of racism”.

Mr Johnson told the inquiry that he felt the party’s complaints procedures were “robust” and the party acted “decisively” in the event of breaches.

However, he acknowledged that the party could do more to educate its members about the code of conduct, and agreed it was a “failing” that members were not required to read it.

While he admitted that discrimination could exist in the selection of candidates, he insisted it does not exist in the “vast majority of cases”.

The report said Mr Johnson had committed to implementing the investigation’s recommendations or to explain clearly to Prof Singh the justification for not doing so.

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