Theresa May's silence after Boris Johnson's 'letterbox' burqa remark speaks volumes about the Islamophobia problem in the Tory party

The party believes it doesn't have a problem, despite one of its MPs inviting an anti-Muslim hate preacher to parliament, a councillor calling Muslims 'parasites', and Sayeeda Warsi and other Muslim Conservative groups calling for an independent investigation

Basit Mahmood
Tuesday 07 August 2018 14:56
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Baroness Warsi on Boris Johnson's comments about Muslim women's dress

Demonising an entire community during challenging times is an electoral strategy that pays dividends for some, especially during challenging times where blaming an alien “other” deflects from the root causes of a problem. It’s what got Trump to the White House and now it seems it’s what Boris Johnson has decided to do too after his latest comments that compared Muslim women who wear the burqa to letter boxes and bank robbers.

Irrespective of what one may think of the burqa, it was Johnson’s choice to use inflammatory language and to dehumanise his subjects by referring to them as inanimate objects. It’s unsurprising, in context, to hear that he’s been meeting with far-right populist Steve Bannon. In an age in which Muslim women are increasingly being attacked in public for dressing how they choose, Boris’s comments will further dehumanise a group that struggles with discrimination on a daily basis and will be seized upon by far-right groups.

This episode is yet another example of bigotry towards Muslims in the Conservative Party, with countless cases being documented. Whether it be Bob Blackman MP inviting an anti-Muslim hate speaker to Parliament or Michael Fabricant tweeting an image of Sadiq Khan’s face on a pig, or a Tory councillor sharing articles calling Muslims parasites – to name only a few examples – the party still doesn’t believe it has a problem. How could it when during the London mayoral campaigns, an entire election was conducted on dog-whistle politics portraying Sadiq Khan as an extremist?

Despite calls for an independent investigation from senior party officials – including former co-chair Sayeeda Warsi and Muslim groups affiliated with the Conservative Party – nothing has been done.

Instead, Theresa May has chosen to remain silent. She has done so because her government is too weak to rein in Boris, and because she knows this will all blow away after a day or two.

This incident certainly will not receive the same level of attention or sustained criticism as other incidents of racism, not least of all because many in the tabloid press appear to share Boris’s views. Day after day, headlines are printed about Muslims that wouldn’t dare be published about any other group or race. According to a study by the University of Birmingham between 2001 and 2012, 84 per cent of press coverage represented Islam and Muslims either as “likely to cause damage or danger” or as “operating in a time of intense difficulty or danger”. Why then would Theresa May or anyone with power within the Conservative Party choose to tackle this issue head-on, when they realise the ramifications of not doing so will be little or next to nothing?

The Conservative Party will also be keen to solidify its support among potential Ukip voters, some of whom have been accused of playing a part in the recent attack on Bookmarks bookshop, shouting far-right slogans and wearing Donald Trump masks. Ukip too has seemingly decided that the only way to survive as an electoral party is to do what others across Europe have done: to remodel itself as an anti-Islam party, whose leader speaks warmly of Tommy Robinson. The more the Conservatives chase the Ukip vote, the more they will emulate a party that is now on the fringes.

The Boris Johnson incident encapsulates a worrying trend in politics. To whip up resentment towards others in order to appeal to people’s fears and anxieties as a vote winner. It’s a strategy that means minorities will pay the price. And it seems that in this case in particular, a lot of people have decided that Muslims are a price worth paying.

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