COMMENTS made by the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, about Muslim women wearing burqas are “harmful”, the Bishop of Bradford, Dr Toby Howarth, has said.
In a column for The Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson, the Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, wrote last week that Muslim women wearing the burqa and niqab looked like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”.
The Conservative Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis, has since said that Mr Johnson should apologise; and the Prime Minister has said that Mr Johnson should be more careful with his language. The party has begun an investigation into his conduct.
Dr Howarth said on Friday: “It is harmful because we are in an environment where inappropriate talk from senior politicians can encourage people to do stupid things.
“The environment that we create with our words and ridicule is dangerous. When we are trying to have conversations about coverings and Muslim dress, trivial comments like this make it so much harder.
“As Bishop of Bradford, I have been part of these conversations, and then Boris Johnson makes these jokes, and it impacts on our ability to create a safe space to discuss these issues.”
Dr Howarth warned: “There has been a significant rise in hate crimes, especially Islamophobia, and Muslims and Muslim women, in particular, are worried.”
A Muslim member of the Christian Muslim Forum, Aliya Azam, said on Friday that Mr Johnson’s remarks did nothing to help build a “coherent society”. She was “saddened” to see that such “outlandish remarks” had become normal.
“Such remarks from a prominent public figure do nothing towards building a coherent society that values and honours the rights of citizens. Belittling women and likening them to thieves is not only insulting, but provokes further anti-Muslim sentiment within society.
“We should respect this religious diversity within society. Surely, those who identify with any religion in Britain should be at the forefront of supporting the right of religious expression amongst our fellow citizens.
“To make derisive comments about Jewish male head-covering, Jewish women’s rights to cover their hair with a wig, or Sikh men’s rights to wear a turban would all be considered quite unacceptable; why, then, is it acceptable to do so about the way in which a tiny minority of Muslim women dress as an expression of their faith?”
Mrs Azam said that rhetoric like Mr Johnson’s had increased somewhat in recent years, “especially after Brexit and the rise of the far Right across Europe and globally”.
She continued: “It appears like there is a vilification of Islam. People should not be told what they should or should not wear because it has negative consequences. . .
“Britain is a multicultural, progressive, inclusive society, and these traits must be celebrated and strengthened. We must not regress and target groups, which causes fragmentation in society.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Christian Muslim Forum said: “Boris Johnson’s comments on the burqa are divisive and inflammatory. Using demeaning language to trivialise a serious discussion does not help.
“Many Muslim women worry about their safety. Boris Johnson’s demonising words have real consequences for people who are already vulnerable. They legitimise and fuel more anti-Muslim hatred, leading to further intimidation and racist abuse towards women who choose their clothes according to their religious beliefs.
“The Christian Muslim Forum welcomes robust exchange. Our discussions are forthright. But we challenge intolerance, division, and any threat to the solidarity between our communities.”
Read our leader comment on the subject, here