Boris and the burka

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Boris and the burka

The anti-liberal response to Boris Johnson’s remarks on the wearing of a burka risk promulgating a fragmented society devoid of hope of ever becoming truly integrated, says Andrea Hossó.

The “Boris and the burka” scandal might even have brought us some light relief from the Brexit induced civil war like atmosphere we have been enduring for two years now. Unfortunately, the incident has taken on proportions which defy belief.

Boris Johnson expressed a liberal opinion; much as he understands the reasoning behind the Danish decision to impose a ban on the niqab and the burka, he disagrees with the measure and does not recommend it for the UK. He wrote: “I am against a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam. If you go for a total ban, you play into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations; and you fan the flames of grievance.”

This shows a liberal approach as far as the essence of the matter is concerned. True, he also made clear his dislike of the above-mentioned garments using some colourful similes that burka wearers and their communities may very well find unpleasant and hurtful. The language he used was blunt but it was just that: the packaging of his very liberal message. That his choice of words, however unsubtle, could whip the whole affair into a political storm prompting calls for his head shows how unhealthily overheated and dogmatic political discussion has become.

It is a pity because all the fuss diverts attention from the real issue, which is, of course, not whether Mr. Johnson likes or not the burka; he is entitled not to. Neither is it his contempt for Muslim women because he showed none; he merely commented on how burka-wearing women appear to him. Impolite comments on others’ dressing style cannot be construed as racism or prejudice. The real issue here is what all multicultural societies grapple with: what are the limits, if any,  of the freedom of individual communities and is there a need to curb some ethnic and/or religious preferences in order to have a basic common ground that could serve as the minimum basis for an integrated country?

Beyond all the sound and fury and political witch hunt, there is a very serious matter at the heart of this incident. Hashim Bhatti, chair of the youth wing of the Conservative Muslim Forum, wrote an article denouncing Mr. Johnson’s words as an example of what he perceives as Conservative islamophobia. He calls for an inquiry into “anti-Muslim bigotry” in the Conservative party and suggests that it “could start by drafting a definition of Islamophobia similar to that of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.”

For the argument’s sake, let’s suppose that the Conservative party indeed draws up such a definition. Then we will have a definition of Islamophobia, and possibly two of antisemitism. The UK defines itself as a multicultural society of different ethnic and religious groups, but it has to decide what kind of multicultural society it wants to be. One type is adhering to a unified legal, moral and cultural framework, a value system accepted by all, requiring everyone to be equal in the eye of the law. Such a multicultural society has a moral and legal nucleus that all its communities share and which holds together the patchwork of cultures and religions. The other way is to pursue the “mosaic” society, where the concept of nationhood takes second place behind the prerogatives of individual groups, and there is no unifying common ethos apart from having the right to be all quite different fighting for special considerations.

In such a society, why should only Jews and Muslims have their definitions of their relative phobia? There is hardly an ethnic or religious group that would not have a claim to its own list of grievances and opinions it deems unacceptable.

Right away, we should start drawing up a Christianophobia charter, after all, Christians are regularly exposed to all sorts of insults, humiliations and even serious physical aggression. Do we remember the British Airways employee who, in 2006,  was sent home for wearing a tiny silver cross around her neck? Her lawyers claimed that “Christians are given less protection than members of other religions who have been granted special status for garments or symbols such as the Sikh turban and kara bracelet, or the Muslim hijab”.

What do we think about all those commercial advertisements openly mocking or degrading the image of Jesus causing Christians considerable grief and hurt? Do we hear about people suffering grievous bodily harm for being Christian? There has not been much media coverage of or political outrage over these incidents.

We should also start drafting the criteria of Central and Eastern Europhobia. High net immigration to Britain both from and outside the European Union has been constant for decades, “yet discussion of EU migration still focuses upon those from eastern Europe”. Although most Eastern European immigrants are praised for their skills and work ethic, political narrative has made them the scapegoat for general immigration-related problems. Central Europeans, especially Poles, have suffered discrimination and assaults. “While recent media and public attention has shifted to racist and xenophobic discourses in the UK, particularly affecting Polish migrants following the EU referendum, little consideration had been paid to Poles as victims of racist abuse before the Brexit vote, although some studies underline the issues of discrimination, racialisation and prejudice experienced by Polish and other East European migrants in the post 2004 accession period” (Alina Rzepnikowska (2018): Racism and xenophobia experienced by Polish migrants in the UK before and after Brexit vote, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies)

No doubt, there are plenty of other discrimination cases such as that of Britain’s Chinese, who complain that racism against them is not tackled seriously.

We can start drafting criteria for each and every one of the constituents of the mosaic society, otherwise different communities could legitimately ask why only the strongest ethnic or religious groups who have MPs in parliament can have their own charter. There must be equity and fairness, and actually weaker, smaller mosaics need even more protection than bigger ones. In such a society all different mosaics clamour for their own special criteria for clamping down on what they, rightly or wrongly,  perceive as discrimination, abuse or just plain negative opinion. As Neil Bissoondath, the Trinidadian-Canadian author wrote in “Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada” in 1994, this kind of multiculturalism “is leading us into a divisiveness so entrenched that we face the future of multiple solitudes with no central notion behind us”.

This is the way to a fragmented society without hope to ever become integrated. Let’s be careful what we wish for.

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    Andrea Hossó
    Andrea Hossó is an economist and investment specialist who has held a variety of positions in asset management in the City of London. She is a member of Economists for Free Trade.
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