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Boris Johnson’s language reproduces prejudices about Muslims. Calling him out is legitimate, not an attack on free speech.
Boris Johnson is right to criticize Denmark’s ban on face veils, which is a populist move that will achieve nothing either for bolstering Denmark’s security or for promoting liberal values. He is right to say that a ban on face veils in Britain would give a boost to Muslim extremists. He has a right to express his opinion on women’s clothes. But he is wrong if he thinks it is acceptable to describe women (in this case, vulnerable minority women) as looking like “bank robber[s]” and “letter boxes”, and to imply that such women are necessarily oppressed. And his supporters are wrong in claiming that criticism of his statements amounts to “shutting down the debate on difficult issues”.
Johnson says that he is “with you” if “you tell me that the burka is oppressive.” Whether this means he thinks the burka is an external symbol of the individual woman’s oppression, a tool of that oppression, or a sign that she wants to impose it on other women, is unclear. Either way, the statement does more good for Johnson (reassuring conservative readers that he is a no–nonsense ‘saying–what–we’re–thinking’ guy) than it does for British Muslim women, since it doesn’t reflect the realities of their experiences and only reinforces stereotypes about them.
For a start, only a very small proportion of Muslim women in Britain (according to one very rough estimate about 1–2%) actually wear the niqab, the veil which covers the face apart from the eyes. Johnson erroneously calls it the burka, which covers the entire body including a fabric grill over the eyes, and was imposed on Afghan women under the Taliban. The ‘b word’ of course garners more traction in the media. More importantly, though, he assumes that women who wear the niqab do so because they are forced into it by patriarchal husbands and fathers; or at best, if they chose to wear it, they chose to oppress themselves and so are fair game for ridicule in the national press.
In reality, the academic research we have into the experiences of niqabi women tells a different story. Dr Anabel Inge has undertaken extensive ethnographic research with such women in London. Her interviewees adhered to various flavours of Salafism – an approach to Islam which advocates close adherence to the lifestyles of the Salaf, the first generations of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad. Young British Muslims who turn to Salafi orientations are often searching for a ‘pure’, ‘authentic’ form of Islam, untainted by what they see as the ‘cultural’ accretions of their parents’ and grandparents’ religious practices. This can lead to divisions within the family over what Islam actually is and requires. In her research (discussed in this video), Inge found that women who adopted Salafism often faced opposition and hostility from family and friends (Muslim and non–Muslim); their conversions were not due to brainwashing or social pressure but rather due to their intellectual and emotional quests to deepen their faith. None of the women she encountered had been forced to wear the niqab. In fact, she found cases where the women’s families tried to force them to abandon their veils, which were seen as ‘extremist’ or the ‘culture of the Arabs’. Choosing to practice their faith as they wished meant they faced ostracism from their families as much as from wider society.
Of course, this is only one study. It doesn’t mean that forced veiling (whether the enforced wearing of the niqab or the hijab) doesn’t happen in Britain. And of course, many Muslim women oppose the niqab, and there are genuine concerns that where teenage girls adopt it, their peers may feel pressured into wearing it too. Some Muslims have applauded Johnson for attacking the niqab. But Inge’s research shows that assuming the niqab is necessarily, or even usually, a sign of the wearer’s oppression or of her brainwashing is a misconception. Johnson is wrong to indulge in such generalisations, which perpetuate long–term stereotypes of Muslim women as lacking agency and being inescapable victims, and of Muslim men as being brutes and fanatics.
He’s also wrong if he thinks his language is merely ‘colourful’ with no real consequences. Even if unintended, this kind of language reinforces the idea that it is okay to ridicule and caricature veiled Muslim women. It normalises stereotypes that lead to Muslim women facing discrimination in the workplace, or verbal harassment or even physical abuse in public spaces. In 2017, Tell MAMA (an organisation recording Islamophobic incidents) recorded 839 offline anti–Muslim incidents (30% more than in 2016), 58% of which were against women. 65% of the perpetrators were male. At a time when far–right extremism is growing across Europe and even gaining political power, it is naïve to think that Johnson’s statements are harmless. If he had really wanted to challenge the authoritarian policies being enacted towards Muslims across Europe, he would have challenged the ideas underlying them rather than replicating them.
Johnson’s supporters are probably right to say that some of the criticism of him is politically motivated, an attempt to undermine him as a potential threat to Theresa May. And they’re right to say that other Conservative politicians have said worse without facing such a backlash, though that hardly makes his language acceptable. But they are wrong to portray the criticism as an unreasonable attack on his freedom of speech, and cynical to use it to present him as a victimized defender of that right. Telling politicians to voice their opinions with care, proportionality and accuracy, particularly when it comes to vulnerable minorities, doesn’t amount to some unjust restriction on their right to freedom of speech. It is what we expect of responsible leaders tasked with upholding the rights of all citizens acting within the law, no matter how small the group. If you think the burka and niqab are oppressive, there are ways of saying so which don’t generalise and reduce the women who wear them to helpless victims or backwards medievalists.
This isn’t about restricting freedom of speech or the consequence of the ‘PC brigade gone mad’. It is about recognising that politicians like Boris Johnson have immensely more power and security than Muslim women walking down the street; and that the language of big dog politicians can have real, hard consequences for ordinary people.
Image by photocosmos1 available on shutterstock.com under license.
Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).
Posted 9 August 2018
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.