Former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is refusing to apologize despite pressure from Britain’s political class — including Prime Minister Theresa May — after he said Muslim women who wear the burqa look like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes.”
The Conservative Party MP made the remarks in a column for The Daily Telegraph, in which he pushed back against Denmark’s recent ban on the full body and face covering, saying that while he thought that the clothing looked “ridiculous,” he didn’t think a ban was an appropriate measure.
But his choice use of language to describe what women in the veil looked like drew ire in a country where criticism of Islam is a hot-button issue.
“If you tell me that the burqa is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran,” he said, before adding that it is “is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
Not finished, he said that he would ask anyone who came to his MP’s office with their face covered to remove it.
Pressure on Boris Johnson over his controversial remarks about women in burqas is mounting across the Conservative party a day after the former foreign secretary was rebuked by Theresa May.
A Conservative peer said Johnson should have the whip withdrawn, while a cabinet member called on him to retract his words and use language more carefully, as the row started by the man seen as a possible party leader continued into a third day.
The prime minister criticised Johnson over his claim that Muslim women in burqas resemble letterboxes and bank robbers, urging him to apologise after he defied an order to do so by Tory chiefs.
She said she agreed with the Conservative party chairman, Brandon Lewis, that Johnson should say sorry for his remarks, which she acknowledged had caused offence in the Muslim community.
May urged people to be “very careful” about the language they used to discuss sensitive issues such as women wearing the burqa, but stopped short of saying Johnson’s comments were Islamophobic or that he should lose the Tory whip, meaning he would no longer represent the party in parliament.
Following her intervention, Lord Sheikh, the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, set up to encourage British Muslims to get involved in political life, called for the party to withdraw the whip from Johnson.
“Take the whip from him. Why not? He’s not a super human being, he’s a member of the party. The party chairman, the prime minister has the right to take the whip … that’s the thing I’d like to see,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight.
Conservative party chiefs sought to dampen the Islamophobia row that has re-erupted since Johnson’s remarks in response to Denmark’s introduction of a ban on burqas in public places.
Sidestepping the question of whether the former foreign secretary was Islamophobic, May had said: “I have said it’s very clear that anybody who is talking about this needs to think very carefully about the language that they use and the impact that language has had on people, and it is clear that the language that Boris used has offended people.”
May was emphatic that women in the UK ought to be able to choose freely what they wanted to wear. “What is important is do we believe that people have the right to practise their religion, should have the right to choose – in the case of women, and the burqa and the niqab – how they dress,” she said.
“It is absolutely that women should be able to choose how they dress and shouldn’t be told how to do it by other people. And I believe that all of us when we talk about these issues should be very careful about the language that we use.”
May also said: “Some of the terms that Boris used in describing people’s appearance obviously have offended people and so I agree with Brandon Lewis.”