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.
“If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct,” he said.
However, despite his comments, Johnson said he did not agree with a ban of the kind that have been enacted in many European countries such as Denmark, France and Belgium, arguing that it could “play into the hands of those who want to politicize and dramatise the so-called clash of civilizations; and you fan the flames of grievance.”
But despite the libertarian conclusion, and past polling that found a majority of Brits are in favor of a tougher stance on the burqa by the government, the outrage against Johnson was swift and vocal.
London Labour MP David Lammy called him a “pound-shop Donald Trump” and accused him of “fanning the flames of Islamophobia to propel his grubby electoral ambitions.”
Those calls were echoed by Brandon Lewis, the chairman of the Conservative Party, who said Johnson should apologize. Lewis’ comments were backed by May. She said it was imperative that people should be “careful” in the language they use in discussing the issue.
“It’s very clear that the language Boris Johnson used to describe people’s appearance has caused offense," May said. "It's not language I would have used, I think it’s wrong to have used that language and I agree with Brandon Lewis.”
But Johnson brushed off the calls, with an ally of Johnson telling The Telegraph calls for him to apologize were “ridiculous.”
“If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists," the ally said."It is ridiculous that these views are being attacked -- we must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues."
Johnson was backed up by fellow Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg, who said he was unsure what it was that Johnson has to apologize for.
"It's hard to see what he should apologize for. He has defended people's right to wear the burqa whilst saying it is an inelegant garment,” he told the paper. “Neither of those two proposals are unreasonable."
Johnson, a key member of the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, resigned last month over May's plan to leave the E.U., which he has slammed as a surrender to Brussels. His movements are being watched closely amid speculation he may launch a leadership challenge against May in the Fall.