By Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury
With Boris Johnson comparing women who wear the burqa to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, and much of the press and the political class rushing to defend him, the fallout of this week has shown just how normalised Islamophobia and racism are in Britain. How is it possible that, in a supposedly progressive and ‘post-racial’ society Rod Little can argue in a prominent media outlet that there is ‘not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party’? How explicit do things need to be to bring about a realisation that racism and Islamophobia are profound and fundamental problems in our societies?
Johnson’s so-called ‘gaffe’ is not isolated – it’s the latest in a long series of his overtly racist and sexist remarks. Whilst racism is often misleadingly imagined as the preserve of the ‘uneducated’ working-classes, it’s clear that it is endemic in the very heart of our government. This is the foreign secretary, a man with seemingly unyielding influence over the current government, making comments that – at the particular intersection of religion, gender (and race) – vilify Muslim women. This comes after the Conservative’s own Baroness Warsi blew the whistle on a “very widespread” culture of islamophobia within the party, claiming that the party deliberately whipped up “anti-muslim hatred” for electoral gains.
Rather than raising legitimate concerns over how those comments might intensify the already racist and hostile climate that Black and Brown people are facing in the UK, Johnson’s Conservative colleague (another influential and incredibly privileged White man) Jacob Rees-Mogg, has suggested that criticisms result from jealousy over his ‘many successes, popularity with voters and charisma’. For him, somewhat unsurprisingly, Johnson’s comments are not controversial but entirely legitimate.
How is it acceptable that, in 2018, the year of the so-imagined ‘post-racial’ Royal Wedding, privileged White men feel so comfortable and confident to make racist and sexist judgements on the lives and dress of Muslim women? How is it conceivable that politicians with no form for supporting gender equality, and quite the opposite in many cases, can suddenly become bastions of women’s emancipation? The limited understandings of Islam and women’s religious dress would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous.
There has to be recognition of the ways in which the overt racism and Islamophobia of politicians acts to normalise and feed a culture of Islamophobic and racist intolerance. As a former senior police officer warned in the Guardian, ‘when politicians make pronouncements about the Muslim community, Islamophobic attacks increase’. Not least given the ways in which racisms proliferated following the Brexit vote, this is a warning that we have to take seriously. Johnson’s article was published on the same day that reports broke of a Black family in Rochdale being forced out of their new home after ‘no Blacks’ was spray painted on their window. If we are to work towards a society in which this is no longer possible, politicians like Johnson cannot be part of the picture. But equally, we cannot allow other politicians to distance themselves from these explicit forms of Islamophobia, whilst still passing legislation which targets muslims.
A key battle for anti-racists in the coming years will come in the struggle over definitions of racism. Whilst popular definitions focus only on the interpersonal and explicit, for meaningful change, there needs to be a re-centring of definitions that show racisms to be structural and institutional rather than solely individual. To focus only on the individual, leaves us susceptible to missing much of the bigger picture: a picture in which certain communities, along racial and religious lines, are systematically disadvantaged in a range of areas such as housing, healthcare and education, to name just a few.
To focus only on the individual would see anti-racists exert all of their energies challenging Johnson’s comments, whilst much bigger issues like the racist ‘hostile environment’ agenda goes unchecked. To be sure, whilst individual remarks (particularly those from high-profile politicians) feed structural and institutional racisms, they are not the entirety of the picture, or even the most insidious part. Our challenge, is to whole-heartedly condemn Johnson, and recognise the dangers in remarks like his, but to also keep an eye on the bigger (structural) picture. This bigger picture would show us the magnitude of the struggle we face.