Boris Johnson and the Niqab

The recent response to Boris Johnson’s article regarding the use of the niqab by Muslim women has left us not so much angered but saddened.  It has raised a number of issues which need to be addressed.

In the first place the flippant use of language undermines the important call for a major debate on the issue of the use of the niqab and what constitutes modesty of dress.  This will be no easy debate since it will be coloured as much by cultural assumptions as by religious stipulations and who has the authority to decide on the interpretation of such stipulations.  The fact that some Muslims supported Johnson’s attack on the niqab is indicative that interpretation is far from uniform.

The second issue, and perhaps equally disturbing, is the fact that for reasons of political gain a politician has opened up emotions deeply held by members of the public who now feel it acceptable to use what amounts to xenophobic language, thus not only creating greater insult but the possibility of a backlash by extremists from both Muslim background and the far-right. That mature women should deliberately echo Johnson’s ‘letter-box’ language within the hearing of already vulnerable Muslim women who chose to wear the veil is an example of this increasing phenomenon.

Calls for Johnson to be silenced constitute the third important matter for debate.  Of course it would be better had Johnson not made the statements he has made, but the right to freedom of speech was hard won and pivotal in our society.  Rigorous debate lies at the heart of democracy and our religious freedom.  But the right to free speech also brings with it the responsibility to speak with honesty and integrity, recognising the freedom of the other to hold opinions with which one may disagree.  Regrettably in all this few have recognised that debate also requires listening as well as speaking.  How often have we heard the other side of the story?  Have we given Muslim women the opportunity to explain why they embrace the niqab or why they do not?  We have been quick to demand that our cultural expression is that which is the default.

Thus we call, not for silence, but for an honest debate devoid of insulting language, open to honestly held opinion and a debate where listening is recognised as being as important as speaking.  One has also to ask: could such a debate actually happen?  There are places where such debate is possible, but how one takes this into the courts of public opinion is frightening given the populist rhetoric of the likes of Johnson and the increasing xenophobia within the British population.

Reverend Dr John Parry August 2018