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What Some British Muslims Make of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister

"Unfortunately, some people are so bored of politics that they see him as charming, funny and relatable. It will be tragic."

by Salma Haidrani
25 May 2019, 8:00am

Photo via AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

It's an understatement to say that the Tories have developed a fraught relationship with the British Muslim community. Just take David Cameron suggesting in 2016 that British Muslim women are “traditionally submissive” and were to blame for the so-called radicalisation of Muslim men. In the same year, Zac Goldsmith ran a failed London mayoral campaign, where he dogwhistled Sadiq Khan “repeatedly legitimised those with extremist views”. Theresa May, of course, was Home Secretary when the Home Office ran the "go home" vans campaign for about a month in 2013 (reportedly 11 people took up the kind offer). Earlier this month, her government rejected a cross-party definition of Islamophobia.

But it’s Boris Johnson whose language about Islam and Muslims has perhaps been the most inflammatory and disrespectful. In 2005, he wrote that a fear of Muslims among the British public was a “natural reaction”. Last summer, he compared veiled Muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” in his Telegraph column. Within a week, watchdog Tell Mama reported a rise in Islamophobic attacks, some of which referenced the word "letterbox". The Conservative party later cleared him of his comments, saying the article “did not foster intolerance”. So yeah, not terrifying at all.

Now that Theresa May's announced that she’s stepping down on the 7th of June, Boris’ bid for Tory leadership is gathering momentum (a recent poll of Tory party members reveals a 59 percent lead). So I spoke to five British Muslims to find out how they feel about anti-Muslim prejudice in the Tory party, what the future holds for British Muslims and how they feel about the idea of this man actually, potentially, maybe even probably moving into Number 10.

Asad, 31, founder of The Unmistakeables

Asad Duhnna

“I can’t imagine Boris' impact on the British Muslim community getting any better. We already know Islamophobia is rife in the Tory Party and having a leader who has gone on the record with comments likening Muslim women to letterboxes is only going to legitimise that stance. We saw racist attacks increase following his comments and I can only imagine that him becoming Prime Minister will give people a platform to air similar, racist views. What's more, the media furore around it will be inevitably unbearable. We’ve seen that Muslims feel they face discrimination within the media and even more airtime for Boris will only go to heighten his opportunities to say something out of turn and offensive.

How different do I think Boris will be as a PM if he wins? David Cameron led the UK into a Brexit oblivion and Teresa May struggles to open a car door. I can only imagine that Boris will be a messy mixture of the two. For anyone worried about Boris becoming PM, get out there and campaign. Join a political party, stand up and be counted. It's very easy to tweet your feelings but we need to be out there standing up for true equality and pushing for a better life for British Muslims in the UK for years to come.”

Nadia, musician in The Tuts

Nadia Javed by Alia Romagnoli
Photo by Alia Romagnoli

“If Boris becomes Prime Minister, everything will just become one big bumbling joke. He could end up being like Trump in the US. It will be tragic. Unfortunately, some people are so bored of politics that they see Boris as charming, funny and relatable. He needs to f**k off back to Eton.

When he compared veiled Muslim women to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’ last summer, it was pretty shocking because it’s basically saying it’s OK to make fun out of Muslim women – especially if you’re a white man in power doing it. It also boxes Muslim women into looking a certain way or being ‘oppressed’. I’m a Muslim woman fronting a punk band. I’m representing and dispelling the myth of what bigots like Boris think a Muslim girl is. I just got off tour with The Specials – I don’t fit his stereotype. It’s annoying we have to justify ourselves. The choice is up to us and how we want to dress and what empowers us. I’ve had men wolf whistle me on stage, yet if I wore a burqa, Boris would call me a letterbox... either way, you just can’t win.”

(Fun fact: Nadia once sang “Never Trust a Tory” to Boris Johnson's face.)

Ferhan, 34, Queer Muslim activist and journalist

Ferhan Khan

“I’m genuinely fearful of what the future holds in Britain if Boris becomes PM. We can already see evidence of right-wing populist culture becoming normalised with the ease in which Sajid Javid revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum. I am in absolutely no way saying that she should have been granted any kind of soft treatment for her crimes, but the fact that we can now breach international law on making a British citizen stateless should be a cause for concern. In a cabinet with unhinged characters like BoJo and Sajid, I would expect many more breaches of international law and new precedents in the taking away of the rights of a citizen.

Theresa May and David Cameron are far from perfect and in their own way (and I would say insidious ways) have further polarised marginalised communities. Theresa’s lack of compassion for the victims of the Grenfell fire might well look like a warm embrace if compared to the disdain for the poor that BoJo might have shown had he been PM at the time.

I don’t see the temperament of leadership in BoJo: I see a self-serving populist elitist that cares very little for anyone but himself. He’ll be just like Dave in this regard but a much more caffeinated version: PoC and particularly Muslims will be scrutinised to within an inch of their sanity under his regime and constantly having to defend their right to simply exist as a British person.”

Aleesha, 21, Writer and activist

Aleesha

“I’ve long expected that Boris Johnson would be running for PM. It’s an utterly vile feeling to know that a man who faced zero repercussions for his Islamophobic comments against Muslim women is able to further his career.

When Boris compared veiled Muslim women to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’ last summer, I was filled with anger and sadness. I don’t believe this was ‘clumsy’ language. He knew exactly what he was doing: he appeased the far-right and got their attention. It disgusted me more that hate crimes increased against Muslim people after his comments, but I did expect it since Boris essentially told the British public that these comments are OK.

His bid for Tory leadership sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for minority communities. I don’t believe they’re safe under his leadership. His views are a poundshop Donald Trump. Should Boris become PM, let him know what you think at the next election by voting him and the Tories out of government.”

Samayya, 27, Community Engagement Manager at the Muslim Council of Britain

Samayya Afzal

“Boris Johnson's gaffes have been widely condemned, but for me, the real worry lies with the fact that Islamophobia is a really serious issue in our society, and I'm not confident that whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will take it as seriously as they do all bigotries. Polls show that Tory voters are among the most likely to hold anti-Muslim views. Just under half agree that Islam is a threat to the British way of life. Some Conservative leadership contenders appear to be appealing to this contingent of voters. I'm hopeful that things can change, and that Conservative politicians can stop demonising Muslim communities to win votes. Even so, it will take a significant cultural shift within the party before we feel comfortable voting for them.”

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

@its_me_Salma