Boris Johnson’s burqa comments ‘led to surge in anti-Muslim attacks’

Boris Johnson’s comments on women wearing the veil led to a surge in anti-Muslim attacks and incidents of abuse, the monitoring group Tell Mama has said.

In its annual report, the group said two significant spikes occurred in 2018. The first, in spring, reflected the Punish a Muslim day” incident when letters were sent to Muslim homes, institutions and places of work. The letter suggested people could win “points” for a range of activities aimed at Muslims, including removing a headscarf from a woman or beating a person up. Muslim MPs also received the letters.

However,a second, more significant spike occurred in August after Johnson wrote a column referring to veiled Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.

In the week following that article, Tell Mama said anti-Muslim incidents increased by 375% – from eight incidents the previous week, to 38 in the following.

Of the 38 anti-Muslim hate incidents, 22 were directed at Muslim women who wore the niqab, or face veil.

The group recorded a total of 57 incidents in the three weeks following the publication of the column by the former foreign secretary and current prime minister, 32 of which were directed at Muslim women. It said that between 5 and 29 August, 42% of the street-based incidents reported to Tell Mama directly referenced Johnson and the language used in his column.

Johnson was widely criticised by senior Tories after making the remarks, with demands for an apology from the then party chairman, Brandon Lewis.

In the article in question, Johnson had said he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP’s surgery. He also said schools and universities should be able to take the same approach if a student “turns up … looking like a bank robber”.

Johnson had called the burqa “oppressive”, adding it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.

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Johnson was subsequently investigated over the comments by an independent panel andwas cleared of breaking the Conservative party’s code of conduct. The investigation into whether he broke party rules was triggered automatically after the receipt of a number of complaints over the column.

A spokesperson for Tell Mama said: “The rising instances of discrimination, hate speech, and anti-Muslim literature indicate that a more general intolerance and hatred is growing. These typologies are seldom prosecutable by law and have proven more difficult to achieve satisfactory outcomes and solutions for victims.

“Similarly, this year we analysed the trends in verbal abuse, finding a common theme whereby perpetrators use language attacking Islam and religious practices alongside, for example, anti-Muslim hate incidents that range from abusive behaviour, discrimination, or threats.

“We therefore emphasise the gravity of attacks on Islam in tandem with hatred directed at individuals or institutions. The two are interconnected, thus hatred and intolerance must both be challenged simultaneously.”

In total Tell Mama recorded 1,072 verified anti-Muslim or Islamophobic reports. Of the 1,072 cases, 745 occurred at a street level and 327 were online.

Over the three years to 2018, the group said it recorded a steady annual increase in street-based anti-Muslim incidents. However, this year demonstrated an 11% reduction in street-based incidents compared with 2017.

The group added it should be noted that there were four major terrorist attacks in the UK in 2017, which led to sharp spikes of reported anti-Muslim hate incidents.

In 2018 anti-Muslim attacks and incidents most commonly took place in public areas. Incidents which took place within the victim’s household or private property increased by 11%, and those at the victim’s place of work rose by 8% since the previous year.

Consistent with previous reports, the majority of victims were female at 57% and the main perpetrators were male.

Iman Atta, the director of Tell Mama, said: “We are in a period of instability, politically and socially. Even in 2018, when there were no major terrorist attacks in comparison to 2017, when there were four of them in the United Kingdom, levels of anti-Muslim hatred or Islamophobia have remained stubbornly high. In fact, levels in 2018 equalled those of 2017 when the major terrorist attacks took place.

“Anti-Muslim hatred has become an issue that is not going away and which has been growing since we started supporting victims of anti-Muslim hate in 2011. We ask all politicians to reflect on the future of our country.”


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