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Claire Fox on Boris Johnson and free speech

This article by Claire Fox seems a useful starting point for some reflections on the burka row.  First a quick note on my own reaction to Johnson’s comments.  They slotted in quite neatly to some distinctions around discussions of this topic which I briefly sketched in a recent piece on anti-Muslim bigotry:

Vulgar and harsh comments about what an individual woman is wearing, assumptions about her views and motives, are one thing – but a reasoned critique of modesty codes (and some of those writing these will be Muslim women themselves) quite another

Clearly Johnson’s comparisons with letterboxes and bank robbers were by no means at the crudest and most abusive end of the spectrum – but they seemed to me to a cross a line, and I supported the response of Theresa May and Brandon Lewis.

Although her piece is thought-provoking, I think Fox errs in over-emphasising the free speech element of the controversy. As Barrister Blogger pointed out:

She begins:

Religious freedom is one of the core principles of any modern liberal society. As a secularist, I defend the right of religious people to send their children to faith schools, have their children circumcised, or wear the burqa, This does not mean I approve of any of these practices; they should be permissible but not protected from criticism. We should be free to ridicule, lampoon, chastise, critique, etc. every aspect of religious belief that we tolerate.

I agree with the final statement here – and yet if a Labour MP were to make some sneering remarks about male circumcision – even while defending parents’ right to have the procedure carried out – I might start to check their previous form and reflect on their motives – and take note of exactly who was cheering them on.

Fox goes on to reinforce the point that one must be able to defend someone’s right to exercise a freedom without in any way indicating approval for that choice.  But it is easily possible to express concerns about the niqab/burka – concerns relating to security, integration, coercion, Islamist ideology etc – without using language which seems calculated to inflame and divide. (And it’s really telling that Johnson won’t apologise – if he genuinely wanted to make a constructive contribution to the debate he should have done.)

There a small but interesting disjunct between the first and second sentences in this section of the article:

But should all political comment on religion have to pass an offense test to be allowed? I am pretty sure that my two aunts – who are Catholic nuns – would be pretty offended if they heard my atheist mates’ denouncing as backward mumbo-jumbo a religion that believes the host and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ.

Casual conversations with your mates are distinct from ‘political comment’. (And mocking a specific belief isn’t quite the same as saying niqabi women look like bank robbers.)  Within political discourse it’s absolutely vital to argue in favour of policies, such as abortion rights, which go against religious belief, although probably not necessary to target transubstantiation.

Here I thought Fox was setting up a straw man.

Are Boris’s critics demanding respect for all religious practices regardless of whether they consider them backward, wrong-headed, or oppressive? Should we bite our lip in case we offend? We seem to have forgotten that we once all declared #JeSuisCharlie – a brief but inspiringly unapologetic defense of free speech after cartoonists for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were brutally butchered in Paris for daring to publish cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. Should they have shut up until they learned to become more tactful?

Many of those joining in the criticisms of Johnson have no liking for face veils, and are certainly not ‘demanding respect’ for the garment.  It is entirely consistent to be actively and trenchantly opposed to religious extremism, and yet agree with calls for Johnson to apologise. As well as being concerned that his remarks may embolden bigots, causing yet more problems for Muslim women, I worry that this furore may strengthen the hand of Islamists.

Fox continues:

Naturally, cheap sectarian Tory-bashing has driven some of the outrage. Supporters of the Labour Party, recently afflicted by an anti-Semitism scandal that is still rumbling on, were quick to denounce the “gross Islamophobia” in the article,

I’m wary at attempts to label the outrage ‘sectarian’ – I accept it’s present at some level, but I’m sure many Labour supporters are perfectly sincere in opposing Johnson, just as there will be many Conservatives who are quite properly concerned about antisemitism in Labour .

(Incidentally, I did enjoy this little dig at Owen Jones from Tell MAMA.)

Despite having various reservations about the article I did agree with Fox about Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Like her, I was surprised to note that YAB strongly disliked Johnson’s article as she doesn’t hold back in her criticism of the niqab – comparing the women who wear them to ‘angry bats’.

Towards the end of the essay Claire Fox warns of a slippery slope which would end with us not being able to make any criticism of any Islamic belief or individual Muslim:

If questioning a fringe religious practice is assumed as evidence of bigotry against all Muslims, surely that implies that any and all Islamic practices and beliefs should be surrounded by a ‘do-not-criticise’ barrier? More broadly, the risk is that the moral of the Boris story will be that any criticism of anyone who happens to be a Muslim, regardless of their behaviour, is verboten.

By contrast my own view is that it’s important to recognize that there’s a complex spectrum of ways of discussing Islam (and other contentious topics) and to acknowledge minor infractions, while at the same time acknowledging that tipping over in the other direction – into apologism for extremists such as we more usually see on the left for example – is at least equally problematic.