The Muslim Council of Britain wants Theresa May to subject Boris to a ‘full disciplinary inquiry’ over his comments on the niqab and burqa. Let’s call this by its true name: an inquisition. This inquiry would be a 21st-century inquisition of a man simply for speaking ill of a religious practice. May must resist this borderline medieval demand that she punish a member of her party for expressing a ‘blasphemous’ thought. She must put aside her Borisphobia and stand up for freedom of conscience against the inquisitorial hysteria that has greeted Boris’s remarks.
Burqagate has been mad from the get-go. Reading some of the coverage of Boris’s Daily Telegraph column you could be forgiven for thinking he had called for a pogrom against Muslims and even against all people of colour. He has been denounced as a racist, a fascist, and of course an Islamophobe: anyone who raises even the slightest question about Koranic ideology or Islamic dress now runs the risk of being branded a ‘phobe’, just as those who queried the Bible or Christ in the past would be denounced as heretics. The bizarre return of blasphemy law.
But in truth, Boris said nothing racist. He didn’t mention people of colour or any ethnic group. He didn’t even call for intolerance against women who wear the niqab or burka. in fact he defended their rights. He said no ‘free-born adult woman’ should be told what she may and may not wear in public. That someone can be written off as ‘racist’ despite not saying anything racist, and despite writing in defence of the rights of a minority group, confirms how emptied of meaning the word racist has become. It now means nothing more than ‘bad person’; person we don’t like; person we wish to harry and shame out of public life by attaching to him the reputation-destroying brand of racist. Such a cynical misuse of language.
But the craziness of burqagate has moved up a notch with the demands for a full-scale inquiry. ‘No one should be allowed to victimise minorities with impunity’, says the Muslim Council’s letter to the Conservative Party, sent today. Boris didn’t victimise any minority. He defended their rights while also criticising the choices they make. Is criticism of minority practices a thoughtcrime now? Does this mean we cannot criticise the Ultra Orthodox Jewish sect, Belz, which has members in London, and which forbids its female members from driving? Can we not criticise Jehovah’s Witnesses over their attitude to blood transfusions? Would these criticisms be prejudice too? Belzphobia, perhaps? Anti-Jehovah’s hate speech? Or is it only Islamic practices we can’t question?
The truth is Boris did not victimise anyone; he just questioned what some people choose to do. What the MCB is really saying is: ‘You cannot criticise Islamic ideas without impunity.’ You cannot question certain Islamic practices and expect to get away with it. Such a stern, censorious stipulation has no place in a 21st-century pluralist society. In this society, everyone must have freedom of religion, and everyone else must have the freedom to mock religion. If Boris is dragged into an inquiry and made to answer for his comments on Islam, it will be a dark day for freedom of conscience in this country.
As to those comparing Boris’s comments to some of the anti-Semitic comments made by elements within the Labour Party — please, you’re embarrassing yourselves. You cannot compare anti-Semitism, which is the racial hatred of an entire people, with public criticism of one small and actually quite contested aspect of the religion of Islam. That is like comparing the white supremacist who thinks all black people are inferior with a cultural critic who simply doesn’t like the use of the N-word in gangsta rap. The former is racism, the second is criticism. As it is between Corbynista anti-Semitism and Boris’s comments on the niqab: the former has the whiff of racial hatred, the latter is perfectly legitimate commentary on a religious practice.
There should be no inquiry into what Boris said. There should be no sanction against him, no punishment, no more hounding. Because if we are not free to question religion, then what has been the point of the past 500 years of struggle for the freedom of thought, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to disbelieve in gods and devils and anything else we judge to be a bit backward?