...free to think freely


8th August 2018

The Burka: Truth or a good story?

The news has been dominated all day by the row over Boris Johnson’s comments about women who wear the burka. Apparently, he said they looked like letterboxes or bank robbers. At least, so he is reported. Like most right-minded individuals I was shocked by the crass stupidity and insensitivity behind such a remark. How could anyone think it was clever to say anything so stupid and insulting?

From a Diverse Diversity viewpoint, I certainly do not approve of people being insulted or intimidated, nor of poorly-reasoned emotive attacks on people or groups.

All day the furore has escalated as politician after politician has jumped into the fray to signal their disapproval. One or two have also seized on the comment to express their own disapproval of the dress style or imply there is a large unheard constituency of people in the UK who disapprove of Islamic dress or just of Muslims or foreigners or some other vaguely related group. Of course, for the media this is a good story, giving them their own opportunity to express their prejudices or raise fears about various real or imagined threats to society.

Like many, I suspect most, people, I was outraged by what I heard. I have already mentioned I thought it was a stupid and insulting comment, and no one should be targeted with such words.

However, I have lived long enough to know that, when the media are concerned, things are often not as they are portrayed, and when it comes to remarks and their interpretation, context is everything, so before writing this I set out to establish the facts. What did Mr Johnson write and how did he intend it to be understood? I failed. At least, I partly failed.

It wasn’t entirely my fault. The Telegraph website requires me to register my personal details with them for the privilege of reading the article in full. Unfortunately, that process does not appear to work. My attempts to register with them failed twice, so I could not read more than the introduction to the piece. However, I read enough to suspect the political arguments might bear little relationship to the truth.

The headline at the top of Mr Johnson’s column was “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it”. That’s a bit double-edged, and a little more subtil than the news might have led me to believe. It doesn’t sound resolutely opposed to the dress, rather reluctantly supportive. The article began by highlighting some eccentricities of the Danes. What it went on to say about them I cannot tell, and I certainly did not get as far as finding out what the former Foreign Secretary meant to say about the burka, because he was still writing about the Danes when his words faded out. Still, it appears he was likely to be reacting to a Danish law, proposed or recently passed, to ban the wearing of the garment in that country, and disagreeing with it.

If that were the tone of his column, it seems at least possible that what he actually wrote was along the lines that although he personally thought wearing the burka made its wearer look ridiculous (reminding him of bank robbers or even a letterbox) it also could be seen as a matter of personal freedom like the wearing of any badge or symbol, and he supported the right of those who chose to wear it. And if that were what he intended, then to portray it as an attack on the wearers is a serious misrepresentation of his intent. It would amount to an unfair attack on him and burka wearers by those determined to cause maximum fear and offence to innocent people, and a failure of the media to inform properly the public of what is really going on.

If that is what he meant... As it is, the Telegraph’s jealous guarding of information the public needs in order to understand how to judge a matter of public controversy prevents us knowing what we need to know to act, and ultimately vote, intelligently. That is a danger to our democracy.

It feels strongly that we are being manipulated rather than informed.