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Boris Johnson Jokes about Burkas and Brits Go Mad

Boris Johnson talks with reporters at the European Council in Belgium in May. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Whatever one thinks of Boris Johnson, one has to admit that the former British foreign secretary, and strident “Brexiteer,” has more personality than the average British politician.

Here he is in 2012 as mayor of London:

And here he is in the act of resigning as foreign secretary, in response to May’s compromised Brexit deal at Chequers. (Johnson made the unusual decision to hire a photographer to capture the moment.)

As one might expect, Johnson is no stranger to controversy. And the latest flash of BoJo MoJo has caused quite a fuss. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, titled “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous — but that’s still no reason to ban it,” he compared women wearing the niqab to a (British) letterbox.

For the benefit of Americans who don’t know what a “letterbox” looks like — here’s the comparison being drawn:

Naturally, I defer all judgment to the reader’s discretion. But first — some context.

Johnson’s joke was written as part of an objection to Denmark’s blanket ban of face veils in public. Johnson argued that in a liberal democracy, the government ought not to dictate what people can and can’t wear (beyond the obvious exceptions already established in law). Johnson disagrees with this interpretation of an Islamic custom (as do many Muslims) which requires a woman to cover most of her face and body; but he, more importantly, thinks that it’s wrong to prohibit others from dressing this way if they so wish. Fair?

Apparently not. Labour MPs were appalled at the comparison, many calling it “Islamophobic.” The Muslim Council of Britain said the comments were “particularly regrettable in this current climate, where Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is becoming worryingly pervasive.”

But is it really “Islamophobic” to poke fun at an interpretation of Islam while defending the rights of its believers?

One wonders whether the response would have been quite so severe had he made fun of Christian beliefs or practices. Remember Monty Python? Or what about the sketches of the likes of Rowan Atkinson (known to many as “Mr. Bean”)?

Likewise, few seemed to cry “Islamophobia” in 1999 when Stephen Fry made the same joke about “posting something” in a niqab on Have I Got News for You. But times have moved on, it seems. Even if comedy hasn’t.

Incidentally, Atkinson was among those to defend Johnson. Writing a letter to London’s The Times he said: “All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologizing for them.”

“As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one.”

Atkinson added, “You should really only apologize for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

Politically, of course, Johnson’s comments cause trouble for the Conservative party. While Labour struggles with accusations of anti-Semitism, the Tories are increasingly concerned about appearing anti-Muslim. Many Conservative MPs have called on Boris to apologize — including the prime minister. But Johnson has refused to do so. And, frankly, why should he?

Some Muslims may well be offended by Johnson’s comment. But the wonderful thing is that they are perfectly free to be offended. They can criticize Johnson publicly — as some did. But ultimately, the paradigm of true tolerance is putting up with things you don’t like. And, ironically, this was the precise point Johnson was making.

One thing is worth remembering here — Boris Johnson is a master of words and a shrewd tactician. Hence, one wonders why he made such an obviously taboo joke. Did he do so in order to expose British illiberalism and hypocrisy?

Because if so — mission accomplished.

Madeleine Kearns — Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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