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Boris Johnson urged to apologise over niqab 'bank robber' comments

Former British foreign secretary, who also described women in full veil as looking like 'letter boxes', accused of inflaming anti-Muslim hatred
Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson (Reuters)

Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary, was accused of “pandering to the far right” on Monday after comparing women who wear the niqab to bank robbers and letter boxes even as the Conservative Party faced fresh calls to investigate Islamophobia in its ranks.

Johnson, who resigned from the government last month, made the comments in a column for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he criticised the Danish government over its new law which bans the wearing of the full face veil in public.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” Johnson wrote. He also described female students turning up at school or university “looking like a bank robber” and described the wearing of the burqa – the veil that fully covers the face - as “oppressive”.

Johnson’s comments were condemned by members of the opposition Labour Party, while the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) reiterated its call for an inquiry into allegations of Islamophobia within the ruling Conservative Party.

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“Boris Johnson’s latest racist insults cannot be laughed off, like they often are,” said Naz Shah, Labour’s shadow equalities minister.

“[Prime Minister] Theresa May must condemn this blatant Islamophobia and Boris Johnson must apologise.”

Shah also called for Johnson to be forced to attend a training course on engaging with the Muslim community in a letter to Conservative Party chair Brandon Lewis.

David Lammy, a Labour member of parliament, described Johnson as a “pound-shop Donald Trump” who was “fanning the flames of Islamophobia to propel his own grubby electoral ambitions”.

Johnson is seen by some as a potential Conservative leader if May is forced to step down amid divisions within the party over the terms on which the UK should leave the European Union.

He was last month reported to have held meetings with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategist and the former head of the far-right Breitbart News website, who described Johnson as “one of the most important persons on the world stage today”.

The MCB said that Johnson’s comments were regrettable in a climate in which anti-Muslim hatred was becoming “worryingly pervasive” and “Muslim women bear the brunt of hate on the streets”.

“We need responsibility and action from our politicians, not pandering to the far-right. Mr Johnson’s comments also underscores the Muslim Council of Britain’s call for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. Such crass commentary should have no place in our political discourse.”

The MCB wrote to Lewis, the Conservative Party chair, in May to highlight incidents of alleged Islamophobia in the party and to call for an inquiry.

The MCB previously called for an inquiry in 2016 after then-prime minister David Cameron was forced to apologise to a London imam, Suliman Ghani, who he had falsely accused of supporting the Islamic State group.

Writing in the Evening Standard newspaper on Monday, a London imam who was hailed as a hero last year for his actions during a vehicle-ramming attack near Finsbury Park mosque said that the Conservatives were “in denial” about Islamophobia.

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The Evening Standard is edited by George Osborne, himself a former Conservative MP and the UK's finance minister under Cameron between 2010 and 2016. 

“Despite the rising scale and severity of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, the response from the Government has been lacklustre, or worse, in denial,” Mohammed Mahmoud wrote.

Mahmoud also highlighted how Bob Blackman, a Conservative MP, had shared a tweet posted by far-right activist Tommy Robinson, and shared a platform with Tapan Ghosh, an anti-Muslim Hindu extremist.

Blackman subsequently apologised for sharing Robinson’s tweet in “error” and said he did not accept Ghosh or Robinson’s views.

“The Muslim Council of Britain’s call for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, backed by its former co-chair as well as by some newspapers among others, should now be met,” Mahmoud wrote.

Mahmoud's article was shared in a tweet posted by Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and the first Muslim women to hold a cabinet post, who suggested that Johnson's remarks amounted to "dog-whistle" politics and "business as usual" in her own party.

Other Muslim organisations also condemned Johnson.

MEND, a Muslim advocacy organisation, said his comments would "increase hostility towards a group already looked upon with mistrust and suspicion" while Imran Shah, a spokesperson for MPACUK, a Muslim campaign group, said the remarks were "a reminder of how similar Boris Johnson's views about Muslims are to those of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon".

In Denmark, where wearing the face veil became illegal last week, police on Saturday issued the first fine of 1,000 kroner ($157) to a woman for breaking the law in a shopping centre in Horsholm, north of Copenhagen, according to Danish media reports.

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