LONDON: In a quiet summer week, a disparaging quip about the burqa by ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson has sparked a frenzied debate in Britain drawing in religion, politics and Brexit.
The former London mayor wrote a column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Monday saying the full Muslim face veil should not be banned but women who wear it look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.
The comment prompted a frenzy of reaction, with campaigners accusing Johnson of encouraging Islamophobia.
Brandon Lewis, the chairman of the ruling Conservatives, asked him to apologise and the party launched an investigation after receiving dozens of complaints.
But some Tory MPs defended Johnson’s right to speak out, while he also drew support from some unexpected areas.
“Mr Bean” and “Blackadder” star Rowan Atkinson noted on Friday that “all jokes about religion cause offence”, and apologies were only required where the joke was not funny.
In the letter pages of The Times, meanwhile, Muslim scholars sparred over whether the niqab and burqa had a basis in the Koran, and veiled British women were interviewed on live TV.
Britain’s top police officer, Cressida Dick, was even asked whether Johnson may have committed a hate crime, concluding that he had not, even if many people found his words “offensive”.
Johnson let it be known he would not be apologising, with a source close to him saying it was important to “speak up for liberal values”. He publicly said nothing and is now on holiday.
Some critics suspect him of deliberately creating controversy at a time when, with the British parliament in recess, political reporters are desperate for something to write about.
A colleague at the Telegraph, for whom Johnson has worked on and off for decades, said he often wrote his articles at the last minute, without thinking too much about it.
But critics accuse him of wooing right-wing Conservatives with a populist message about Muslims, with an eye on a future party leadership contest.
Johnson resigned from the government last month in protest at Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for Brexit, a move that won him support among many Conservative activists.
The eurosceptic Daily Mail newspaper reported Friday that the vast majority of its readers support his stance on the burqa, with 19 out of 20 letters received offering their backing.
Meanwhile The Telegraph — which also backs Brexit — reported that many Conservative MPs were furious at party chairman Lewis for asking Johnson to apologise.
One unnamed source said that the move, which helped turn the issue into a major news story, was an attempt to “knee cap” Johnson in any forthcoming leadership race.
Johnson did not excel as Britain’s top diplomat — the Chatham House think tank called him the “least successful” of all British foreign ministers in the past 70 years.
But he remains the most recognisable politician in Britain, known widely just as “Boris” — and proved this week that even out of government, he can still drive the news.