"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
Boris Johnson is either a reckless or a savvy political operator. Maybe he's a bit of both. In a recent article, he compared Burka wearers to post boxes and robbers. His comments have drawn outrage. He’s accused on racism, Islamophobia and inviting attacks on Muslims.
Most of this synthetic anger is coming from within the Tory party. Muslim groups have also expressed concern. Demands for an apology, including from Prime Minister May, have met with silence.
If it’s a poor-taste joke, then Boris is repeating what many are thinking. Although, they daren’t say it. The PC culture shuts down such comments, except behind closed doors. Yet, it may well be that something else is happening here. Could it be that Boris is using this trigger-issue to garner public support? Indeed, he’s seen a bounce in his popularity. He's adopted Trump's tactics.
For clarity, it's necessary to be clear that the Burka is full coverage including the face. The Niqab is a veil that covers the face, showing the eyes only. The diagram below illustrates the variations. When people talk about the Burka, that usually includes the Niqab.
In a free society Boris, and indeed anyone is entitled to have a view on the Burka. Moreover, they can express that view as long as it doesn’t incite violence. Let's face it, you can’t have a proper public debate if every time someone decides to take offence, you shut it down. In mature open societies, people have the right to say things that may offend others. Police chief Cressida Dick has stated that Mr Johnson did not commit a hate crime. “What Mr Johnson said would not reach the bar for a criminal offence,” she said. Well yeah, obviously. Anyway, Mr Bean found it funny.
Also, I suspect Boris is playing an expansive game of challenging Prime Minister Teresa May. She now faces calls to expel him from the party. That may be the worst of outcomes for her. Once out the party, freed of any constraints, Boris is the natural rally point for a campaign to unseat May.
Nonetheless, the Burka issue raises a host of questions that are not easy to address in liberal nations. Denmark, France, Belgium and Austria have acted to ban the Burka in public places. Partial bans apply in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Switzerland and Holland. Other nations are mulling bans or partial bans.
Whether this is desirable or wise is debatable. To me dictating what women should wear or shouldn’t wear is a slippery slope. The counter-point is that these women don’t have a say. Some would argue that male-dominated Islam is forcing the ladies to wear the Burka. Moreover, coercion through violence and threats of violence is on record. In this argument, the Burka is a demonstration of female subjugation. Thus, banning grants them freedom. That is a rational argument, except that devote ladies, adopt the Burka willingly. As such, a ban infringes their liberties. And so it goes.
Other arguments put forward for a ban include public safety and the protection of women. Countries, where the Burka is commonly worn, have higher rates of domestic violence. In Pakistan, it's suggested that 90 per cent of women have experienced domestic violence. In 2003 a French survey found that 77 per cent of girls who wore the hijab did so because of threats.
Is there a middle ground? If there is I’m struggling to find it.
In Hong Kong, we can see that ladies from Indonesia wear their religious clothes at the weekends only. Rarely do you see them with the full face veil instead they opt for the hijab. On a trip to Dubai, I saw ladies enjoying themselves in a disco. As the evening came to an end, the Burka re-appeared as they departed. From this, you can conclude what you may including wearing the Burka full-time is not a rule. A degree of latitude exists.
None of this changes the fact that people in western countries see the Burka as a symbol of a failure to assimilate. To them, it’s a visible manifestation that people are not prepared to adopt the open culture of the country. The clustering of Muslims in certain cities drives that narrative. Then you have the separation. As recently reported in the UK, some Muslim kids are not allowed play-overs with non-Muslim children. Muslim parents are imposing a system of segregation outside the confines of schools. This is a worrying trend.
That being so, Johnson is tapping into public sentiment. His timing is interesting. Last week came confirmation that Salman Abedi, who killed 22 and himself with a bomb at the Manchester Arena last year, was rescued from the sea by the Royal Navy. Picked up off the Libyan coast by HMS Enterprise, he was conveyed to Malta, before flying to the UK.
Abedi, a radicalised Muslim, detonated a bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017. His targets were children mainly girls. Abedi used student loans to fund his attack, including paying for trips overseas to learn bomb-making. Let me spell it out … a man who’d fought with militants in Libya gets conveyed home by the British military. He’s then given a place at university, although he diverts the money provided to make a bomb. That bomb he uses to kill children.
People see a pattern emerging as part of a broader phenomenon. A failure of the government to address integration to curtail the radical religious killers. Behind closed doors, on the sofa across the country, Middle England has no issue with Boris's comments.
For my part, banning the Burka achieves nothing. In the past, England banned Catholic symbols as part of a drive against the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. It didn’t work, nor will banning the Burka. Such an approach will further alienate a minority and prove counter-productive.
In the end, there is no easy answer. Boris has brought the subject into the open for debate, and that's healthy. The best I can offer is recognising that “core culture” takes precedence over “multiculturism.” For example, we don’t allow honour killings or mutilation of young girls genitals. Likewise, liberal countries must understand that closing down the discussion under the veil of a PC culture is a recipe for disaster.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.