Boris Johnson’s Critics See a Populist Calculation in ‘Burqa Storm’

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Boris Johnson's Critics See a Populist Calculation in 'Burqa Storm'LONDON — The jibe, ridiculing burqa-wearing Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers,” was roundly condemned by the British political establishment.

Perhaps more important than the substance of the remarks, however, was their author, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who quit last month after clashing with Prime Minister Theresa May over Britain’s break from the European Union, known as Brexit.

The comments, in an article in The Daily Telegraph, prompted accusations on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson was taking a leaf from President Trump’s campaign book in his never-ending quest to become the Conservative Party leader and, ultimately, prime minister of Britain.

In a Twitter post, Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative politician, characterized Mr. Johnson’s words as a “dog-whistle” aimed at the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim factions that inhabit both the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain’s fractured politics.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, concurred, saying, “You can’t really see anything Boris does other than through the prism of his own leadership ambitions.”

He added: “There’s no doubt he believes that using this kind of language will resonate with a certain kind of Conservative supporter and that might do him good in the leadership contest to come.”

The article was devoted mostly to criticizing Denmark’s recent ban on the burqa. But Mr. Johnson also wrote that, “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” the British term for a mail box.

The “burqa storm,” as some British media outlets are dubbing it, has prompted Ms. May and others, including the Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, and senior Tory politicians, to force Mr. Johnson to apologize, something he has so far refused to do. Instead, he has accused his critics of “ridiculous” attacks and trying to shut down “legitimate debate.”

“The question of how a woman should dress is a matter for a woman’s individual choice,” said Ms. May. “Nobody should be trying to tell a woman how to dress. It’s imperative that everybody is careful in the language that they use. It is very clear that the language that Boris Johnson used to describe people’s appearance has caused offense. It’s not language I would’ve used.”

Mohamed Sheikh, a Tory grandee, has called on his own Conservative party to eject Mr. Johnson. Eric Pickles, a former Local Government secretary, said the party could take disciplinary action against him if a formal complaint is made.

Labour politicians have also pounced on his remarks and have called for an inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative Party – ironically, just days after the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, came under fire for failing to tackle anti-Semitism within his own party.

But many critics, who have long derided Mr. Johnson as unprincipled and opportunistic, detected in his asides a not-so-subtle effort to claim the populist mantle in British politics.

As the mayor of London, he once criticized Mr. Trump for saying that Islamists had made parts of the capital “no-go zones.” But Mr. Johnson seems to have recalibrated his stance since then.

“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Mr. Johnson said in June. “I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.”

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Mr. Johnson went on. “There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

In July, Mr. Johnson, alongside other hard-line Brexit supporters, reportedly met with Steve Bannon, a leading figure of the “alt-right” movement and President Trump’s former chief strategist, who is on a crusade to install right-wing nationalist governments across Europe.

In an interview with LBC, a London radio station, Mr. Bannon spoke of Mr. Johnson in glowing terms, describing him as “very impressive.” Asked if it was the moment for Mr. Johnson to lead Britain, Mr. Bannon responded: “I believe the moment has come. It is like Donald Trump. People dismissed him.”

On the whole, Mr. Johnson’s piece questioned Denmark’s recent ban on burqas. Britain, he wrote, should not follow Denmark and some other European countries that are cracking down on burqas and niqabs.

Still, he couldn’t resist writing that women who wear the full-face veil end up “looking like a bank robber.”

Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said he was “horrified” by Mr. Johnson’s article.

“This should have been a good article about opposing the Danish niqab ban,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight program. “It’s discouraging that Boris seems to believe that he can win the party leadership by appearing as an anti-Muslim bigot. That is dispiriting.”

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