Should the UK ban the burqa? Why Boris Johnson is right

Not much happens in August, news-wise, which in part explains the furore over remarks made by a back-bench MP about burqas. When the MP is Boris Johnson, however, publicity is guaranteed.

Boris was rude about women in burqas, the all-enveloping garment worn by some Muslim women out of which they look at the world through a sort of grating in front of their eyes. He said the garment was oppressive and that it was 'weird and bullying' to expect women to cover their faces. What got him into trouble, however, was his next line, where he said: 'I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.'

The final straw, as it were, was when he referred to one of his predecessors as foreign secretary, who said in 2006 that he invited constituents wearing burqas or niqabs – which reveal the eyes – to raise them when they visited him. 'If a constituent came to my MP's surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly,' said Johnson. 'If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct.' (Straw said Johnson's language was 'insulting and inflammatory').

Straw's strictures, however, are mild compared with the rage that has greeted his comments from other quarters. He's been widely accused of racism; he's facing a Tory party inquiry; the prime minister has suggested he apologise. On the other hand, some Muslims say he didn't go nearly far enough.

It is, of course, an understatement to say that there are various issues in play here, not least the capacity of Boris to infuriate someone whatever he says. More significantly, there's the perennial question of his ambition to lead his party, which means the 'Stop Boris' wing will take any advantage they can get. Furthermore, the reactions reflect different attitudes to burqas and niqabs in the Muslim community. Are they oppressive and Islamically unnecessary? Plenty think so. Are they just a freely-chosen expression of personal devotion? Plenty of those, too.

More contentiously, do they make women look like letter-boxes or bank robbers? Here, Johnson is guilty of letting his penchant for heavy-handed humour outrun not just any respect he might feel for those who inhabit these garments, but his political instincts. That one was never going to go down well.

However: commentators who've alleged that Johnson was channelling his inner Steve Bannon and appealing to the extreme right of his party have rather spectacularly missed the point. On the contrary, he was articulating – unnecessarily rudely – a classic liberal position, in contradistinction to the deeply illiberal laws attracted by European countries like Denmark that have banned the burqa. That kind of ban is supported by nearly 60 per cent of British people – among them, no doubt, a disproportionate number of Conservatives. If Johnson really wanted their backing for a leadership bid, he would have written quite a different article.

Because the whole thrust of his piece is that banning burqas is wrong. And while he may have misjudged his attempt to win over his Tory Telegraph readers by trying to assure them he's really one of them, in this he is absolutely right.

In the UK, we wear what we like, unless it is an outright outrage to public decency. Banning items of clothing is for countries that lack the confidence to be truly liberal. It might be justified in certain circumstances – like the banks that tell people to take motorcycle helmets off, or the shopping centre that banned people wearing hoodies – but it's an extreme and unusual move. And that's especially true when the clothing involved is associated with a particular religion. As Johnson said – though his critics have generally not read that far – 'I am against a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam.'

In banning burqas, he says, 'you play into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations; and you fan the flames of grievance'.

He's not wrong. We don't ban anything in this country unless it can be shown that it's harmful. Does that apply to burqas? Well, there's an argument, certainly, and on the face of it it's pretty oppressive. But there is something unpleasantly colonial about the idea that the West knows best, and that we have a right to impose our view of what a woman should wear on everyone else. We should not automatically assume that someone is being compelled to bear this garment, and we should not overrule her free choice if that's what she wants. And a ban would come nowhere near addressing wider questions of women and Islam, if that's the plan. In the UK, we believe in the maximum possible liberty for the individual, constrained as far as possible only by the liberties of other individuals.

Calls for a burqa ban, however – supported, let's remind ourselves, by nearly three-quarters of Brits – aren't generally based on concern for oppressed Muslim women. They are because they make people feel uncomfortable. People are uneasy about not seeing faces. They don't know how to engage or where to look. And a burqa-clad woman is alien, because there are so few of them, and threatening, because there might be more – and we need to step up and defend our national – white, Christian – identity, don't we?

This kind of thinking is far, far more Islamophobic than anything Boris has said.

We have, in fact, no right not to be made uneasy, any more than we have the right not to be offended. If the sight of a burqa-clad woman worries us, the best thing we can do is get over it. Beneath that outer garment is a human being just like us – who can, and should, wear what she likes. And a Christian national identity that needs the support of a burqa ban is not worth having.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods