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Ruqaya Izzidien

Boris Johnson has a new superpower

Johnson, likely the next UK prime minister, likened Muslim women to letterboxes [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 July, 2019

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Comment: For Johnson and his Islamophobic Tory party, bigotry has become something of a superpower, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
'Boris Johnson Islamophobic remark unearthed.' This was the headline I was waiting to read. 

'Islam kept Muslim world centuries behind West,' Johnson claimed. 

This, instead is what I read, and iterations of it, which repeat and perpetuate Johnson's claim, while burying - or more often ignoring - the issue at hand; that Boris Johnson wrote something Islamophobic. 

Johnson wrote in an essay, which was added to a later edition of his 2006 book, The Dream of Rome, that Islam kept the Muslim world centuries behind the West.

"There must be something about Islam that indeed helps to explain why there was no rise of the bourgeoisie, no liberal capitalism and therefore no spread of democracy in the Muslim world.

"It is extraordinary to think that under the Roman/Byzantine empire, the city of Constantinople kept the candle of learning alight for a thousand years, and that under Ottoman rule, the first printing press was not seen in Istanbul until the middle of the 19th century. Something caused them to be literally centuries behind," he writes.

The prime minister in waiting takes one act - the resistance to using a printing press - as representative of an entire region's attitude, ignoring the achievements of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the mammoth contribution that the Muslim-majority countries offered to science, astronomy, farming, algebra, medicine, and literature.

He proceeded to make the remarkable gymnastic leap (imagine it if you can) - of citing "Muslim grievance," as a factor in virtually every global conflict.

Belonging is not something that a citizen must earn

I'm pretty confident that Muslim grievance wasn't a factor in the noisy conflict in his own home a month ago.

Yes, I am going there; Johnson long ago forfeited his right to civility, when he 
called Keith Vaz, parliament's longest-serving British Asian MP, "as greasy as an onion bhaji,"described African people as "picanninies," argued that colonialism was "the best fate for Africa," and likened Muslim women to letterboxes.

Suppression of Iraqi autonomy

It's a cunningly loaded phrase, "Muslim grievance." Is Johnson really criticising the victims of genocide and colonialism for complaining?

He points to Iraq as an example of a conflict that was mired by "Muslim grievance," a country which is being held back by Islam. Johnson needs to be a little more specific about which British invasion we hold grievances about.

Does he think that, when Sunnis and Shias were uniting against British colonialism in 1920 in Iraq, it was Islam that held them back? When they entered into negotiations with their invaders (who had already offered false promises of independence in return for Arab loyalty during World War I), when they formed diplomatic councils and elected leaders, was it Islam that held them back?

All this time, I thought it was the fact that Britain's response to Iraqi Muslim diplomacy was to replace governance with aerial policing, burn towns as collective punishment, play target practice on fleeing villagers and bomb villages for non-payment of taxes.

No, you're right, it's Islam that's holding us back. 

It's an unwinnable argument, and that's exactly how Johnson designed it.

Muslim countries are backwards, just look at their economies, human rights records, freedom of press. But we are not permitted to contextualise how decades of pillaging, suppression and racism by the British Empire set the Muslim world on this course, or we are accused of having "Muslim grievances."

Forget that fact that Britain showcased those very same deprivation of rights and press freedom while mining our natural resources. 

Muslim grievance does not exist, and if it did it would closer describe how I felt when I discovered that parmesan isn't halal. What Johnson meant to say was not "Muslim grievance," but "restitution for ethnic cleansing and colonialism."

And, still, his claim would be myopic, ill-informed, and yes, bigoted.

A Trump-Johnson alliance

While I would like to believe that Johnson's selection as prime minister is not a forgone conclusion, the prospect of a world in which two superpowers are led by racist, womanising buffoons who see marginalised people as fodder, political tools and unhuman, is terrifying.

Not only will the Trump-Johnson combover tag-team continue to strip back rights and prioritise personal gains over national ones, but it also promises the continued one-upmanship of casual racism between the pair.

Backwards Muslims are a very convenient distraction

Tory Islamophobia

That Johnson, the poster boy for the Conservative party holds these beliefs should come as no surprise, both because of his track-record, and because Islamophobia has long been part of the Tory identity.

And, like an electrified supervillain, with each act of bigotry, Boris Johnson's powers multiply. And Britain is only too happy to enable this.

A YouGov survey carried out this month found that 56 percent of Conservative party members think that Islam is a threat to the British way of life, and only 22 percent thought that Islam was compatible with the British way of life.

It's no wonder that their antagonist is rising to power. It's fashionable to set Islam at odds with Britain, Europe, or "the West," but it is a foolish false dichotomy.

Like an electrified supervillain, with each act of bigotry, Boris Johnson's powers multiply

Islam is European. It has existed in the Balkans for centuries and is as European as the Romans, who ruled Britain for 400 years. Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula lasted over 700 years. 

This is undeniable. But Islam also belongs in Europe, very simply, because Muslims live there today, and belonging is not something that a citizen must earn.

But scary, backwards Muslims are a very convenient distraction. Instead of dealing with the far graver spiralling state of our healthcare, education and economy, let us talk instead about burkinis, the niqab and mega-mosques. What even is a mega-mosque and can we pit it against Bigotry Boris in his blockbuster?

In a sense, I'm glad to see Boris Johnson's racism rising to the forefront. For years his bigotry was whitewashed by the disarming Boris Bikes, his kerfuffling on panel shows and clumsy public mishaps.

But the truth is, no matter how many identities Bigotry Boris tramples, no matter how many cultures he attacks, none of this will prevent him from being selected to lead the Britain; if anything, it will enable it.

If that is our way of life in today's Britain, then I'm proud to be incompatible with bigotry.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English. She runs a blog, Muslim Impossible, and is the author of a novel, The Watermelon Boys.


Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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