Boris Johnson issued a qualified apology for some ‘offensive’ comments about Islam, as he responded to a review of his past remarks in his Conservative Party that was dealing with complaints that the British Prime Minister was discriminatory and that he suffered from “Islamophobia”.
The report, however, found there was no evidence of “institutional racism”. But they said anti-Muslim sentiment “remains a problem”.
The controversy is over a column Johnson had written in The Telegraph much before he became the prime minister. As the then foreign secretary, Johnson had been accused of Islamophobia in 2018 after he said Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letterboxes”.
He had said he was against bans on face-covering veils in public places, in his Telegraph column, but that it was “ridiculous” that people chose to wear them.
Johnson was interviewed for the report, commissioned by the ruling Conservatives in response to criticism of how it handled discrimination and complaints. The report was conducted independently by Professor Swaran Singh who has served as a Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
It cited several examples relating to Johnson, including a 2018 newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as “going around looking like letterboxes” and likened their appearance to bank robbers. Boris Johnson defended the article as a liberal defence of a Muslim woman’s right to choose what she wore.
“I do know that offence has been taken at things I’ve said, that people expect a person in my position to get things right, but in journalism, you need to use language freely. I am obviously sorry for any offence taken,” the report quoted Johnson as saying.
“Would I use some of the offending languages from my past writings today? Now that I am Prime Minister, I would not.”
Singh found that the party had not been active enough in challenging discrimination, its complaints procedure needed to be overhauled and its sanctions system for those who breached the rules was unclear.
“Judging by the extent of complaints and findings of misconduct by the Party itself that relate to anti-Muslim words and conduct, anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the Party,” the report`s conclusions said.
The Conservative Party said it was considering the report`s recommendations.
From 2015 to 2020, the party’s central database recorded 1,418 complaints relating to 727 incidents of alleged discrimination — an annual average of 237 complaints about 122 incidents in a party of 2,00,000 members.
More than two-thirds of the incidents – 496 cases – related to Islam and 74% of all the cases involved social media activity.
About a third of cases (231) resulted in a sanction, with 50% resulting in a suspension and 29% an expulsion from the party.
No action was taken in 418 incidents, for reasons including the complaint being in relation to someone who was not a party member, insufficient evidence or a prior investigation.