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Boris and the burka 

Stop being offended on behalf of people who might be offended – we need to have the difficult conversations in the right language, writes Chris Goswami 

Boris burqa


A teenager directs a racist comment to a leader in a church youth club. Within 48 hours he is banned from the club for life.

It was twenty years ago. I was the leader, and the comment was directed at me. He called me an effing ***** (of Pakistani origin). In fact, both my parents are Indian but that’s by the by, he never attended our club again. Looking back, the strange thing is, I didn’t FEEL that offended. I was the person least upset in our church and I remember wondering if I should feel more offended. I was mainly confused. After all he was just a kid trying to push what he thought was the big red button in my head. And I had come across these incidents hundreds of times in my childhood. They are not acceptable (and less acceptable twenty years later), but I did wonder, if he had insulted me about my weight or size, or some aspect of my appearance, if his punishment would have been the same. Almost certainly not. More likely there would have been a conversation, probably including his parents. As a church I think we over-reacted. So, in fact this teenager was right – he did push the big red button – it’s just that it was in everyone else’s head, not mine.

We are afraid that other people might take offence

We need to take care with “being offended for other people”. It leads to absurd situations. At its worst it can encourage racism rather than reduce it. Let me explain.

I have twice been on diversity training, as a school governor and as a minister. Both courses had something to recommend them, but both courses tried too hard to make us hyper-sensitive to things we didn’t need to be sensitive to.

For example, on the ministerial training course we were given a list of common English phrases including: black-sheep, black-look, black as thunder, Black Friday … and asked to discuss in our groups the negative, even racist connotations for non-white people. My comment to the course-leader was that there were no racist connotations until we came onto this course. They WERE just English phrases. These phrases were not offensive, but if you try to generate offence by repeatedly proposing the idea, eventually you will succeed.

Even sillier, on school-governor training the leader suggested that phrases like “comparing apples and oranges” might be better phrased in multi-cultural Britain as “comparing mangos and bananas”.

“But there’s no such phrase as comparing mangos and bananas” I quietly protested, “why would we teach our children phrases that don’t exist?”.

Of course, if you happened to be a white Brit, American or European and you made the comments I made, you would be branded a racist, and we are all terrified of that. You would most likely be made to attend “special training”.

Boris burqa reflection


There is damage done when trying to combat racism in this cack-handed manner. We over-compensate, we push the pendulum full swing in the other direction. What happens then is the real and present hardcore racists in our society are given a cause. The English Defense League, National Front and the rest are led to believe that their way of life – even the phrases they use – are under attack from ethnic minorities and need defending. And we know what happens next.

So too, pushing the Islamophobia button as our first response, because we feel offense for Muslims and we want it dealt with now, can encourage (or even force) a victim mentality onto one group while antagonising the other.

To be clear, we can justifiably feel offense for others and that is no bad thing. When growing up I felt deeply hurt when the racist slur at the top of this article was directed at my parents. It felt far worse for me. They both had darker skin than me – and that can be all that it takes. But we need to reflect on the reasons why we feel this offense, as well as enquiring whether the apparent victim is offended, and if the incident has some context. Yes, there are hate crimes, there is genuine offence, there is racism, and it may be pervasive[1]. But escalating all incidents into this category can exacerbate the very problem we want to solve.

Which brings us to the last point, and the point that has precipitated this and many articles over the past week.

Boris burqa reflection2

What about Boris’s burkas and bank-robbers?

Boris Johnston wrote a spirited article – attacking the ban of burkas from other European countries. He had a go at several authorities including “sticking two fingers up” at the EU. In that sense his comments on letter-boxes and bank-robbers were in-step with the rest of his piece. We were surprised at the comment, but not by who said it. He was roundly condemned and roundly, defended. Rowan Atkinson’s intervention that “it was a good joke” and “all jokes made on grounds of religion will offend someone” also makes a point: we must all learn to laugh at ourselves. (And laughing at ourselves sadly has no place in Political Correctness).

But, of course, Boris is not supposed to be a comedian. Although some regard him as the court-jester, he is a public figure. Simply on grounds of courtesy and good manners he should have found some other language. Or if it was a mistake which he regrets, he should say so.

For our part, we must now take care not to over react. This is not Islamophobia – his article criticises the ban on burkas. Although some would say it is Islamophobia by some sort of back-door, I don’t agree. Here is one view of many from letters in the weekend papers:

Sir. The row about Boris Johnson’s use of language is really much ado about nothing.
And I am a Muslim.
Hyder Ali Pirwani, Devon.

Conversations needed

We need to ensure that we can have the difficult conversations – in the right language. Whether it’s burkas in western society, or if there are links between child-abuse rings and Pakistani men or not. It’s too important to drown the issue in politically correct over-reaction.

Interestingly this weekend I read the right-wing Daily Telegraph on Saturday and the left-wing Observer on Sunday. Both newspapers had four or five articles on the Boris topic. The Telegraph’s were 100 per cent in defence of Boris, The Observer’s were 100% condemning of Boris. The stark difference between the two could not have been greater. Even the approx. 30 readers’ letters in The Telegraph were, bar one, in support of Boris. It was as if these two newspapers were commenting on two completely different incidents.

Let’s remember, the place where we enter a conversation determines the content of the conversation.

Boris burqa reflection newspap


[1] Example: according to the Harvard Business Review, CVs with the name “James Smith” at the top still get more interviews and more job offers than an identical CV with “Jamaal Smith” at the top. 

Images | Shutterstock, except paper review (Chris Goswami) 

Chris Goswami is Director of  Communications at Openwave Mobility and Associate Minister at Lymm Baptist Church. He is a previous winner of Christian Blogger of the Year for www.7minutes.net, where this reflection appeared. It is republished with permission


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