Modern Britain is widely seen as a multicultural country because of the diversity of its inhabitants’. But has the ’light touch’ policy of multiculturalism that promotes inclusivity in the UK multifaceted? Since WW2 Britain has seen an influx in immigration that has radically altered its dynamic and added to the multicultural society we live in today. However, to define Britain as truly multicultural would be difficult. Multiculturalism seems almost tainted; symbolising a “clash of civilisations” that live side by side not together.
But can we trace the reason for the deterioration of Multiculturalism? Is Tory Islamophobia shaping modern ‘multicultural Britain’?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been the forefront of media news this year. Amid Brexit debates and EU negotiations, it’s not a surprise the former foreign secretary has had much to say regarding Britain’s future and specifically the role of minority communities in the UK.
A recent article in The Guardian unearthing an essay, he made in 2007 has strongly criticised Boris Johnson’s claims that the Muslim world is “literally centuries behind” the West. His derogatory views of the Muslim community identify the issues at the centre of failing ‘multicultural Britain’. By highlighting our current Prime Minister and former foreign secretary as a man whose powerful voice speaks on a global capacity, his position regarding Muslim’s in Britain is complicated and potential fuel for negative post 9/11 perceptions of Islam. Here, I situate his Islamophobic tendencies and ask: is Boris Johnson cementing Islamophobic rhetoric?
His representation of the East links to Edward Said’s theories in which the East is binarily opposed to Western cultural values and therefore a presence that must be used to difference in order to reinforce dominant power relations. Johnson’s portrayal of Muslim culture as backward and lacking in contemporaneity plays into the construction of crude stereotypes that circulate in public representations. Although, this essay was made six years after the dreadful 9/11 attacks we can see the immense effect it had on the Islam’s representation. Additionally, the essay was wrote one year after the 7/7 bombings cements a further layer of unsteadiness that has worked to “reduced the diversity and complexity of the Muslim world”.
Yet, this is not the first time Johnson has been at the forefront of Islamophobia claims. The recent resurface of articles he wrote for The Telegraph (2002 and 2008) during his term as foreign secretary have received much backlash for their dog whistle Islamophobia. Johnson wrote that schools and universities should have the authority to force students to remove a veil if they “turn up … looking like a bank robber” highlights the complexity of intolerance and xenophobia. The use of simile provides a lighthearted representation that simplifies general stereotypes and homogenises the complexity of Islam in mainstream media discourse. In September 2019, a Labour MP demanded an apology from the PM for his column which compared veiled women to “letterboxes”; an incident that has led to huge surges in anti-Muslim attacks as well as building negative perceptions of Islam in the uneasy climate of Brexit-Britain.
Following this, Johnson publicly spoke about these allegations of racism, defending his comparison of Muslim women in Burka’s to “letterboxes” as an attempt “to defend the rights of women to wear Burkhas”.
His complicated defence and complete ignorance to Islamophobia highlights his inability to recognise the negative effect he’s had on the Muslim community in Britain. Similarly, an independent panel thought his comments were “respectful and tolerant” and the use of “satire” is permitted without criticism. This clear escape from accountability alludes to The Satanic Verses incident by which Salman Rushdie was issued a fatwa for the depiction of Islam he put forward but was never condemned. Does the mask of satire, hyperbole and provocation simply undermine accountability? Surely Johnson should take some responsibility?
Yet, regardless of media coverage the mediated access to cultural reality that Johnson depicts appears to be having a lasting impact. The ability to use an active political voice with agency that will never be held accountable is detrimental to the structure of multiculturalism. A society which appears inclusive yet uses racial and religious discrimination for political advance ultimately operates in a contradictory and hypocritical manner. We can see how Tory Islamophobia challenges the lived experience of Muslim’s and how the slippage of multiculturalism as a semi-official policy has led to a lived experience that is steeped in prejudice because of the creation of caricatures which politicise Islam. As Morey and Yaqin the decline of the nation state has led to the gradual deterioration of multiculturalism and the current period of cultural hypersensitivity that we now live in. It has resulted in stereotypes that circulate in the media through the voices of politicians and appear to legitimise culture for political advance and seek to alienate through “distorted abstractions” of a mediated reality.
Perhaps, it is important to take some time and effort to understand different cultures and religions in order to create our own perceptions of other people. We must create our own realities by which our truths are constructed through our own ideas and not the thoughts of dominant ideologies.