I wonder if any of you remember the horrific attack on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015? The satirical magazine had published cartoons depicting Muhammad. Many, but not all, Muslims object to any attempt to produce likenesses of the prophet. Two brothers, Islamist fanatics, entered the magazine’s premises and slaughtered 12 members of its staff. At about the same time, another terrorist attacked a Jewish supermarket, killing 4 customers.
There was an international outcry. Statesmen throughout the world, including our then Home Secretary (one Theresa May), declared their total commitment to freedom of expression and, particularly, emphasised that free men and women should never be prevented from ridiculing religions. The people joined in. The cry, Je Suis Charlie, was heard throughout the world.
To quite a few Muslims, depicting Muhammad is considered to be an appallingly grave blasphemy. Cracking jokes about what the Burka looks like is, plainly, not a blasphemy at all. Some of the more extreme Muslim men, those who look on their women as being their chattels, may not be amused by the jokes. But that is neither here nor there. Humourless people are sometimes offended by jokes which they perceive to be at their expense. But that is no reason for officialdom to ban the jokes. If Mrs May could declare her determination to permit people to blaspheme against Islam, she would obviously be entirely happy for the odd non-blasphemous joke to be told about Burkas.
It seems I am wrong. Mrs May, a rather ridiculous chap called Brandon Lewis, a couple of Muslim peers whose names escape me, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, the Guardian newspaper, the BBC and several government ministers are all agreed that jokes about the Burka, even when delivered in articles arguing that the garment should not be banned, are a million times worse than the worst blasphemy against Islam. Ils n’est pas Boris.
Before continuing, I must try to put things in perspective. Jokes about the Burka are not new. The Guardian, in 2013, carried a joke about the Burka being like a postbox. In the same year, the BBC, in its satirical programme Have I got News for You cracked exactly the same joke and then went on to crack a lot more, some of them quite close to the bone. No one, as far as I am aware, made any complaint about the jokes. Certainly, the Guardian did not carry a fierce leader attacking its journalist for having made a joke about the Burka. Neither do I think that the Today programme’s presenters affected horror at the realisation that the BBC had allowed Hislop et al to make jokes about the Burka.
There have also been much more serious criticisms of the Burka. Polly Toynbee, again in the Guardian, wrote an excoriating attack on it. Emily Thornberry argued that women who wore the Burka should never be employed in jobs which required them to interact with the public, and she was particularly clear in her determination that no Burka wearing woman could ever look after her children. Ken Clark thought the Burka “peculiar” and like a “bag”. Anna Soubry agreed with her hero. Those of you with time on your hands will be able to find hundreds more examples of people not being entirely respectful about the Burka but not getting into trouble as a result.
It is against that background that we find many, but far from all, of Boris Johnson’s political opponents rushing to demand that he should be consigned to outer darkness as punishment for cracking jokes about the Burka in an article devoted to arguing that it should not be banned.
Let me say immediately that I am well aware that the shallower type of politician has, since time immemorial, thought there was nothing wrong with jumping on a bandwagon devoted to the destruction of his political opponent even when he knew that that opponent had done nothing wrong. To the rest of us, such behaviour seems thoroughly nasty and dishonest. But our pal, the shallow politician, is convinced the end justifies the means. He hates, in this case, Mr Johnson and therefore there can be nothing wrong with pretending he is deeply offended by Mr Johnson’s jokes and considers that his enemy should be destroyed for making them.
Let me also say that I do understand that not all politicians are intelligent. I am sure many of those demanding Boris’s head on a platter, even those who think they are Conservatives, genuinely think it evil to make jokes about Islam. The rest of us have not been subjected to brainwashing from all those semi-literate lecturers in muticultural gender studies who now crawl all over our universities. Maybe (OK, a bit fanciful) even we would have lost our reason if we had strayed onto those perilous campuses.
Most importantly, let me acknowledge that there are many people who profoundly disagree with Mr Johnson’s politics but who understand that he had a perfect right to say what he did in his Telegraph article and who have bravely and honestly publicly declared that he has done no wrong. I was particularly struck, the other day, by reading a post on Face Book from one of those delightful lefty chaps who post at least a dozen comments an hour declaring their love of Mr Corbyn and hatred of every Conservative who ever lived. He explained that he had come to the conclusion, much as he detested him, that Mr Johnson had done nothing wrong. I will not shame him by revealing his name, but I will say that I admire him enormously.
There is someone who can be named. Matthew Parris is fanatically in favour of the European experiment. My guess is that he spends hours every day sticking pins into wax models of Mr Johnson. But he is also, despite his European infatuation, devoted to free speech. He must have been sorely tempted to jump on the bandwagon. But his integrity and honesty wouldn’t allow him to do so. He wrote a brilliant article in the Times explaining why he fully supported Johnson’s right to make jokes about the Burka.
I think I must leave it to you to decide which of Boris’s detractors are dishonest and which are just stupid. But, in fairness, I should say that I understand that Mrs May’s defence is that the weird Brandon Lewis dropped her in it. A microphone was thrust at her, she was told that Mr Lewis had said Boris should apologise, she hadn’t read the offending article, but she felt she had no alternative but to support her chairman. I am not convinced that that is a compelling defence, but I leave you to judge it.