Boris Johnson must apologise for veil remarks, says Stevenage Muslim leader

PUBLISHED: 15:10 10 August 2018 | UPDATED: 17:49 10 August 2018

Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in 2014. Picture: Danny Loo

Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in 2014. Picture: Danny Loo

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Boris Johnson should apologise for his comments about women’s veils, and the Conservative Party must do more about alleged Islamophobia in its midst – that’s according to a prominent Stevenage-based member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

Women wearing the niqab. Picture: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr.Women wearing the niqab. Picture: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr.

Arshad Ahmedi, who sits on the Ahmadiyya national executive committee, has spoken out after Mr Johnson, the former foreign secretary and mayor of London, claimed in a Daily Telegraph column that Muslim women wearing the niqab – which leaves only the eyes visible – looked like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”.

The Conservative Party has since launched an inquiry into Mr Johnson’s remarks.

Speaking to the Comet, Mr Ahmedi said the community was astonished to learn what the prominent Tory MP had said.

He said: “We were greatly upset. He has visited our events and was chief guest just a few years ago.

Stevenage's Arshad Ahmedi, who sits on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community's national executive committee. Picture: JP AsherStevenage's Arshad Ahmedi, who sits on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community's national executive committee. Picture: JP Asher

“It has offended the women in our community especially. Maybe he meant it as a joke, but it’s not funny and in his position he needs to be more careful. It’s part of the multicultural UK we live in.

“He has made a faux pas. He should just apologise and we can move on.”

Mr Ahmedi raised similar concerns with the Comet in 2006, after then-Labour frontbencher Jack Straw described veils like the niqab as a “visible statement of separation” – comments for which Mr Straw later apologised.

Mr Ahmedi said his family had been targeted in Stevenage by bigots who told them to “go back home”, but that this was thankfully rare. “We’re here for the long haul,” he said. “I’ve been here 50 years, and my children and grandchildren were born here. This is our homeland.”

Conservative county councillor Michael Hearn, who represents Shephall ward in Stevenage. Picture: Harry HubbardConservative county councillor Michael Hearn, who represents Shephall ward in Stevenage. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Concerns about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party were raised in Stevenage in May, after Tory county councillor Michael Hearn appeared to refer to Islam on social media as a “desert death cult”. He said his comments were against the so-called Islamic State terror group and other Islamist extremists, and “never against Islam as a faith”.

Mr Johnson wrote in his column that the law should not tell “a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear in a public place when she is simply minding her own business” – but added that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.

He also said he would ask a female constituent to remove her veil if she came to one of his surgeries, adding: “If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct.”

Senior Muslim figures reacting with anger have included the former Tory chairman Baroness Warsi, who has previously called for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the party. The Conservative Muslim Forum has also called for Mr Johnson to apologise.

Conservative peer Baroness Warsi. Picture: Chris McAndrewConservative peer Baroness Warsi. Picture: Chris McAndrew

Mr Ahmedi agrees that the Tories have more work to do on this issue than other parties.

He told the Comet: “The Conservatives have an issue with this, and a history of this. They definitely have it worse.

“I think they could have done better by taking steps before the inquiry – making him apologise, or taking some action would appease a lot of people.”

Those defending Mr Johnson have included Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, whose Mid Beds constituency includes Shefford – and who said Mr Johnson should have gone further and called for “medieval” garments like the face-covering burqa to be banned.

Mid Beds MP Nadine Dorries, in 2017. Picture: Danny LooMid Beds MP Nadine Dorries, in 2017. Picture: Danny Loo

Posting on Twitter, Ms Dorries condemned “any clothing a woman is forced to wear which hides both her beauty and her bruises”. In a separate post, she said: “Speak out and support these suppressed women instead of supporting clothes that a woman is dictated she should wear, imprison and make her a slave to a male-dominated religion.”

Mr Ahmedi’s 16-year-old granddaughter Anam Ahmedi, who lives in Birmingham, has penned an open letter to Mr Johnson asking him to apologise, respect women’s right to dress as they choose, and “please think before you make such sickening comments in future”.

She is yet to receive a response to her letter, which you can read here.

Anam Ahmedi, 16, outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Picture: Waqar AhmediAnam Ahmedi, 16, outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Picture: Waqar Ahmedi

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