It is rare for a news story to stay in the headlines for so long. But Boris Johnson’s views on burkas have caused much consternation.
The controversy began when the MP wrote in his Daily Telegraph column it’s “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”. He also said women who wear the burka or niqab look like bank robbers.
Cue understandable outrage.
Did he have a right to pen these words? Of course he did. This country has a long history of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Should he apologise? Yes, I think so. Should he resign? No. Politicians have said and done far worse. This is not a sack-able offence.
The situation reminds me of Paul’s words in the New Testament: "'I have the right to do anything' you say - but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything' - but not everything is constructive." (1 Corinthians 10:23) Johnson hasn’t broken the law. He had the right to publish those words. But he hasn’t acted with wisdom either. There’s nothing to be gained in denigrating women for their religious attire. It's not constructive.
Theresa May has responded by arguing “women should be able to choose how to dress.” But that’s not the issue. Johnson himself agrees with this very point! His column was written to argue against Denmark’s decision to ban the burka: “If Danish women really want to cover their faces, then it seems a bit extreme – all the caveats above understood – to stop them under all circumstances. I don’t propose we follow suit. A total ban is not the answer.”
According to a YouGov poll most British people (57 per cent) are in favour of a ban. Many Christians will be among this figure. I’ve heard some of my fellow believers talking about wanting to protect our Christian heritage and way of life.
Others are concerned about security (there have been cases of extremists using the burka to conceal their identities during terror attacks). Others are concerned these items of clothing are used by Muslim men to subjugate women. I’ve even heard it argued that if bikinis are banned in some Muslim nations then we should ban the burka here!
Here’s the problem. As Christians we care about religious freedom. We (rightly) kick up a fuss when street preachers are arrested or Northern Irish bakers aren’t allowed to follow their conscience, or our Facebook accounts are suspended because we quoted the Bible.
But do we really care about religious freedom – or only Christian freedom?
If we truly care about religious freedom, we must support the right of Muslim women to follow their faith (as they see it) and wear the burka.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I met Johnnie Moore - the man who set up and speaks on behalf of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board. Moore was in the UK to attend a gathering of 37,000 Ahmadi Muslims in Hampshire.
“I have a personal commitment to make sure that you are not forgotten,” Moore said at the event, alluding to the physical, social, and legal threats Ahmadis face in many countries where they reside.
It’s inspiring to see an evangelical Christian actively demonstrating they really do care about religious freedom and not Christian exceptionalism. Shortly after attending the Ahmadi gathering, he tweeted: “You either believe in Religious Freedom for all, or you do not believe in Religious Freedom at all.”
Moore believes the New Testament teaches that Christians are “obligated” to love their neighbour, which includes standing up for the rights of other people who practise other faiths. (You can hear more of Johnnie’s story on a future episode of The Profile podcast).
So when Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish conservatives and a self identifying Christian compares our right to wear a crucifix with Muslims' right to wear a burka, she’s absolutely right. “Why are the parameters different for one faith and not the other?" she asks. And it’s a good question.
Either you’re in favour of religious freedom. Or your not. If you find yourself supporting persecuted Christians at home and abroad while at the same time campaigning for mosques to be closed or burkas to be banned, you’re no friend of religious freedom.