Boris Johnson linked to biggest spike in UK Islamophobia in 2018

Anti-Muslim incidents rose sharply after controversial column by new UK prime minister

FILE - In this July 27, 2019, file photo, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts during a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, England. Johnson is gambling his future on the audacious proposition that he can blunt an effort to halt his Brexit plan by simply suspending Parliament for key weeks ahead of the Oct. 31 departure date. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, File)

UK prime minister Boris Johnson was behind the largest spike in anti-Muslim hate crime in 2018 after he compared women wearing the veil to “bank robbers”, according to new figures released on Monday.

Islamophobia monitoring group Tell Mama said anti-Muslim incidents increased by 375 per cent in a week after Mr Johnson likened women wearing burqas and niqabs to criminals and “letterboxes”.

The majority of the victims of the anti-Muslim abuse, which increased from eight to 38 in a week, were women wearing headscarves, it said.

Mr Johnson’s comments sparked an internal party investigation carried out by a panel of lawyers which cleared him of breaching its rules.

He had used the column to argue against the banning of headscarves, a move taken in European countries including Denmark, France and Belgium. Mr Johnson described the outcry at his comments as “confected indignation”.

The spike in incidents reported to Tell Mama, a respected monitoring group which also receives data from dozens of police forces, was greater than the increased threats that accompanied a high-profile Islamophobic campaign dubbed ‘Punish a Muslim Day’.

David Parnham, a white supremacist responsible for hundreds of racist letters, sent out notes offering awards for attacks on people and mosques and had urged a day of action in April last year. He was arrested after the day passed without major incident and he pleaded guilty in court to charges including soliciting murder.

Tell Mama said it had received nearly 3,000 verified and police reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2018. Fewer than a third of the threats it investigated were made online.

The total number of incidents were down from 2017 when the UK was struck by five terrorist attacks, four by Muslim radicals and one by a right-wing extremist, which left 36 people dead.

But the report said that its findings showed that a more general intolerance and hatred of Muslims was growing in the UK.

“Islamophobia is becoming normalised,” said Iman Atta, director of Tell Mama. “Role models should be careful for their words embolden others to use their words believing they are not going to be caught.”

The group said that 24 cases of anti-Muslim hate crime recorded in less than four weeks in August 2018 directly referenced Mr Johnson or the words he used.

He had written: “If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree… I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.

He added: “If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled… to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto.”

Mr Johnson's column was published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper a month after he quit as foreign secretary over the Brexit strategy of Theresa May, who quit this year after failing to persuade MPs of the deal she had struck with the European Union.

Mr Johnson succeeded her in July with a vow to leave the EU by the end of October. Critics had pointed to his history of controversial comments during the leadership campaign but he was carried to power with the support of members of the right-of-centre Conservative Party.

His comments fuelled debate about Islamophobia within the ruling party. The foremost contenders for the leadership had agreed in a televised debate to set up an external inquiry into the issue if they became leader.

The party has said since Mr Johnson took over that it would hold an independent inquiry into Islamophobia but only after the party agreed a definition of what that meant.

A government statement did not address the spike in activity linked to Mr Johnson by Tell Mama. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “I am utterly appalled by hatred aimed at Muslims in Britain or at those of any faith, and I am determined to tackle it.”