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May asks Johnson to apologise for saying women in burqas look like 'bank robbers'

The UK’s former foreign secretary also compared the women to letterboxes.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson
Image: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Aug 7th 2018, 7:29 PM

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May has backed calls for her former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to apologise for disparaging comments he made about Muslim women wearing burqas — but he has branded his critics “ridiculous”.

May said his remarks “have clearly caused offence” and agreed with the chairman of her Conservative party, Brandon Lewis, who had asked Johnson to apologise.

“I do think that we all have to be very careful about the language and terms we use. And some of the terms Boris used describing people’s appearance obviously have offended,” the prime minister said.

“What’s important is do we believe people should have the right to practise their religion and, in the case of women and the burqa and niqab, to choose how they dress.”

In a column in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson said women wearing the full face veil looked like “bank robbers” or “letterboxes”, prompting accusations of Islamophobia.

But the former top diplomat, who has a reputation for causing controversy and quit May’s Cabinet last month in protest at her Brexit plans, refused to back down.

“It is ridiculous that these views are being attacked – we must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues,” a source close to Johnson told reporters.

“We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

Steve Bannon 

Tory peer Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, a former party chair and diplomat, accused Johnson of adopting the “dog-whistle” tactics of right-wing firebrand Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former top aide.

Johnson has been in direct communication with Bannon in recent months, according to reports last month.

Warsi said Johnson was hoping to attract support from right-wing Conservatives for an eventual leadership bid, and called for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the party.

“Muslim women should not be a useful political battleground for Old Etonians,” she told Channel 4 News, referring to the private school popular with Britain’s political elite.

It is crass and it must stop, and it must be condemned by the leadership right from the prime minister down.

In his controversial column, Johnson said he opposed a ban on face-covering veils, but added it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter-boxes”.

Johnson received support from some quarters amid the furore over his comments, with Tory MP Nadine Dorries saying he “did not go far enough”.

“Any clothing a woman is forced to wear which hides both her beauty and her bruises should be banned and have no place in our liberal, progressive country,” she said.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s father, Stanley, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I think people are whipping up a little mountain out of a molehill on this one, I really do.”

© AFP 2018 

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