Boris Johnson is in trouble again. Nothing new for Boris. But this time he has been labelled Islamophobic and a racist for an article in yesterday's Telegraph where he opposed a burqa ban. He feels (as do I) that banning women from wearing the burqa in public is illiberal. He would also prefer (as I would too) women not to cover their faces. What he got into trouble for saying was that "it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes" and saying that women wearing the burqa look like "bank robbers".
Hardly temperate language, I would agree. But no matter how crass you think his words are, what he said cannot be construed as racist, nor is it an attack on Islam - at least not the vast majority of Muslims.
Not many Muslim women wear burqas. Despite all the column inches and media coverage on radio and television, all you have to do it take a look around you if you happen to be in an area where there is a large Muslim population, and you will see the vast majority of women are not protecting their modesty from head to toe.
So why all the hullabaloo? For starters, it's Boris, and there are those who will criticise Boris no matter what he says. But the other reason is that a critical discussion about Islam is now taboo.
I said to someone last year that I have issues with Islam, and they looked at me with astonishment. They said that they couldn't believe I had just said that. "I have Muslim friends", she said. I also have Muslim friends. I can distinguish between the individual and the religion, and as a Christian wouldn't it be unusual for me not to have issues with Islam?
When I explained that in every Islamic state in the world human rights are pretty much non-existent, she started to listen to me. I then mentioned that women are treated appallingly in those countries. I spoke of cases where Islamists had brutally hacked Christians to death. I told her the story, from Aceh province in Indonesia, of a young heterosexual couple who were publicly flogged for the crime of having sex outside of marriage.
By the end of our conversation she said that she would think about what I had just said. I hope she did. I hope she recalled our conversation when she heard about the gay couple who were mercilessly beaten outside the Baiturrahim Mosque in Aceh. They were sentenced to 90 lashes which was reduced to 86 because they had spent four months in jail. How considerate of these barbarians! Another 13 victims were caned between 13 and 27 times for offences such as showing affection in public and for drinking and selling alcohol.
And before I hear the cries of "but this barbaric behaviour is not representative of the majority of Muslims", I agree. I also readily accept that Muslims are often the victims of Islamist killing squads. I can distinguish between the two.
Women are also treated appallingly by Sharia courts in this country. I don't have time in this article to go into it in depth, but I have written about it before. There are some really shocking stories.
I am not an Islamic scholar (although I have read parts of the Koran), and I don't really know if Islamic law authorises some of these barbaric practices and genuinely allows men to treat women as second class citizens. But the facts remain that these practices still go on. That is a fact. It may be an uncomfortable fact for many, but that's their problem, not mine.
i would, though, like to know if these practices are authorised. I would like a conversation - a public conversation - about it. But we can't because discussing Islam is taboo
Here is some of the criticism levelled at Boris in the last 24 hours or so as reported in the Guardian.
Former Tory Chairman Sayeeda Warsi accused Boris of "dog whistle" Islamophobia. Current Tory Chairman Brandon Lewis has called on Boris to apologise. Shadow Equalities Minister Naz Shah (she who backed a plan to relocate Israel to North America) has said that his comments were “ugly and naked Islamophobia” and has said that Brandon Lewis should abide by his word to give Tory members diversity training to combat Islamophobia. The perpetually outraged Labour MP David Lammy described Boris as a "Pound shop Donald Trump", and accused him of "fanning the flames of Islamophobia"; Jess Phillips MP said that she would report Boris to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Muslim Council of Britain accused Boris of "pandering to the far right".
Please remember all of these comments were made after he wrote an article defending Muslim women who choose to wear a burqa in public!
The answer to my question in the title is no. We can't make mild criticisms of Islam and Islamic culture without being branded Islamophobic or racist. I will probably now have the same criticisms levelled at me for writing this article.