'A Sikh Man Standing Up for Muslim Women Mattered in Exposing Boris Johnson's Divide and Rule Dog Whistle Politics'
Hardeep Matharu sat down with MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi to discuss his passionate taking down of the Prime Minister and his derogatory comparisons labelling Muslim women as letter boxes and bank robbers
When he stood up in Parliament and told our Prime Minister how he could relate to the pain felt by Muslim women being called “bank robbers” and letter boxes” because he too had endured being referred to as “towel head” and “taliban”, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi had no idea his words would make waves around the world.
Brimming with emotion but never wavering from his conviction, Dhesi – Britain’s first turbaned Sikh MP – demanded an apology from Johnson for his derogatory ridicule of the niqab and burka, coverings worn by some Muslim women. He also demanded to know when a promised inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party would start. The Labour MP for Slough got neither – but the moment resonated.
He was “gobsmacked” at the thousands of emails and messages he received after his speech last month and the response it garnered in the international media.
Why does he think it struck such a chord?
“It was a man standing up for women, it was a Sikh man standing up for non-Sikh people, Muslim women,” he told me. “On different levels, it was inclusive. People could empathise with that. They didn’t need to be a Muslim, they didn’t need to be Asian or brown or black or white, I think it cut across different strands.”
The symbolism of Dhesi’s intervention was particularly significant given the conflicts that can be found within and between different ethnic minority communities – a state of affairs some say is reminiscent of Britain’s old ‘divide and rule’ colonial politics.
“I tried to encompass that humanity is one and that’s something I’ve got from Sikh teachings as well, that as Sikhs we need to be standing up for everybody,” Dhesi said. Whereas Johnson was employing “a divide and rule policy” to “scapegoat one particular community and use that to gain the votes of the majority”.
Johnson devoted an entire lucrative Telegraph column last August to discussing what he called “Muslim head-gear”. While he was happy to denigrate the wearing of the niqab and burka by some Muslim women, he packaged his comments in a supposedly liberal argument that a “total ban” on this – as other countries have introduced – is “not the answer”. A clever device for blowing a dog whistle while declaring that it was nowhere near his mouth.
The burka is “oppressive” and “weird”, the column stated, and it is “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” Johnson wrote. He went on to compare a woman who chooses to wear the face covering with a “bank robber”.
Dhesi told me he decided to act as Johnson’s ascension to Prime Minister makes him even more, not less, accountable for helping to “normalise hate”. He believes Johnson’s Trump-like Telegraph comments represented a “cold, calculated move” to pander to a “certain base” within an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party – the consequences of which are felt by already vulnerable minorities.
“I know what’s it’s like when somebody tries to pull off your turban and the dent in your own self-confidence that leads to,” Dhesi told me. “How it takes you several days if not weeks to pick yourself up from that.”
According to the latest figures from the Home Office, there was a 17% increase in hate crimes recorded by the police in 2017-18 compared to the previous year. The number of such crimes recorded by the police has more than doubled since 2012-13. 85% of the hate crimes recorded in the past year were to do with race or religion, and just over half of the religious hate crime offences, 52%, were targeted against Muslims. “This is a much greater proportion than the proportion of the population of England and Wales that identify as Muslims,” the Home Office said – just 4.8% of the population of England and Wales, according to the last Census.
As vice chair for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, Dhesi said he received evidence of people being inspired to commit hate crimes against Muslim women using Johnson’s “very words” after the Telegraph column appeared.
Predictably, the Prime Minister’s response to Dhesi from the despatch box was that his Telegraph article was a “strong defence of everybody’s right to wear whatever they want in this country”. His Muslim ancestors and Sikh relatives were referred to. “We have the most diverse Cabinet in the history of this country and we truly reflect modern Britain,” he added triumphantly.
Dhesi branded it “pathetic”.
“I don’t need to know his family tree, I don’t need to know that he’s got Muslim or Sikh relatives,” Dhesi told me. “That doesn’t cut it… and what use is a Chancellor who is a Muslim but he does not stand up for those Muslim women? What is the point of that diverseness?
“I’m always up for a debate about liberalism and how people dress or choose to dress, but it’s got to be done in a mature manner. We’ve got to make sure that we’re using language very sensitively and in a constructive way, rather than being denigrating.”
As for getting any closer to a Tory inquiry into Islamophobia, the party is “trying to brush it under the carpet as they have been trying to do for the past year or so,” he believes.
For the 41-year-old, who was elected as an MP in 2017, the discussions had about identity in this country need to shift because identity is “very contextual”. It is not about “trying to make everyone uniform or saying it’s either one or the other”.
“There are times when I am proud to be a Sikh, if I am in a gurdwara setting or talking about Sikh issues,” he said. “There are times when I am proud to be English, watching the English football team for example. But, then there are times when I’m proud to be British or European. It can be more than one thing that people are proud of at any point of time and many people traverse between them. People at different points will be proud of different things.”