LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May backed calls Tuesday for her former foreign minister Boris Johnson to apologize for disparaging comments he made about Muslim women wearing burqas — but he branded his critics “ridiculous.”
May said his remarks “have clearly caused offense” and agreed with the chairman of her Conservative party, Brandon Lewis, who had asked Johnson to apologize.
“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 practice their religion and, in the case of women and the burqa and niqab, to choose how they dress.”
In a column in Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson said women wearing the full face veil looked like “bank robbers” or “letter-boxes,” 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 plan, 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.”
In his article, Johnson said he opposed a ban on face-covering veils, but added that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter-boxes.”
His remarks drew condemnation from former colleagues.
Junior foreign minister Alistair Burt told the BBC: “I would never have made such a comment, I think there is a degree of offense in that, absolutely right.”
Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi, a former party chairwoman, 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 media reports.
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.
“It is crass and it must stop, and it must be condemned by the leadership right from the prime minister down.”
But Johnson received support from some quarters, with Conservative 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.