‘It Would Be Like Making A School Bully The Headteacher’: Blackburn's Muslim Community Face Up To Prospect Of Boris Johnson As Prime Minister

Aasma Day
Nafeesa Kousar

It’s an image more befitting classroom anxiety than a leadership contest in the UK’s party of government. Imagine a school bully who delights in tormenting someone for being different with cruel jibes, Nafeesa Kousar is explaining to me, as she browses the shop windows of colourful Asian clothes shops in Blackburn.

Now what if that same bully was put in charge of the whole school by being made headteacher?

This is what Nafeesa – a young Muslim woman who chooses to wear a headscarf – says she fears happening on a national scale if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister in the next few weeks, following the resignation of Theresa May.

The former foreign secretary has a history of making racially inflammatory remarks – including describing Muslim women wearing the veil as looking like “letter-boxes” and “bank robbers.” The 25-year-old from Blackburn says his comments caused a lot of anger and mistrust among the Muslim population.

“He is just like a school bully” she says. “In fact, he acts like a schoolboy, not a mature person or a leader.

″When Boris Johnson said those things about Muslim women, it felt like he was singling us out and bullying us...it would be very dangerous if someone like him was put in charge of the country.”

Boris Johnson

As Westminster engages in frenzied speculation about who will be the next occupant of Downing Street, HuffPost UK headed to Blackburn. The vibrant Lancashire former mill town experienced an influx of Pakistani and Indian immigrants in the 1960s, many of whom worked in its textile industry, and the Muslim residents we spoke to expressed dismay at the possibility that a Johnson government could inflame cultural tensions rather than promote greater unity.

At the 2011 census, almost a third of Blackburn’s 147,500 residents were recorded as being Asian, and within that there is a large Muslim population, with more than 40 mosques in the borough of Blackburn with Darwen.

The Whalley Range area of town, where HuffPost UK spent a sunny Saturday afternoon, is the heart of Asian life in the town, with census data revealing 32% of people living there are Muslim.

Home to numerous Asian supermarkets, confectioners, takeaways, halal butcher shops and fashion boutiques, Whalley Range is a glorious riot of colour.

Whalley Range, Blackburn

It is currently the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with observers fasting between sunrise and sunset, and as the day went on the shops were bustling with people buying food in preparation to break their fast with family and friends in the evening.

Mangoes, watermelons, red chillies and aubergines were stacked in boxes outside shops and delicious food smells hung in the air.

Nosha Anwar

Nosha Anwar is 20 and studying law at university. She spoke to us while buying fruit and vegetables for that evening’s iftar, the meal that ends the fast. She said she chooses to wear a headscarf and feels Boris Johnson’s comments about Muslim women were destructive for community relations.

“Everyone has their own identity and such remarks are totally needless and insulting and should not be spouted by anyone – let alone by someone so high-profile.

“I was happy when Theresa May said she was resigning as I don’t feel she achieved anything as prime minister and I don’t think she is fit to be a leader.

“But Boris Johnson would be far worse. He is just silly and comes across as a joke.”

Nosha believes Westminster politics has lost touch with not just the Muslim population, but minority communities in general, and describes the handling of Brexit as “a shambles.”

“I don’t think any of the leaders have people’s interests at heart – they are just obsessed with their own opinions and in-fighting.

“I feel they need to put forward the right people to be leaders. At the moment, it feels like they are letting anyone take the role and Boris Johnson as prime minister is a frightening thought.”

Blackburn has been described by some commentators as one of the most segregated places in Britain. But Maksud Chand, who runs a dry cleaners in the town and has lived in Blackburn for more than 40 years, sees Britain as a very tolerant country and wants to see greater integration of all communities.

Boris Johnson, he says, is fanning the flames of segregation with his anti-Muslim views. Maksud says he believes Johnson is a “typical racist” and that “by mocking and making fun of the religion, he is not helping making life easy for Muslims or promoting community cohesion.”

“I don’t think Boris should become prime minister as he is just a bumbling idiot,” he tells us. “Even if he did become leader, I don’t think he would remain as one for very long as he wouldn’t be able to get any of his ideas through.”

Maksud says that he feels politics has lost touch with “everyone, not just the Muslim community.”

“While everything with Brexit has been going on for the last two-and-a-half, three years, no one has been running the country properly,” he says. “But Boris Johnson and his cronies in charge of the country would be bad news for all of us.”

Mother-of-one Zainab Patel, who chooses to wear a hijab, told HuffPost UK she hasn’t been watching much television during Ramadan as she has been busy with fasting and prayers.

But she says she is alarmed to hear Johnson is being tipped as one of the people in the frame for the new prime minister.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t want him at all; that would be terrible.” she said.

“What Boris Johnson said about Muslim women and the hijab was really bad and it shows he does not know anything about Islam and he is a very divisive person.

“If he was put in charge of the country, it would be a disaster.”

Zubair Waqas

In Nafees Bakers and Sweets in Whalley Range, Zubair Waqas says a lot of people in the Muslim community don’t like or trust Boris Johnson, and would be extremely concerned about the idea of him becoming prime minister.

“He has said a lot of things which are anti-Islam and he doesn’t seem to understand that most people want unity and a peaceful life.

“If someone like Boris Johnson became prime minister, I would be worried about the next generation.”

Despite Blackburn having one of the country’s largest Asian populations, the town historically had an absence of female Asian councillors.

But last year, voters elected the town’s first, with Saima Afzal and Maryam Batan.

Both women are Labour councillors, so it is not surprising that they are not supporters of a possible Johnson government. But they said they were particularly fearful of what it could do for community cohesion.

Saima Afzal explained to HuffPost UK: “I have been striving for race and gender-based inclusion for years and Boris Johnson as our future prime minister would not fill me with confidence at all as his stance on inclusion is definitely not in keeping with mine.”

She added that although she did not agree with Theresa May’s approach or many of her views, as a woman she did admire her strength and determination to deliver what she thought was right.

But, she says, some of the things Boris Johnson has said “cause so much division and segregation” as he is inflaming fears.

“It creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenario and politicians should not be doing this.

“Boris Johnson seems amenable, but he is not going to bring people together in terms of race and ethnicity.”

She says her personal view is that Johnson’s “comedy appearance” provides a cover for “a more dangerous agenda which is actually dividing communities rather than bringing them together.”

Her colleague Maryam agrees.

“Even though Theresa May was not listening to the views of the public, I think Boris Johnson will be much worse,” she says.

“Someone at that level in society and in the public domain should not be saying things like he did about Muslim women wearing niqabs.

“He is just stoking the fire and making the nation more divided.”

Nadeem Siddiqui
Headscarves and hijabs at The Hijab Centre in Blackburn

Someone who knows all about how important the veil is to some Muslim women is Nadeem Siddiqui, who runs The Hijab Centre in Whalley Range. It is a shop which sells every type of headscarf in a variety of dazzling colours and designs.

Inside there are rich fabrics and rows of mannequins modelling the latest in hijab fashion and headscarves. 

Despite Boris Johnson’s offensive remarks about Muslim women looking like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, Nadeem says he us a great believer in democracy and that if Johnson is elected as the new leader, the people of the UK would have to accept it.

But, he told HuffPost UK, he feels Johnson is alienating the Muslim community further.

“He is like a child who wants attention and his comments about Muslim women were a cheap way of getting attention from the public.

“We belong to this country and want to be part of it. But Boris Johnson is trying to separate us and be divisive.

“I feel sorry for our country as it feels like we are in a boat without a captain or compass as we have no direction.

“I am seriously worried for this country and the next generation and fear that our children and grandchildren will not be able to fulfil their dreams because of this mess that has been created.”

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