Boris Johnson and the Normalisation of Xenophobia


Napoleon once said that there are only two factors which unite men: fear and self-interest

In an interview with the Standard and returning from his tour from Malaysia, Boris Johnson seemed to present a slightly moderate demeanour to the discourse on immigration. But as they say the devil is in the detail. Britain should have a welcoming policy towards working migrants he suggested, but it is part of human nature to be xenophobic and that those who were afraid of foreigners were “not bad people”.

Without getting into a debate as to whether xenophobia is intrinsically innate, it is well established that the usual motivators for xenophobia are among other things economic distress, increased nationalism and nativism, and of course pressures related to immigration. These are external factors, not innate ones,[1] incidentally which are in the control of the present government. Furthermore, xenophobia is a tendency which can be very easily triggered.

The attempt at normalising xenophobia (xenophobes are not “bad people”) glosses over the seriousness of the phenomenon itself. Xenophobia is “bad”. To understand the gravity of normalising xenophobia, one needs to grasp the potentially violent manifestation of it.

Xenophobia is a phenomenon which involves prejudicial treatment experienced by the “alien”.  It is an irrational fear in the context of people who are different in some way. In the present British context, the manifestation of this irrational fear towards the Muslim minority has become most acute. With reports of increased attacks on Muslims (in particular Muslim women), the discriminatory targeting through government officials and organs, coupled with research which highlights the Muslim minority as the most discriminated when it comes to job opportunities, it would be no exaggeration to say that xenophobia, epistemologically irrational and inherently, usefully deflective of “real issues” (corporate tax havens, government corruption/cover-ups, poverty), is most visible in the experiences of the Muslim minority of Britain.

This deflection means that xenophobia is manifesting itself in the political discourse. From the discriminatory PREVENT strategy, which disproportionately targets the Muslim minority through various government organs through contrived, broad definitions of “extremism”, to the discourse around grooming gangs and paedophilia, which explicitly associates race (Asian/Pakistani) and religion (Islam) to despicable acts ignoring, of course, the mention of the “white” race in reports about paedophilia and associated alleged murders which courses through the upper-middle class in Westminster, for instance.

Boris: xenophobia is part of nature

Boris: xenophobia is part of nature

Perhaps Boris’ comments about xenophobia somehow being natural were made to comfort himself: a sort of psychological repression which latently manifests prejudice verbally in a defensive form. Boris Johnson is a xenophobe himself. I have already elaborated on is shocking statements in the past before he became a mayor. However there are more recent examples of his embedded prejudice of the “other” which rears its ugly head in heated matters.  He stoked stigmatisation in his call for control orders where he informed his readers that those who fight in Syria are greeted “with sexual ministrations of 72 virgins.” The far-right are notorious for their reference to this in their mockery of Islam and Muslims. The information is established. The issue is how this information is embedded derisively in the psyche of people when associated with “terrorists” a long with a “fix” for a given problem (in Boris’ case, war). It is how the information is used which is an issue. As Canadian political scientist Ray Taras notes,[2]

“By any objective standards, demonisation should be seen for what it is – a deliberate and contrived effort by one group to stigmatise another. A well-known example is Jews cast as perpetrators of blood libel – employing the blood of Christians in certain rituals – or male Muslim martyrs ridiculed for their belief that they will have seventy-two virgins in the afterlife…”

Statements like those of Boris and others may help in pulling in some UKIP voters over who aren’t “bad people”, but certainly not social cohesion.  The recent discourse around Poles is a further example of this. Treated again, as the “other” and ignoring their economic and even historic contributions demonstrates that Eastern Europeans in Britain have also become the nub of British racism as violent attacks against them occur.

Sri Lankan theorist on race, Ambalavener Sivanandan saw xenophobia emerging in Europe as:

“bearing all the hallmarks of the old racism without the genetic underpinnings. It is “xeno” in form. It is racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism… racism never stands still. It changes shape, size, countours, purpose, function with changes in the economy, social structure, the system and above all, the challenges, the resistances, to that system.”[3]

The seriousness of xenophobia can be determined when it is realised that it can ultimately contribute to war crimes such as genocide. Demagoguery particularly through xenophobia can provide an effective catalyst for violence. The treatment of Jews during the Holocaust and the Muslim during the Srebrenica massacre are but a couple of examples. The Cambodian genocide is regarded as one of the “bloodiest episodes of xenophobia in history”.[4]

It is for this reason that international norms and values encourage countering prejudice and stereotypes. The UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, to which the UK has shown support to, highlights that it is, “concerned about actions that wilfully exploit tensions or target individuals on the basis of their religion or belief” and “notes the negative projection of the followers of religions and the enforcement of measures that specifically discriminate against persons on the basis of religion or belief”. It further,

“Expresses deep concern at the continued serious instances of derogatory stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief, as well as programmes and agendas pursued by extremist organizations and groups aimed at creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes about religious groups, in particular when condoned by Governments.”

It calls on states,

To foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities to manifest their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society;

To make a strong effort to counter religious profiling, which is understood to be the invidious use of religion as a criterion in conducting questionings, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.

This is but one instrument out of many which essentially reiterate the same. The question is, is our government acting on this as it lectures other countries to look after their minorities? If Boris Johnson, his comments and the neocons in government are anything to go by, it is a resounding “no”. What this (and the continuous erosion of human rights) ultimately demonstrates is a lack of belief in the ideology which is lauded from the pulpit of Parliament and the podiums of the Prime minister yet enforced as the ultimate truth of the State over all at home and countries around the world: democracy and secular liberal values.


Post Script: Since writing the above piece, a British Immigration judge Peter Hollingworth is under investigation for saying reportedly that “with a name like Patel, she can only be working in a corner shop or off licence.” My comment on this is that xenophobia is part and parcel of the elitist power structure. Discrimination in sentencing has been occurring for a while, and indeed the way Muslim terror suspect cases are handled when compared to far-right terror suspects, one concludes that this pervasion of racism and xenophobia has touched the one aspect of the state which should be at the forefront of “equal treatment” of people, suspect or not: the judiciary.



[1] See for instance, Bordeau J, Xenophobia: The Violence of Fear and Hate, New York: Rosen Publishing Book, 2010, p.6

[2] Taras, R, Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, p.10

[3] Ibid, p.74

[4] Frey, R.J., Genocide and International Justice, New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009, p.90

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