Well, substitute Las Vegas for Sirte and this was the latest howler from gaffe-prone British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when addressing a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
All this follows the surfacing of a video of Johnson in Myanmar, in which he was part of the way through reciting Rudyard Kipling’s colonial-era poem “Mandalay” with the words, “The temple bells they say, come you back, you English soldier.” A startled British ambassador, aware how offensive this would be locally, was forced to intervene to stop Johnson continuing. In 2006, Johnson was also forced into an apology for writing: “For 10 years we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.” And last year, he aroused huge criticism for describing then President Barack Obama as “part-Kenyan” with an “ancestral dislike” of Britain.
One has to wonder why an evidently intelligent and cultured man cannot learn from his mass of mistakes. Most politicians could spot the crass insensitivity instantly, though the great suspicion is that, because it was Libya, not Las Vegas, Paris or London, Johnson felt somehow comfortable in casually chatting about clearing away dead Libyan bodies in a way even he would never dare if the victims were American or British.
Now, imagine if it had been dead bodies in Las Vegas, not Sirte, that Johnson spoke of. How many hours would it have taken before his political career was dead and buried? A safe bet is not many. Yet neither did he resign nor, as yet, has he been fired.
It took some time for the first British minister, albeit one not in the cabinet, to condemn the comments. The typical reactions when defending Johnson in the media were more half-hearted. Damian Green, the first Secretary of State, merely stated that, “We should all be careful in our language in relation to sensitive and difficult situations like Libya… including Boris.” Another cabinet minister just referenced that this was another example of Boris being Boris.
Except he is not just Boris, he is Britain’s Foreign Secretary, its chief diplomat, charged with building relations to take forward a global Britain in a post-Brexit era. He is meant to show leadership, not least as he has ambitions to be prime minister.
Johnson himself refused to apologize or even express regret. “The reality there is that the clearing of corpses of Daesh fighters has been made much more difficult by IEDs and booby traps. That’s why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support,” he said.
Lack of meaningful action over British Foreign Secretary’s “clear the dead bodies away” remark about Libya shows that derisory comments about Arabs do not carry the same penalty politically as if they referred to Westerners.
This misses the point. Aside from the fact that he did not make it clear what he was referring to during his speech, he still cannot see the crass insensitivity of his remarks.
Unsurprisingly, Libyans have reacted furiously. The Libyan parliament has demanded an apology, with Fayez Al-Sarraj, the leader of Libya's Western-backed government in Tripoli, describing Johnson's comments as “unacceptable”. After all, imagine if a senior Libyan politician had said after the recent London attacks something along the lines of, “London and Manchester will be fine when they have cleared away all the corpses.” How fast would the British ambassador be haring it back to London for “consultations?”
Words and language matter in diplomacy, and should be chosen wisely. Johnson had already alienated many leaders in the EU. And, even before taking up office, he gave himself the awkward task of building relations with the new White House team, after having declared in 2016 that Donald Trump was “clearly out of his mind,” suffered from “quite stupefying ignorance” and that Johnson would not visit New York because of the “real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”
However, the real story is less what we learnt about Johnson but prevalent attitudes in Britain today, and arguably in Europe. That Johnson insults whole countries, peoples, cities and cultures is nothing new at all. It is all too frequent. The real issue much of the media airbrushed over is what it says about attitudes to Arabs. On the video of the event, you hear some of the audience laughing, finding it somehow amusing. It shows the extent to which Arabs have so often in the public narrative become particularly dehumanized. The media, not least over the last six years, has been full of stories of hundreds of thousands of dead Arabs. Maybe half a million Syrians have been killed since 2011. Would Boris have made the same comment about Raqqa or Mosul? Quite probably.
Indeed, Johnson’s insensitive comments were nothing in comparison to then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous comment in 1996 that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under-five was a price worth paying. But, just like Johnson, she did not resign.
Put simply, derisory comments about Arabs and indeed most non-Westerners do not carry the same penalty politically as if they referred to “white” Westerners. This is why 55 percent of Brits support racial profiling of Arabs, according to the recent Arab News poll. It is time for anti-Arab racism to be put on exactly the same level as anti-Jewish and anti-black comments. The reaction or lack of a reaction to Johnson’s gaffe shows how far off that is.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech