A DEBATE over free speech triggered by Boris Johnson’s controversial comments on the burka continues to rage in Oxford.

The former foreign secretary sparked outrage earlier this month when he compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to 'bank robbers' and 'letterboxes'.

Many of Oxford’s anti-racism campaigners have called out Mr Johnson’s comments, claiming they legitimise racist beliefs and incite Islamophobic violence.

However, others, including former Abingdon MP Tom Benyon, believe that Mr Johnson was simply utilising his freedom of speech and accuse those on the left of shutting down debate.

Oxford Mail:

Cherry Mosteshar of Momentum Oxford spoke at an anti-racism event in the city centre on Saturday and discussed the links between language and physical violence.

The campaigner, originally from Iran, said: “I’ve been in England since I was two years old and this is the first time I have ever felt unwelcome. There is a seachange happening.”

Ms Moteshar talked about Muslim women facing adversity on British streets in recent months, including reports that two veiled women were urinated on following Mr Johnson’s contentious statements.

She added: “Two women in Blackbird Leys told us they have so much trouble at school for wearing a hijab they hadn’t been for months.”

Oxford Mail:

Other speakers at the event, including Tracy Walsh of Oxford Unite Against Fascism, said far right ideas were being granted a renewed energy in 2018, following a decline in the first half of the decade.

As well as Mr Johnson, she said other prominent far right figures – like former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson and ex-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon – had played a role in legitimising racist speech and actions.

Oxford Mail:

Ian Mckendrick, of Oxford Stand up to Racism, said comments made by Mr Johnson and others were a way of directing anger away from austerity and towards vulnerable populations.

Those on the other side of the debate, however, suggest that there are genuine concerns to be had with integration – and have accused the left of shutting down any debate on the matter.

Oxford Mail:

Former Abingdon MP Tom Benyon, who watched Saturday's demonstration in Oxford, said he believed that Mr Johnson was merely exercising his right to free speech – and emphasised that the MP was defending the rights of Muslim women who wear veils.

Discussing the message of anti-racism campaigners, he said: “The idea that anybody who doesn’t agree with them is automatically stamping on the poor or a fascist is just wrong.

“In our society we have free speech. You have the right to offend me just as I have the right to offend you.”

Mr Benyon said he had genuine concerns about the treatment of women within Islam as well as what he described as an 'enthusiasm for Sharia law'.

He added: “I don’t think articulating these problems makes somebody a racist at all.

“I’ve devoted my life to humanitarian causes and I don’t like being deemed to be on the far right because I don’t agree with certain people.”