A Scout master and lifelong member of the Scout Association has been fired after daring to point out health and safety concerns surrounding a Muslim female scout master’s decision to wear a full burka while giving canoe lessons.
As a devoted Scout master, Brian Walker had spent decades teaching children how to canoe and climb hills, abseil down cliffs, pitch tents, build fires and cook bangers.
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But last year – after more than half a century since he first joined the movement – he was thrown out, he says, like ‘an old slipper’. He has been forbidden from wearing his uniform and badges or having anything to do with Scout Association ever again — all because he dared to question whether it was safe to wear a burka on the water while supervising children.
Did he deserve his summary expulsion?
MailOnline reports: How could she jump in to rescue a Scout in difficulty? How could she navigate her own canoe properly beneath her veil? How could she be sure her instructions were being seen and heard?
They’re questions many people might reasonably ask.
But Mr Walker went on to say Zainab Kothdiwala, the respected head of a thriving all-girl Scout pack in her home town of Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, looked like Darth Vader.
And he added that the sight of someone doing adventure sports in a full face veil would be incongruous enough to scare children and animals.
Clearly, Mr Walker, 63, is a man with robust opinions and a ripe turn of phrase, a trait he shares with former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who recently compared women in burkas to ‘bank robbers’ and said they looked ‘like letter boxes’.
The Scout Association did not approve, declaring Mr Wilson to be in breach of its diversity and equality rules.
He was dismissed from his post as assistant leader of an Explorer Scout pack in his home city of Bristol by a letter, which stated that his views ‘do not fit within the Equal Opportunities Policy’ or the Scout values of ‘integrity, respect, care and belief’.
He was forbidden from wearing his uniform and badges or having anything to do with Scout Association paperwork, never mind children.
But now, 18 months later, he has won an unexpected reprieve.
As a county court judge prepared to rule on the row, the association capitulated, paying him damages and costs. He is donating the cheque to charity. The victory, which owes much to the help given to Mr Walker by the Christian Legal Centre, is a pyrrhic one for him personally. The Scout Association won’t apologise and has publicly said it still doesn’t approve of his comments.
But more broadly, his story once again raises the impossible question of where the fault line lies between civilised opinion and unacceptable prejudice.
Speaking to The Mail on Sunday in the semi-detached home he shares with his wife, Annie, near Bristol, he says the whole experience has left him feeling bruised and sad about the direction he feels the Scouts are heading. ‘This was never, ever a personal attack,’ he says. ‘The very fact that this woman is a Scout leader means she shares my values, my belief in volunteering and giving something back society. But her outfit says a lot more about Islam than it does about scouting.
‘You can’t go abseiling in a niqab, I’m not sure about hiking and I don’t agree with canoeing.
‘She’s at risk of drowning herself, not to mention the fact that it compromises her ability to keep Scouts safe.
‘The movement is about to implode under the weight of its own dogma and absurdity. I took a stand for freedom of thought and freedom of speech.’
The quite extraordinary saga traces back to March 2017, when Mr Walker took umbrage at the spring edition of the Scouts quarterly magazine, Scouting.
He and his wife Annie are evangelical Christians – just like Chief Scout Bear Grylls – and Mr Walker was unhappy with a gushing profile of Mrs Kothdiwala ‘in her full Islamic veil’.
The magazine, which included a faith calendar, said: ‘Zainab cuts a striking figure when she takes the girls out canoeing or goes hiking through the Yorkshire hills.’
The calendar promoted Islam, Buddhism and even the Indian faith of Jainism with brief mentions of Christmas and Easter.
Mr Walker sent the editor a private email, never intended for circulation or publication, asking him to reconsider this kind of coverage. He doesn’t think of himself as a bigot or as a xenophobe, having travelled extensively in more than 60 countries, learned Spanish in Ecuador and karate in Japan, been up the Amazon and survived a military coup in Paraguay.
He was, however, angered by the drift from what he sees as core scouting values and beliefs that trace back to Lord Baden Powell, who founded the movement on Christian principles while wishing it to welcome people of all faiths.
‘How sad and disappointed I am,’ Mr Walker wrote, ‘that the whole Scout mission is to push a politically correct agenda of multi-faith brain washing, anything that denigrates Christianity. In the magazine, children are encouraged to visit a Sikh temple or a mosque yet for a St George’s Day celebration are told “choose your venue carefully, the use of non-religious buildings can ensure the event is welcome to all”.
In the faith calendar, no mention is made of the real meaning of the two biggest Christian festivals, Christmas or Easter.’
Then came his ‘Darth Vader’ comments and criticism of the association’s commitment to LGBT education – unwisely saying ‘camp takes on a whole different meaning’ – and told the editorial team he didn’t like the magazine’s cover picture either. ‘It was a child in a new age unicorn suit blowing bubbles with bubblegum. Just irrelevant. Scouting has gone fluffy. I don’t make any apology for saying so.’
His email was passed to Tim Kidd, the association’s chief commissioner, who sent it to Mr Walker’s local group, setting in motion the train of events that would see him expelled.
He appealed against the decision but found himself still barred. Then, with the help of the Christian Legal Centre, Mr Walker brought a claim against the association, accusing it of discrimination against his own religious beliefs.
The Scout Association agreed an out-of-court settlement but for the moment he remains barred.
Mr Walker is one of life’s volunteers, having been in 21 SAS, the Territorial branch of the Special Air Service, and the RAF Auxiliary. When he lived in Australia for 15 years, he was a reservist military medic and army engineer there too. Three years ago, to mark his 60th birthday, he spent two weeks and £3,000 of his own money – he is an electrician by trade, so that was a significant sum – in Uganda building an orphanage.
So what are the thoughts of his wife of 28 years, Annie – a former police officer and now full-time carer to their eldest son Liam, who is severely disabled?
‘I’m proud of Brian,’ she says. ‘I think he was brave to take a stand but I have never doubted my husband’s courage, whether he was hopping on a helicopter to Kosovo or climbing this particular political mountain. I backed him going public with the court case because I felt that if this could happen to us it could be happening to others too. I wanted us to have a voice.’
Throughout the controversy, Mrs Kothdiwala, has retained a dignified silence. In the magazine, she described herself as bossy and adventurous and made a powerful defence of her choice to be veiled: ‘I am who I am with or without the veil. It’s not a barrier, it doesn’t stop me from doing anything.’
Today, she declines to elaborate on those comments.
Mehwish Siddiqui, a fellow leader at 1st Heckmondwike Ansaar Scouts, said: ‘Zainab is a very conservative Muslim and wears the niqab all the time. She’s always up for anything and wears her niqab for the sports activities like canoeing. It doesn’t get in the way.’
Last night, the Scout Association declined to say whether it agreed the niqab was safe for taking Scouts canoeing and hiking.
A spokesperson confirmed it had settled out of court but added: ‘This does not imply that we accept Mr Walker’s claim made against us or his view of the world.
‘The Scouts do not accept Mr Walker was right when he made his offensive comments. As a charity, we had to weigh up whether it was worth using our limited time and money on a costly and prolonged legal dispute.
‘In this case, we decided it was in our best interests to settle this matter out of court.’
Mr Wilson is, characteristically, unrepentant saying: ‘I don’t regret my Darth Vader quip because it has brought the issue to the fore and begun a debate.’
As a Scout master he’s long been an expert in knots.
It looks like he’s got the Scout Association tied up in a big one for some time to come.