First, a confession. I wasn’t particularly pleased to learn that Boris Johnson would be awarded this year’s Irving Kristol award at the Annual Dinner hosted by my intellectual and professional home: the American Enterprise Institute. I am not a fan of Johnson — nor of his political style. Johnson’s support for Brexit was a decisive factor in the 2016 referendum that created a mess that I think will take a generation to fix.
Still, in light of the torrent of denunciations from political and chattering classes for his “letter box” joke, I feel compelled to come to Johnson’s defence. His jocularity is not always in good taste but seeing his comment as indicative of some dark “underbelly of Islamophobia” within the Tory party is obscene hyperbole, particularly at a time when Labour is failing miserably at dealing with its own anti-Semitism problem. Worse yet, the unqualified, across-the-board condemnations give him exactly the attention and the following he craves.
The top-to-toe burka, with its sinister, airless little grille, is more than an instrument of persecution, it is a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality. It transforms any woman into an object of defilement too untouchably disgusting to be seen. It is a garment of lurid sexual suggestiveness: what rampant desire and desirability lurks and leers beneath its dark mysteries?
(No letters please from British women who have taken the veil and claim it’s liberating. It is their right in a tolerant society to wear anything including rubber fetishes — but that has nothing to do with the systematic cultural oppression of women with no choice.)
It necessitates a special kind of blindness not to see that oppression of women can come from other sources than white Western patriarchy – and that perhaps, just perhaps, oppression existing in conservative Muslim communities might be worse than the baseline of 21st-century societies of the West. It is precisely this wilful blindness that makes Johnson’s comment so explosive.
On substance, Johnson is right not to advocate banning the burka (or rather the niqab). There is a serious, scholarly argument about the extent to which the new veiling movement in the Muslim world, dating back to the 1970s, may have facilitated access of women to education and labour markets.
Paradoxically, in the Middle East, the rise of veiling seems to coincide with a rise in women’s educational attainment and labour market participation. One explanation is that the conspicuous displays of piety have helped preserve the women’s reputations within their own conservative communities, while allowing for a degree of interaction with the outside world. As a result, bans on veiling, such as the ones adopted in Austria or Denmark, risk inhibiting social integration of Muslim women, trapping them inside of their intolerant communities.
That consideration, however, does not make the practice of full body and face veiling any less demeaning to women, as it reduces them to voices from behind a piece of cloth. Classical liberals and conservatives in particular would do well to remember that injustice and oppression do not come only from the government but also from more organic societal structures, including family and religious communities.
There is a spectrum of ways to address the problem of local, community-based oppression, from the arguably heavy-handed French secularism to more permissive forms of multiculturalism, each carrying its own trade-offs. Given how hard it is to point to unambiguous success stories, especially in the European context, it seems safe to conclude that the underlying tension between the right of religious communities to self-organized and right of the individual constituent, never quite goes away.
Pretending that such tension does not exist, as most of Johnson’s critics do, does not help. Neither does the predictable way in which all the bien-pensants have taken offence at his column. If anything, the opprobrium directed at him for saying what most Brits think (half of the country, after all, want full body and face veiling banned) guarantees that Johnson’s political future looks bright.