Boris Johnson’s comments about burqas and niqabs are another entry in a litany of racist gaffes, followed by controversy and a demand for an apology. That is how ‘post-racial’ politics works: excessive racist speech acts repudiated publicly so that the routine activities of racist statecraft may continue. Theresa May slaps the hand of indecency and intolerance, pundits tut at naughty BoJo’s colourful language and the ‘hostile environment’ continues.
So, is Boris Johnson’s latest race-baiting just another episode of run-of-the-mill hard-right posturing followed by some hollow centrist reproach? Is it just business as usual? Well it is, but it is also more.
Johnson is a populist, and despite his jocular persona there is nothing uncalculated about his actions. A political speculator (he only made his mind up on Brexit once Cameron had staked his claim to Remain), Johnson’s political strategy is single minded in its objective to secure his role as Prime Minister. Indeed, the only thing that is consistent in his approach is his opportunism. His resignation was an attempt to out-macho May at the EU negotiating table over the Chequers deal (capitalizing on the chaos of Brexit and knowing that decisiveness, or at least the illusion of it, carries sufficient cache). The timing of his resignation coincided with Trump’s visit to the UK and most recently he has been cosying up to Bannon. Even Johnson’s buffoonery serves his opportunistic purpose; it is part and parcel of appealing to ‘the people’, while his louche Etonian swagger endows him with the requisite gravitas to lead a nationalist project, simultaneously (re)assuring the mob that he is their class superior. In this swagger he incorporates the thuggish nationalism of Tommy Robinson, the stock-broker-cum-gent corporate capitalism of Nigel Farage, the shock jock bravura of Katie Hopkins and the authoritarian coldness of May. And amid these different positions, the phantasma of the veiled Muslim woman offers him a convenient symbol through which to unite the different camps to which he appeals.
Given that the number of Muslim women that wear the burqa in the UK is less than 1% we need to pay attention to the disproportionate work the image is doing for Johnson and his allies.
In his recent article in The Telegraph, he uses the figure of the Muslim woman to draw together a series of tensions consistent with his broader politics, and instructive of wider far-right and nationalist discourses. The article positions European abandon and freedom (set in Denmark and against the backdrop of its ruling to ban the burqa) against the veiled Muslim woman, and therefore Muslims in general. The veiled Muslim woman is presented as anathema to European individuality and civility, as responsible for its decline, and in this way, she is used to stoke deeply held fears that Europe’s innocence is being eroded.
This mourning is satisfied through strong appeals to the nation, economic protectionism and security. The Danes are lauded for protecting national ownership of property, and by implication for their hard stance at the border. The backdrop for this is a country with a ruling coalition that includes the far-right Danish People’s Party and one that has overseen one of northern Europe’s more draconian responses to migration and migrants. For example, the Danish government approved plans to strip refugees of their assets at the beginning of the ‘migration crisis’, and recently announced plans for the forced integration of ‘ghetto children’.
For Johnson and the far-right the veiled Muslim woman in her hyper-visible invisibility works as a powerful metonym for a much wider set of racial fears and desires, that together mobilize support for their nationalist and authoritarian agendas.
In dehumanizing Muslim women through the language of letter boxes and bank robbers Johnson denies the many ways in which Muslim women wear the veil, as an expression of spiritual devotion, as an act of resistance, as matter of liberal choice, obfuscating the need to think that under the veil are women with voices, opinions and emotions.
In describing the circumstances he would demand Muslim women to unveil he taps into long-held Orientalist and colonial fantasies; fetishes charged with desire for both sexual and imperial conquest. This is underpinned by Eurocentric/liberal ideas of individuality and freedom, which demand that brown women be saved by white men in an exercise of muscular liberalism which does nothing other than maintain the patriarchal status quo. As Johnson’s nod to Jack Straw reminds us, these are not just the politics of the far right, nor even just of the right. And it is perhaps worth reflecting on the role of liberal Islamophobia which has enabled the right to garner more support and respectability. After all, as the free speech warriors argue amongst themselves about the right to offend and make jokes about religion, the reality remains that Muslim women continue to be the targets of anti-Muslim violence.
Johnson’s legitimacy is therefore gained on the back of broader anti-Muslim racism, in which Muslims have increasingly become the key figures of fear and threat post-9/11. This can only be understood in the context of the global war on terror, and its consequences for millions of people displaced by those and other associated wars. Accordingly, anti-Muslim racism has increasingly incorporated a host of longer standing British bigotries: anti-black racisms (against displaced African Muslims for example) and xeno-racisms, such that while the Brexit referendum ostensibly focused on freedom of movement for EU migrants (some of whom would of course have been black and/or Muslim) much of the scare mongering centred on the prospect of increasing numbers of Muslims from outside the EU, whether through Turkish entry to the EU or the arrival of Muslim refugees, as was most clearly illustrated in UKIP’s Breaking Point poster.
Johnson’s comments are the rough edge of a much more widely held politics, through which it draws its legitimacy. There has been a continued oscillation over the last decade or so between the far-right and what Richard Seymour succinctly captured as being ‘the soft racism of the hard centre’ – each doing the other’s work.
Whilst the shock troops of the far-right, confidently rallying the banner of anti-Muslim racism, can press the limits of what is politically possible, the traction of such politics requires a boarder consensus. And this should constitute an urgent reminder to the organized Corbyn-led left, that their hitherto cautiousness in more forcefully challenging the politics of race and nationalism will not suffice for much longer. The recent debates on national production, for example, cannot occur without a clear anti-nationalist and anti-racist position precisely because demands for national production can be so easily allied with the nationalist and racist politics of the far right.
This question of nationalism and anti-Muslim racism is not where the left should bide its time. It is instead the case, as we witness the partial unraveling of the neoliberal consensus, that the race-baiting far-right is rapidly positioning itself as the most likely heir to formal governmental power. To remain silent, to appease these demons for electoral gain, is to allow Johnson and his particular brand of politics to succeed.