Boris Johnson, the wily faux-buffoon of British politics, has done it again, causing the twittering classes to reach for their blood pressure medicine. This time he has compared the appearance of women who wear burqas to that of letterboxes, thus committing the sin of Islamophobia. At least, that is what the traders in outrage claim. But if you take time to read the offending article, you will find that Johnson drew the analogy in the course of criticizing Denmark’s ban on wearing the burqa in public places. He was defending the right of Muslim women in Western Europe to wear the veil, and denying the right of governments to ban it.
The anger that has greeted his article takes us to the heart of several of the problems that now afflict liberal democracies. At the time of writing, Johnson has resisted the calls to apologize— rightly, in my opinion, if only to show contempt for confected outrage and fake repentance—though he now faces investigation by his own party.
But the controversy also highlights two other serious matters. First, it underlines the problem of fundamentalist Islam for the Western Left. The veil puts women in their place—not a very Leftist idea, one would have thought. But Islam is rarely the subject of Left wing critique—which is odd, given that its pre-capitalist social structure and values would make it, at least in classical Marxist terms, a more retrograde form of social organization than Western capitalism. But such is today’s Left: largely detached from its historic concerns.
It is some years since Nick Cohen, perhaps Britain’s most impressive radical journalist, offered his moving lament on the Left’s betrayal of itself through its hatred of the West, and especially of America. Gone was the traditional socialist concern for the poor and working class. Identity politics was far more important. And any regime, country, or cause, no matter what its domestic record on women, gays, or other minorities, was deemed worthy of support as long as it hated the West. Cohen wrote all this before the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, so that his argument is even more true now than when he first published it.
Second, Johnson’s article reveals that the burqa presents a challenge for the Right. The problem with veiling does not arise simply from female subjugation. Indeed, in 2008, feminist Naomi Wolf infamously—and somewhat plausibly—argued that Islamic dress codes were actually popular among many Muslim women and served to demarcate the public and the private in ways that she found attractive and liberating.
Yet the wearing of the veil in public does not simply demarcate public and private. It blurs the two, in ways that are damaging to the former. Faces are important to social interaction. When you look into the face of another person, you relate to that person in ways that are not available when the face is hidden. Myriad facial gestures and expressions communicate in a manner that supplements and perhaps surpasses that of words. At a deep level, you see what binds you to the person (a common humanity) even as you become aware of what distinguishes you (individual personhood). The person becomes a real person, someone like you. There are further implications. The person who sees your face but denies you the sight of their own has an advantage in terms of power. Criminals wear masks not simply to hide their identities, but to gain an advantage over their victims. I want to see the face of the woman who is standing before me and to whom I am speaking, because a fundamentally different relationship obtains then than would obtain if her face were covered. I am tempted to say that I should typically have the right to see her face.
The debate over the burqa is a reminder to conservatives that religious freedom is not in practice an unqualified right, nor should it be. If I decide tomorrow to revive the worship of the Ammonite god Molech, I doubt very much that many religious conservatives would allow me to sacrifice children under the protection of the First Amendment. Murder is an easy case to decide. But what of the burqa? Female circumcision is an outrage—but what of infant male circumcision? What of the sanctity of the confessional in Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism? Are these things good or bad for society, even as conservatives like to envisage it?
These debates are coming thick and fast—many are already with us—and they remind religious and political conservatives that our arguments for religious freedom need to be plausible in the public square, and rooted in an understanding of what it means to be a society of human persons. Just because something can be called “religious” does not mean that advocates of religious freedom necessarily must support it. The burden is on us to demonstrate that, on specific religious matters, society has no compelling interest in depriving us of particular freedoms. Appeals to the Founders or even to the way it was last week will not suffice.
In the meantime, I hope Boris stands firm. I disagree with him on the burqa, but I admire his stand for freedom of speech and for humor in journalism—and against people who are too lazy to read what he actually wrote.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.