Does liberal opinion permit Europeans to discuss the burka openly, honestly, and fearlessly?
The answer is almost certainly “no,” judging by the furious reaction that greeted Boris Johnson’s recent remarks on the full face veil donned by many fundamentalist Muslim women. “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive then I am with you,” the former U.K. foreign secretary wrote in a recent column for the Telegraph newspaper. “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes.”
The left and much of the right assailed him, including his ex-boss, Prime Minister Theresa May. The main charge was that Johnson suffers from a dangerous and likely incurable condition: “Islamophobia.” Few of his many critics bothered to note that Johnson was writing in opposition to a Danish ban on the burka. Johnson is unquestionably burka-phobic, but there is scant evidence, either in his column or his long public career, that he is any sort of anti-Muslim bigot.
The column was classic “BoJo.” Johnson is the jocular type—Britons would say “cheeky”—perhaps to a fault. But more than most of the dullards who rise to the higher echelons in Europe, he has his finger on the popular pulse. Johnson knows that anxiety over the burka courses through the whole European body politic.
Few native Europeans dare voice it honestly. If a former top diplomat is raked over the intersectionality coals for doing so, imagine what would happen to Average Joe. But the anxiety is real enough. And it is legitimate, because the sight of the burka in the public square crystalizes the sense that European immigration and assimilation policy has gone horribly wrong. Concluding that this is so isn’t tantamount to hatred.
Constantly bottling up anxiety, moreover, is no less unhealthy for a collective psyche than it is for the individual. Allow me, then, to voice my own burka-phobia as a former resident of the U.K., who had grown accustomed to, say, landing at Heathrow Airport and finding myself surrounded by fully veiled faces on the express train to central London.
Actually, “accustomed” isn’t the right word, for I never quite got used to eyes without a face—to the encounter with a hidden subject, who was free to gaze into my features but who deflected my attempts to reciprocate her gaze. Eyes Without a Face, incidentally, is the title of a chilling cult horror flick from 1960, which attests to the fact that most people find free-floating, disembodied, faceless eyes deeply disturbing. (Sometimes even the eyes were hidden behind a thin mesh screen, a mechanism that completely erased the individuality of this Other.)
So, no, I never got accustomed to the burka. But it was an encounter that I had no choice but to tolerate. I was born and raised in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muslim veiling was thus not alien to me. Imagine, then, the discomfort of the plumber or electrician from London’s more blue-collar precincts. Now add to that cultural discomfort a prohibition against expressing any discomfort, enforced on pain of social ostracism and joblessness. It’s a recipe for populist backlash.
Does all this mean that I would support a blanket ban against the full-face veil? Probably not. As much as I fret about the incohesive society bred by the burka’s presence in Europe, I also worry about the Continent’s high-handed secular progressivism. I wouldn’t want to give state agents the right to regulate religious practices in Europe, because I’m sure that those agents would go out of their way to target faithful Jews and Christians, not least to shield themselves from the same charge of Islamophobia that they casually hurl at the likes of Johnson.
But I do think that Europeans have a right to deplore the burka. Western civilization locates the dignity of men and women in their individuality, including in their facial features. The liberal reflex to silence, in the name of tolerance, those who insist on the real virtues and character of European civilization will only further radicalize the opposition. Such liberal illiberalism is not a little like a vast burka forcibly wrapped around the European mind.