Barely had the ink dried on Stephen Robinson’s imaginative apologia for Boris Johnson — he is compared, courageously, to Churchill — than the former foreign secretary reminded us of his capacity for blunder. In his Telegraph column Johnson assailed the ‘burka’ for leaving Muslim women ‘looking like letter boxes’ and ‘bank robber[s]’. I say ‘burka’ but ‘letter box’ suggests he actually meant the niqab. A regular Abu Hanifa is this one.
But was it a blunder? Or did Johnson, freed from such responsibilities as he felt bound by in the Foreign Office, consider the renewed vigour of anti-Muslim populism and decide to sound a dogwhistle? He certainly couldn’t have failed to notice the protests over the jailing of Tommy Robinson and the rejoicing when the Rosa Parks of Rotherham was freed last week. Imperilling trials, mortgage fraud and other such qualifications for alt-right sainthood are a bit taboo with the Tory matrons but he could still send a signal that there was someone in mainstream politics who shares the Breitbart crowd’s contempt for Islam. I appreciate this makes me a dhimmī and a Vichy multiculturalist and all the other comment thread appellations. In fact, I think Islam should be as open to rebuke and ridicule as every other religion. Cartoonists should be free to depict the Prophet Mohammed and Telegraph columnists to denigrate the principle of hijab.
And yet, je ne suis pas Boris. For he was not ridiculing Muslim theology but Muslim women who wear the niqab . Where they do so freely (albeit in the culturally conditioned context of Islamic patriarchy), he is mocking a choice these women have made about their level of religious observance. Where they are coerced or intimidated into it, Johnson is turning vulnerable and victimised women into a punchline. Neither is becoming of an aspiring prime minister. Johnson surmises that these are unbecoming times and his best chance of reaching Number 10 might be via unbecoming means. Donald Trump appalled his way to a winning coalition of evangelical Christians and blue state whites and Johnson perhaps figures he can do the same by bringing together traditional Tory voters with the white working class, both hereditary Labour voters who backed Brexit and non-voters exercised by culture wars. There is a lamentable logic to it.
Step back and study the architecture of this row and you can observe how finely crafted is every angle and join. Johnson drops some crass remarks in a column critiquing ‘burka’ bans. He does this knowing the BBC will kindly amplify his message so that it reaches those who seldom take an interest in politics and will do so in scandalised liberal tones certain to irritate his intended audience. The ensuing outrage will force Tory chairman Brandon Lewis to demand that Johnson apologises, a demand that Johnson will rebuff. Free speech martyrdom: unlocked.
Political trolling is designed to elicit a reaction and Johnson’s effort has succeeded on all levels. Those who see Muslims as a threatening, alien presence in this country have cheered someone who finally ‘told it like it is’. Johnson is not the only Tory to have grasped the electoral potential of Muslim-baiting. Zac Goldsmith’s gloriously failed bid to become London mayor didn’t deploy a dogwhistle so much as a loudhailer against Sadiq Khan, branding him ‘radical and divisive’. If you want a Muslim for your mayor, vote Labour. Conservative MP Michael Fabricant pandered to similar sentiments last month when he tweeted a picture of a Khan balloon being sodomised by an inflatable pig. Muslim community leaders are understandably concerned that the Tory Party sees stigmatising Muslims as legitimate politics. If the Tories allow themselves to become institutionally anti-Muslim in the way Labour has become antisemitic, they deserve no less opprobrium.
Another reaction has been that of whataboutery. ‘What about Labour antisemitism?’ Johnson’s defenders sputter, which, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been discussing quite a bit lately and which — this will shock you — it’s possible to be against while also finding it unseemly that a former Cabinet minister has alighted on Britain’s three million Muslims as his route to Downing Street.
There is a reaction worse than whataboutery, a response that says ‘at least he’s not afraid to stand up to Islam’, or, more asininely, ‘at least he’s colourful unlike the rest of them’. Atleastery is how we rationalise the bad behaviour of those we like by deflecting to the worse behaviour of those we don’t. Oftentimes the behaviour objectively isn’t worse but our tribal minds have built up defences against the intrusion of facts. Atleastery is what leads you to cheer viral videos of Jacob Rees-Mogg chuntering splendid nonsense about Brexit because, although he is wrong on the facts, his opponents are ‘the elite’ and that’s the end of the matter. Atleastery is the doctrine of Trump not Hillary, Corbyn not Blair, Brexit not Remain.
The very fact that squishy liberals like me object to Johnson only enhances his appeal. I have many reasons to dislike him. He’s a posh boy populist. He’s a fake Brexiteer. His close protection officer trampled my foot while bundling him out of a Spectator party one Tory conference. I take offence at his repeated insulting of the Scots, which is, after all, my job. But what really gets me about Johnson should trouble his admirers: He believes none of it. Not the niqab jibes, not the Brexit buccaneering, not his opposition to the Iraq War nor his vote for it, not his support for gay rights nor his dig at ‘tank-topped bumboys’. Boris Johnson believes in nothing but his personal gratification and political ambitions, the latter of which now seem staked on a Trumpian path to power. It’s fortunate that his fans are the sort who hunger for betrayal; if he makes it to Number 10, Johnson will give them a feast.