Johnson’s niqab comments earlier in the week scarcely merit analysis on the surface issues of clothing, security, theology or feminism (Johnson LOL). Doing so risks getting bogged down in debates that are far from new, even if they do fill space and time in the dog-days of summer.
The main point is that, along with others on the coalescing hard-right agenda, Johnson is working to the Bannon script and signalling to that audience that he is on board.
Most responses were play-book: there were those who basically support him, as represented by The Mail, Express and other usual suspects. Within 2 or 3 days of the comments, the cycle kicked in where these forces could act with outrage against the left’s response of general anger. Reactionaries inevitably invoked Orwell and moaned about free-speech, even though Johnson is entirely free to have said what he did, the idea that he isn’t is from the same drawer-file as “They banned Christmas!” Regardless of their entrenched paranoia, he’s free to spout bigotry, just as opponents are free to call him out for doing so.
The liberal/ left response across all media perhaps went a little too far into the deconstruction that this piece evades – either asking if he was essentially being bigoted or concluding that he was. Such analysis distracts from Johnson’s objective – signalling himself as onside with culture wars of hatred. It’s an objective he broadly met. Of course, if he has much to say about genuine Islamic violence, the former Foreign Secretary would be fuming a US-backed Saudi airstrike hitting a school bus in Yemen, killing dozens of children. It’s a far more real and hideous than the unlikely prospect of an Islamic woman in head-to-toe garb robbing a bank.
However, some mention was given to the Bannon context that is one main issue here. This was especially true on the left and in social media, but it’s encouraging to see that there’s a reasonable amount of awareness in liberal and establishment realms too.
One theme was more lacking though – a consistent sense of crisis being stoked regarding May’s leadership of the party. Tories, such as Baroness Warsi and Lord Sheikh, have been speaking out about Islamophobia within the party while The Spectator allowed Rod Liddle to say there wasn’t enough. But an analogue for the years of ceaseless attacks on Corbyn seems strangely absent.
Once again we have seen that not all bigotries are equal. Some are deemed more offensive, others more politically useful.