Friday, 23 July 2010

Somewhere on the Cornish coast... where we'll be next week, so expect even less frequent postings than usual. However, I'm hoping to send the occasional tweet from my 'phone, reception permitting.

In the meantime, this video put out by the Porthminster Beach Cafe (where we plan to idle away a good few hours in the coming days) might give you some idea of why we like this corner of St. Ives so much. The upbeat soundtrack's a bit annoying: the laid-back samba on the cafe's own website is much more in keeping with the spirit of the place.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The baroness and the bombers

The tedious political sideshow that is the Chilcot Inquiry, aka The Mandarins’ Revenge On New Labour, continued today, with the
evidence of Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, daughter of Viscount Dilhorne and former Director General of MI5. I didn’t support the invasion of Iraq at the time, and I admit that some of Manningham-Buller’s reflections on the war are, with the benefit of hindsight, worth noting. However, her evidence is being touted across the media as if it provides conclusive proof that ousting Saddam Hussein was a thoroughly bad idea, the assumption apparently being that if someone of her status was against the war then, then surely it must have been wrong.

But it ain’t necessarily so, as a detailed fisking of what the Baroness actually said will show. Perhaps the biggest ‘take away’ from her evidence, if you believe the news reports, is her claim that the invasion of Iraq ‘substantially' increased the terrorist threat to the UK. Manningham-Buller, who was head of the domestic intelligence service from 2002 to 2007, admitted that the threat to the UK from al-Qaeda and similar groups 'pre-dated' the invasion. But she claimed that British participation in the invasion 'undoubtedly increased' the terrorist threat, and that in its aftermath MI5 was 'swamped' by leads about possible terrorist attacks in Britain:

Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalised a whole generation of young people, some of them British citizens who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.

In her oral evidence, not reproduced accurately on the BBC News website, Manningham-Buller corrected herself immediately after this sentence, speaking instead about a 'minority' of young Muslims who had been radicalised. But even this reduced claim hardly holds water. There's evidence that the relatively small numbers of British Muslims who actively support jihad were radicalised long before the Iraq war by a variety of other causes - beginning with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and including Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia, none of which had anything to do with British foreign policy (except the latter, which saw the UK actually come to the aid of beleaguered Muslims oppressed by 'Christian' Serbs).

Then again, even if some British Muslims had been 'radicalised' by events in Iraq, this would not necessarily have constituted a reason not to go to war. I know people grow tired of Nazi analogies, but imagine if in 1939 the British government had been told by their intelligence sources (as perhaps they were) that declaring war on Germany would provoke bombing raids on this country that could kill thousands of civilians. Certainly this would have given politicians pause for thought, and increased the gravity of their deliberations, but would it have rendered their decision to go ahead and stand up to Nazi aggression unwise or 'wrong'? (A more exact analogy might be with a terrorist threat from the British Union of Fascists in the event of war with Germany. Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirators bear the same relation to Osama bin Laden as did Mosley and co. to Hitler - and their authoritarian-chauvinist politics weren't all that dissimilar either.)

In other words, arguments about what response a military action might 'provoke' from its enemies cannot be the overriding factor in a nation's decision about whether to wage war. Nor do those threats, if they materialise, prove anything either way about the wisdom or morality of that action. Arguments of this kind tend to be advanced by those who have already made up their mind that a given action is wrong.

Moreover, terrorists and would-be terrorists can't have a veto over a country's foreign or domestic policy. Otherwise, assuming that I'm right about the catalytic importance of the Rushdie affair in the rise of British Islamism, it could be argued that the UK government should have banned The Satanic Verses.

As for Manningham-Buller's claim that some Muslims saw military intervention in Iraq as an attack on Islam: well, they were wrong, weren't they? Indeed, it was Shia Muslims who were most grievously oppressed by the secular tyrant Saddam, and most pleased to see the back of him. The misguided notion that the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were some kind of new 'crusade' was the product of twisted Islamist ideology fomented by hate preachers and extremist websites.

Turning to the reasons for going to war, the Baroness said she believed that the intelligence on Iraq's threat to Britain was not 'substantial enough' to justify the invasion:

Baroness Manningham-Buller said she had advised officials a year before the war that the threat posed by Iraq to the UK was 'very limited', and she believed that assessment had 'turned out to be the right judgement'.

Describing the intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat as 'fragmentary', she said 'If you are going to go to war, you need to have a pretty high threshold to decide on that.

As I understand it, the case for war was based not on a direct threat to Britain, but an assessment of the danger that Saddam posed to regional, and therefore global peace and stability. And unless I'm mistaken, the Baroness does not have any great experience or expertise in foreign policy. What's more, it's not for a civil servant to pass judgement on the rationale needed for taking military action. That's the job of elected politicians. And whatever we may think of their decision with the benefit of hindsight, 412 of those elected representatives voted in favour of war in Iraq, compared to 149 against: something only a few of them are sufficiently brave and consistent to admit now.


John Rentoul's rebuttal service swings into action, making some of the same points as I do in this post:

I can’t believe that the rebuttal service has to go round the same old loop of “Iraq caused 7/7 all over again.

Yes, MI5 were worried that Britain’s taking part in the invasion of Iraq might increase support for jihadist terrorism. Yet there is no evidence that it did. Mohammed Siddique Khan was “radicalised” and under surveillance before 9/11 and long before 7/7.

Al-Qa’ida has a problem with Britain, not because of its foreign policy (which includes the liberation of Muslims in Kosovo) but because it is decadent and anti-Islamic in its view. Its adherents have targeted Germany and Canada despite their non-involvement in Iraq.

But even if British decisions about Afghanistan or Iraq did lead to a greater risk of al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorism in the short or medium term, would that be a good reason for shying away from doing the right thing in the national interest for the long term?

Update 2

Recommended: this post by Julie, who has taken the trouble to listen to the Baroness' actual evidence, rather than just the selective quotes used in media reports. A very different picture emerges. For example, Manningham-Buller told the Chilcot panel that 'even if terrorism increases, that shouldn't stop you doing what you believe, as the government believed, to be right'.

Update 3

Norm takes on the Guardianista discourse of 'radicalization', arguing that 'if radicalizing those susceptible to being radicalized is the end of the argumentative story, something one simply must not do and nothing more needs to be added, then that is equivalent to saying that should British foreign policy have the effect that some of our fellow citizens will take to murdering other of our fellow citizens or aiding and abetting in this enterprise or giving their approval to it, then such a foreign policy must be eschewed.' He adds:

And this in turn is equivalent to saying that the threat of murder should be allowed a decisive voice in foreign policy. This is what the discourse of 'radicalization' as a self-sufficient argument legitimizes by the back door.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Thursday, 15 July 2010

No more burqas - but no ban

I loathe the niqab and the burqa and everything they represent. As Kenan Malik says: ‘The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing.’ When I see girls at my daughter’s school starting to ‘cover up’ on reaching adolescence – in one case so that only the young woman’s eyes were showing through a narrow slit in her black covering – it makes me both sad and angry.

I regard the burqa as the exact equivalent, for women, of the chain on the ankle of African slaves two hundred years ago: a visible token of servitude and control. It’s a feudal relic and should have no place in a society that has any claim to gender equality. Progressives and feminists should be deeply uneasy, rather than complacent, about its persistence on our streets and in our schools.

If I had a magic wand, I’d wish for the niqab and burqa to disappear from the face of the earth, along with the misogynistic religious mumbo-jumbo that sustains them, and which they reinforce. But I don’t have a magic wand, and nor do governments. Politicians sometimes fall into the trap of using the law as a means of wishing away things that bother them. However, not everything that is worrying or disturbing should necessarily be illegal. Moreover, there’s a danger that using the law as a blunt instrument to solve complex social problems can have undesirable and unintended consequences, such as limiting individual freedom, or causing suffering to the very people the law was intended to help.

That’s why, on balance, I don’t approve of the French government’s decision to ban the niqab and why I’m worried about campaigns to introduce similar legislation in Britain. I wouldn’t go as as far as Madeleine Bunting who says of the new law: ‘It sends a shiver down the spine’. What sends a shiver down my spine is the tendency among the pro-faith lobby (for whom Bunting is the cheerleader) to rush to the support of every new expression of religious fundamentalism. And I don't disagree with many of the things that French politicians, including some on the left, have said about the burqa/niqab and its deleterious effect on women’s lives. I often wish we had progressive politicians here who would be equally outspoken and not leave criticism of fundamentalism to the anti-immigration right. I also understand the support that feminists in Arab and majority-Muslim countries, such as the blogger Saudiwoman and the French organsaition Ni Putes Ni Soumises, have given to the proposal. For them, it's a small step forward in the long struggle against women’s oppression in their communities. If only we had more outspoken feminists saying such things in Britain, and getting media coverage for it - which is not to understate the fantastic work being done by Southall Black Sisters and the One Law For All (No Sharia) campaign, among others.

Sadly, discussion on these shores of the French plan has seen people slipping back into their comfortably polarised defensive positions: the ban has been supported most vocally by the anti-immigrant right (such as UKIP and Tory MP Philip Hollobone), while opposition to it, on the grounds of freedom and toleration, has become a badge of honour on the left. The Guardian's Gary Younge tweeted the other day along the lines that it was equally wrong for states to require women to force women to wear the burqa, and to prevent them from doing so. Fair enough, Gary, but the left should be just as vocal in pointing out that it's wrong for individual men, not to mention 'faith communities', to tell women what they can and can't wear - and the state has a role in protecting women against pressure to conform to patriarchal or religious requirements.

I don't think that every aspect of the French law is unworkable. The proposal that public institutions should be able to insist that both employees and customers uncover their faces seems eminently sensible. However, as Malik says:

If wearing a burqa is incompatible with the needs of particular jobs, then those particular employers – hospitals, schools, shops even - can legitimately demand that employees not be clad from head to foot. But again, one can impose dress codes for certain jobs without banning a type of clothing for everyone. After all, we don’t have judges and teachers wearing bikinis on the job either.

Similarly, one can applaud the French proposal to prosecute husbands and fathers who seek to control what their female relatives wear. But prosecuting women themselves for covering their faces in public risks making them victims twice over. And how exactly do politicians expect women who currently wear the burqa to respond to the new law? Will they defy the pressure of family, community and clerics and tear off the veil, so that they can go shopping, or work as teachers? A few brave souls might. But the danger is that others will simply be driven further back into the home, and become even less visible, even less active, in public life: which is presumably the aim of the burqa, and the whole plethora of patriarchal prohibitions that go with it.

If similar legislation were to be introduced in Britain, you can predict exactly what would happen. Firstly, there would be an intensification of fake Muslim victimhood, with the mullahs and their allies on the faith-bedazzled pseudo-left crying ‘Islamophobia!’ at every turn. Secondly, there would be a new focus for anti-immigrant feeling both on the 'legitimate' far right (UKIP, maverick Tories) and among the neo-fascists of the BNP and EDL, seeking to exploit the emotions whipped up by the debate. Needless to say, Muslim women would suffer most as a result: condemned by the fundamentalists if they comply with the law, or the racists if they don't.

So what’s the alternative? Well, I don’t have any easy answers, but I have a few suggestions, and would be interested to hear others from readers who, like me, are both anti-burqa and anti-ban.

Firstly, we should look to strengthen our gender equality and human rights law, making it a criminal offence for anyone, whether family member or religious leader, to force women to dress in a particular way, or to restrict their freedom of movement, employment or leisure outside the home.

Secondly, politicians of all stripes - but especially those on the left - should make clear their commitment to full gender equality and their opposition to customs and traditions that hinder women's freedom. They should stop appeasing conservative religious leaders in the name of 'community cohesion' or out of fear of losing the 'Muslim vote'.

Thirdly, gender equality, and human rights generally, should be a key plank of citizenship education, and all state-funded schools, including faith schools, should be required to promote it. This should have priority over the wishy-washy complacency of a 'multi-faith' education that teaches that all belief systems are to be 'respected', even if their practices contravene women's rights.

In other words, we need a broad strategy that may include some legislation, but is also focused on education and cultural change. As Kenan Malik says:

The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, not its cause. If legislators really want to help Muslim women, they could begin not by banning the burqa, but by challenging the policies and processes that marginalize migrant communities: on the one hand, the racism, social discrimination and police harassment that all too often disfigure migrant lives, and, on the other, the multicultural policies that treat minorities as members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens. Both help sideline migrant communities, aid the standing of conservative ‘community leaders’ and make life more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups within those communities.


Another Arab feminist voice in support of the ban: Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy

Update 2

A surprisingly (?) balanced and thoughtful editorial on the whole affair from Catholic weekly The Tablet. It sets out the 'dilemma' facing multicultural societies such as France and Britain, caught between not wishing 'to be culturally imperialist by treating ethnic minorities with disrespect' and not wanting 'to set aside their own core values such as opposition to the exploitation and abuse of women.' Then it makes this very good point: 'A society like Britain which insists that girls from very conservative Muslim families should nevertheless be sent to school to receive a good education has already taken sides in that debate.'

The editorial ends with a similar message to my own in the above post:

The British would not tolerate something as dirigiste as a state-imposed dress code, even though many British people would personally deplore the suppression of female identity that the burka seems to signify. It is by education and cultural influence that the values of Western civilisation will prevail in the end, and anything that divides or antagonises minority communities is unhelpful.
Update 3
Via Bob, a thought-provoking contribution to the debate (with lots of useful links, especially to French sources) from Tendance Coatesy.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Rhetoric and remembrance on the anniversary of 7/7

It's a shame that, in some quarters, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist massacre of 53 innocent London bus and train passengers has been marked, not by tributes to the dead, sympathy for the bereaved, or renewed condemnation of those who committed mass murder, but by the wearily familiar spectacle of commentators attempting to displace both sympathy and blame on to other targets.

Thus today's Guardian editorial (in which resident ex-Stalinist and apologist for sundry anti-western authoritarians and fundamentalists Seamus Milne surely had a hand), devotes almost all its energy to excoriating the Labour government, the police, the military, the USA, et al, for their response to Islamist terror of the kind that struck London in July 2005, with hardly a word about the cold-hearted perpetrators and nothing about their clerical-fascist backers in the Middle East and Asia.

Like The New Statesman with its notorious 'Blair's Bombs' headline five years ago, the once-liberal newspaper is sure that somehow it's all our own fault, even if it can't quite make up its mind why. Yesterday, it gave pride of place to a piece which argued that the attacks were 'blowback' for Britain's cosy relationship with militant Islamist groups 'stretching back decades', whereas today - by complete contrast - its editorial quotes approvingly the remarks of a police officer turned academic who blames the supposedly 'flawed, neo-conservative' direction of the response to the attacks for the continuing threat.

Even more confused is Liam Thompson's piece over at Left Foot Forward which argues against the 'dominant hegemony' (does he read the Guardian or Independent?) which indulges in 'the casual employment of such easy categorisations as 'terrorism', 'freedom' and 'radical Islam'.' For, you see, Thompson knows better, and he wants to enlighten us about the 'real lessons' of 7/7.

Thompson reminds us, in case we'd forgotten, that the 7/7 murderers were unified by many 'demographic factors' beyond their fanatical devotion to a hardline version of Islam: 'They were all young men, from minority communities whose experience of Britain was that of working class life in the North. This is far more important than their religious inclinations.' There follows a litany of the deprivation, poverty and 'alienation from the political process' in the communities that the bombers came from.

In his defence, Liam Thompson makes it clear that he believes there can never be any excuse for the 'horrific and barbaric actions' of the 7/7 murderers. But then he adds:
To focus on Islam though, and the dynamics of international politics is to ignore the more difficult questions. What drove some ordinary men from Yorkshire to declare Jihad on their own country? What fostered such intense anger and alienation, so easily exploited by extremists?
To ignore Islam, though - or rather, the militant, jihadist perversion of Islam - is to evade the obvious answer to these questions. Of course, extremism of all varieties thrives among those already disaffected from society for whatever reason, though the fact that there aren't too many examples of non-religious working-class young men, of whatever ethnicity, becoming suicide bombers, might have given Thompson pause for thought.

But we should know by now that extremist ideology - particularly if it has a mystical, irrational element - can itself be the cause of 'anger and alienation'. And since 9/11 we've known that this kind of fanatical irrationalism can attract educated, middle-class individuals - perhaps 'alienated' from their peers for other reasons - just as easily as working-class youth. To see the perpetrators of 7/7 simply as passively 'exploited' by others is to relieve them of their moral responsibility for the murderous acts which they planned and executed.

After all of this moral equivocation and displacement, reading Tony Blair's statement on the fifth anniversary of the July 7 bombings felt like coming up for air. Blair argues that the terrorists failed in their mission 'to wound the community cohesion which is central to what it means to live in modern Britain': 'Britain resolved, even more surely, to defeat the extremism and intolerance which drove the attackers and stand up for the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law which as a nation we cherish'.

His statement concludes:
The attacks London faced five years ago were carried out by citizens of our own country but planned half a world away. As 9/11, Madrid and other terrorist attacks show, this is a worldwide challenge which demands a global response of vigilance, resolve and courage.

Today, Britain remembers the victims of 7/7 and of terrorism around the world. We thank the police, security and emergency services who work so hard to keep our country safe. And we acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces called on to defend the values we hold dear against those who seek only to destroy them.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Let freedom ring

Happy 4th, from across the pond.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

In the meantime...

It's been a bit of a mad week, and it's still not over, so my good intentions to pay more attention to this blog have come to very little. There's a few things I'm working up to posting about, but in the meantime here are a few links to keep you going:

- Ben Gidley's important and insightful post about the English Defence League over at the Dissent blog (one of the topics I plan to return to myself...)

- Norm on Jasbir Puar's absurd attempt to reframe Israel's positive record on gay rights as one more reason to vilify the country

- and Julie on Chilcot and Blair-bashing.