The NS Interview: Malalai Joya

"Obama is a warmonger, no different from Bush”

What is your earliest memory?
I was only four days old when the Russian
puppet regime was installed in Afghanistan [in 1978]. One of my earliest memories is of clinging to my mother's legs while police ransacked our house, looking for my father. They turned it upside down, emptying everything out of drawers, ripping open mattresses and pillows.

Do you still hope to return to the Afghan parliament?
Yes. I have challenged my illegal suspension in court, although in two years there has been no progress. But I still want to return, to raise the voice of my voiceless people and expose the parliament's reactionary nature from within.

Who are your political heroes?
My people, the suppressed millions. And anti-war protesters around the world. There is another superpower in the world besides the US government - world public opinion.

What inspires you to keep going?
The suffering of my people, especially women.

Do you live in fear, or hope?
Both. I fear that I will not live to see freedom for Afghanistan. But I have great hope that we will eventually be free, democratic and prosperous.

What do you believe the Afghanistan summit in London can achieve?
I don't expect anything positive from the London conference at all. Since 2001, there have been a number of conferences. They have only pushed Afghanistan further into the hands of the occupying forces and their local agents.

The conference will prepare the ground for the return to power of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party. The Afghan government says it will ask the world leaders there to remove the name of Mullah Omar, the medieval Taliban leader, from the UN Security Council's blacklist. Common Afghans have no faith in such conferences.

What is your opinion of Hamid Karzai?
Among Afghans, a king called Shah Shuja is hated for being an agent of 19th-century British rule. When the Russians installed Babrak Karmal, he was called the second Shah Shuja. Karzai is the third, a US puppet who has also joined hands with our internal enemies.

What about Barack Obama?
Obama is a warmonger, no different from Bush. He came to power with corporate backers. They want him to continue the US's militarism and he obeys.

How has Afghanistan changed since the fall of the Taliban?
The US replaced the barbaric Taliban with the brutal Northern Alliance. This act betrayed human rights. The situation for women is as catastrophic today as it was before. In most provinces, women's lives are hell. Forced marriages, child brides and domestic violence are very common. Self-immolations is at a peak.

What security precautions do you have to take, now that your life is under threat?
I change homes often and can't have an office. I wear a burqa outside and travel with bodyguards, and I don't attend public meetings. But I still don't feel safe. I receive threats.

Do you think the majority of Afghan women support your view of the Karzai government?
Yes, I'm very sure they do. I am talking about women who are suffering and have no voice - they are completely ignored by the media, too.

Your critics say you don't represent them.
Most of my critics are warlords, Taliban or US puppets. They comprise a small minority, living luxurious lives in Kabul. From the occupation, they have gained wealth and fame. It is natural that such Afghans rise against me.

Don't polls show Afghan support for the western military presence?
This is not only a military war, but also a war of propaganda. A recent BBC survey said 70 per cent of Afghans think the country is headed in the right direction and 71 per cent support Karzai. Even animals make fun of the figures! If Karzai is so popular, why did he have to win the election by fraud?

You want foreign forces out - but what then?
Afghans face three enemies: the occupying forces, the Taliban and the warlords. When the US pulls out, the Taliban and the warlords will lose their guardian. It will be easier for Afghans to unite and crush these internal enemies.

Can democracy ever flourish in a tribal and conservative society such as Afghanistan?
Years of conflict have changed Afghanistan and its people's political knowledge has increased. It is the US and its puppets who try to give a bad name to democracy in Afghanistan.

What would you like to forget?
The cheap attacks of my enemies.

Are we all doomed?
No. We can change our destiny by our struggle and efforts.

Interview by Mehdi Hasan

Defining Moments

1978 Born in Farah, western Afghanistan
1982 Her family flees the country, living in refugee camps in Iran and later Pakistan
1998 Returns to Afghanistan, becoming a women's rights activist
2001 Sets up health centre and orphanage
2003 Becomes her country's youngest representative in parliament
2007 Suspended from parliament for three years for criticising colleagues
2009 Publishes a memoir, Raising My Voice

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496