“I don’t fear death – I fear political silence”

An interview with Malalai Joya, Afghani activist and former politician.

The young man from the German Left Party is apologetic. "Malalai won't be able to meet you at 11. Her symbolic presence is needed on the boat," he explains. The boat turns out to be a small, two-storey river vessel decked out in peace flags and anti-war slogans. Bonn is once again playing host to an international conference on Afghanistan - ten years to the day since the first - and the nearest protesters have been able to come is a boat in the middle of the Rhine. I find Malalai Joya sipping herbal tea on the second deck. She looks tired. "I'm not tired. I am strong and fearless," she jokes.

The role of "symbolic presence" is not new to Joya. This slight, earnest-looking woman from Farah Province first came to international attention in
2003, when she stood up in Afghanistan's constitutional assembly to denounce the presence of "criminals" on its benches. In 2005, she became
the country's youngest ever parliamentarian, only to be dismissed two years later for criticising the corruption of her colleagues. Despite repeated death threats, Joya has continued to speak out against what she calls Afghanistan's "corrupt, puppet-mafia regime". She is, she says, "surprised to be alive".

Like so many of the country's activists, Joya lives underground, moving from safe house to safe house, never staying in the same place for more than a few nights. Despite the peril of her situation, she has become a point of contact for women fleeing domestic violence, rape or forced marriage. "I try to help them," she says, “but it's a drop in the ocean." When Joya talks about the young women who seek her out, her voice softens and her eyes light up. It is, she says, people, not ideology, who give her the strength to carry on. Ideology is suspect in Afghanistan. "They occupied my country under the banner of democracy, human rights and women's rights," she explains. "They misuse the stories of the women in my country to justify their warmongering."

Sick man of Asia

The boat judders to a crawl. Through the windows, we can make out the white outline of the Hotel Petersberg, where the future of Afghanistan is being debated. "It's a conference of propaganda and lies," Joya says bitterly. “It's as though my country were a sick body, with everyone fighting over the pieces."

In December 2001, the hilltop hotel hosted the first international conference on Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai was installed as leader of an interim government and Germany's then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, promised the country "peace and prosperity" after "all the years of war . . . and humiliation". In the intervening decade, there have been many more conferences and Joya has repeatedly campaigned to be admitted as a delegate. “Not this time," she says emphatically. "I wouldn't have gone to this conference even if they'd invited me."

The boat completes its turn and we start back the way we came. "When I look back at those ten years," she says, "the consequences were bloodshed and human rights violations. Now, they are going to start a new page of tragedy for my country."

Up on the hill, the discussion is about the 2014 deadline for international troop withdrawal. "They say they are leaving," she snorts derisively, "but they will continue to control Afghanistan through their puppets. Did you know that, in my country, we call Hamid Karzai the third Shah Shuja?" She giggles, then she is serious again. "Over here," she says, indicating the west with a slight shrug of her arm, “I keep hearing about civil war." We are interrupted by a stocky American woman who wants to know whether Joya has "a message for Veterans for Peace". She smiles and shakes the woman's hand. She is grateful for their support, she says.

The veteran moves off and our conversation resumes. "I keep hearing that if there's not an international presence in Afghanistan, then the country will fall into civil war," she says in frustration. "But there already is a civil war in Afghanistan. We used to have one enemy but, now, we have three: occupation, Taliban and warlords. At least if the troops leave, we will have one less problem to fight." "Who is 'we'?" I wonder. "The democratically minded people of our country," Joya says proudly. "There are many of us and many more in the younger generation. The young people give me so much hope. They have been inspired by the glorious revolutions in the Arab countries and they are organising demonstrations and uprisings."
“It will take time," she concedes. "Illiteracy and poverty make it difficult and fewer people have access to the internet. But, one day, I hope to see it in my country, too. The younger generation are brave and they don't have blood on their hands."

At 33, I realise, Joya already considers herself an old woman. In a country where the average life expectancy is 45, she probably is. "I don't fear death," she says. "I fear political silence."

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.