In this week's New Statesman

Special report: the devastating effect of drones.

Jemima Khan meets Pervez Musharraf

In this week’s New Statesman, Jemima Khan meets Pervez Musharraf. In a wide-ranging interview, the former president of Pakistan talks candidly about Barack Obama’s lack of leadership qualities, and also condemns Hamid Karzai and the “double-crossing” current leaders of Pakistan. Khan writes:

[He describes] the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, as “a liar and fraud” who “has been operating against Pakistan’s interests, playing into the hands of Indians and maligning us. The bad name that Pakistan has, I would give 50 per cent of the blame to him.” He says Barack Obama is a “slow decision-maker” who lacks leadership qualities.

Musharraf also reveals the plan for his political comeback. He floats the idea of a partnership with Pakistan’s “Movement for Justice” leader, Imran Khan, as prime minister and himself as president. On US-Pakistan relations, Jemima Khan writes, Musharraf “offers a particular lesson in realpolitik and the constraints of power”. Of Imran Khan’s idea of shooting down unauthorised US drone strikes on his country, he says:

The confrontationalist approach, from a position of such acute weakness, is not possible. The world is not a just place; frankly, this world is an unjust world. It believes in might is right. Let me talk very frankly: if you are weak, anyone can come and kick you. You can’t justify that he kicked me unjustly.

Musharraf also tells Khan about his relationship with George W Bush and Colin Powell when he was in power:

I could pick up the phone and speak to President Bush and Colin Powell, and I used to put a lot of pressure on them. Why this has happened? They used to be on the back foot and they liked me, probably, and therefore they used to have to go a long way to calm me down to explain to me why this and that . . .

The former US president and secretary of state trusted him enough, he believes, to have told him when they discovered the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, rather than launching a secret operation to take the al-Qaeda leader out without the knowledge or involvement of Pakistan. This, the general says, was “shameful for Pakistan and a breach of sovereignty. We should have been told.”

Also during the interview, Musharraf tells Khan that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was her own fault:

They are blaming lack of security. What lack of security? You were secure, you got into a bomb-proof car. Why did you get up [out of the sunroof]? Who told you?

 

Drones: the "secret" war on terror

This week’s cover story examines the politics, international law and technology of drones, the deadliest weapon in modern-day warfare.

Drones are said to be the most accurate weapon in warfare, and to lead to less collateral damage, but as Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports:

CIA-controlled Predators and Reapers have been bombing Pakistan’s tribal areas since June 2004. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, where I lead a team looking at the covert war, 330 US drone strikes (278 of them under Obama) have so far killed at least 2,500 people in Pakistan. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead.

He continues:

Only recently, a senior US administration official claimed in an interview with the New York Times that the number of civilians killed by Barack Obama in Pakistan is in the “single digits”. This is a lie. Three days after his inauguration, on 23 January 2009, Obama authorised two drone strikes. Both missed their intended targets. At least 15 civilians reportedly died on that day alone, and the president knew about those civilian casualties within hours.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the author of Crimes Against Humanity, scrutinises the lack of accountability and transparency by the Obama administration around drone attacks. He also argues that such strikes are not supported by international law, and concludes that targeted killings violate all human rights and “can only be described as summary executions”:

The Obama administration seems to have given the CIA carte blanche to choose targets, subject to the approval of [Harold] Koh, a law professor [Koh is legal adviser to the US state department], now an executioner. Those who press the Hellfire buttons in Nevada do not pause to consider whether their targets are engaged in combatant missions or not. But there is no point speculating about the criteria for listing or executing: these are secret CIA prerogatives, beyond the jurisdiction of the courts or the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Elsewhere in the cover story package, the New Statesman’s science columnist, Michael Brooks, explores the technology behind drones, describing how they “are little more than sophisticated remote-controlled aircraft”:

And now the civilian use of UAV technology is taking off . . . Fishermen use them to track tuna movements. A group of Taiwanese thieves used a fleet of robot helicopters to carry out a jewellery heist . . . A movement towards using UAVs over cities is a somewhat frightening prospect, when the US army’s road map for 2010-2035 includes equipping drones with non-lethal acoustic, chemical and “directed-energy” (laser or microwave beam) weapons. The implication is clear: in future, drones will be used for crowd control.

And Samira Shackle reports that, according to the Brookings Institution in the US, ten civilians die for every militant killed in a drone strike. She describes the psychological effects of living in Pakistan’s tribal areas, object of sustained drone campaigns:

The buzzing sound is a relentless presence; people refer to the drones as “bees”. In a chilling echo of this, US operators refer to victims as “bugsplats”. Local doctors report an “exponential” increase in the number of people requiring prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants.

 

Glasgow Rangers FC: goodbye to the blues?

In this week’s NS Profile of Glasgow Rangers FC, the Observer columnist Kevin McKenna charts the downfall of one of Scotland’s great institutions. McKenna asks: how did a football club that once represented everything that made working-class, Protestant Scotland proud come to be reduced to ruin?

 

Syrian opposition leader: No to foreign intervention

This week, Mehdi Hasan speaks to Haytham al-Manna, the Paris-based spokesman of the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), one of Syria’s two biggest opposition groups. Manna tells Hasan that the anti-Assad NCC is against military intervention:

We are against any foreign intervention in Syria. We want democracy and sovereignty.

Manna says that non-violent resistance in Syria is an option – and points out that his own movement started that way:

When we were non-violent, we had three million people with us. Now, with the armed resistance, we don’t have more than 50,000 people in the streets.

Furthermore, Manna tells Hasan that the NCC backs the diplomatic solution proposed by the UN general secretary’s special envoy Kofi Annan:

The only solution in Syria is to rebuild the Annan plan, make sure it is respected [by all sides] and triple the number of international observers.

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • Jonathan Wilson, the sports journalist and founder of The Blizzard, says we shouldn't expect any tactical innovation at Euro 2012
  • The American poet Adam Kirsch tracks the transformations of T S Eliot's self image
  • The novelist Francine Prose charts her personal history as a reader 
  • Will Self tries fry-ups on the ferry to Mull in Real Meals
  • Yo Zushi talks to the Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa in the NS Interview

 

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands around the country and available for purchase here

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.