Does WikiLeaks prove that the Yanks are “a force for good”?

David Aaronovitch must be having a laugh.

When I first read David Aaronovitch's column in the Times (£) today, I resisted the temptation to look up at the corner of the page to remind myself of the date. I know it's not 1 April. But is Aaro having a laugh? Playing a prank on us? Just being silly? His column is entitled:

The secret's out: the Yanks are a force for good

The standfirst says:

The WikiLeaks cables prove that the world's most powerful democracy is on our side, the side of liberty

David himself writes:

. . . the United States sometimes blunders, makes mistakes, corrects them and, in correcting them, makes more.

So the US, in his view, is just an innocent abroad – clumsy, mistaken, but well-intentioned; not mad or bad. Nice and convenient. He continues:

The cables prove again that the US, the most powerful democracy, is on our side. On Britain's side. On the side of those who think that democracy and liberty are important and need to be argued for and defended. They haven't been lying to us. They haven't been doing things that are against our interests.

What?? Let me check the date again. Are we sure it's not April Fool's Day? If not, then I'm not sure where to begin. Hold on, I know, let's start with the "first sets of disclosures of military messages relating to Iraq and Afghanistan" which David glosses over.

In the Iraq war logs, for example, we discovered that the "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished" and "a US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender".

In the Afghan war logs, for examples, we learned about Task Force 373, the "black" unit of special forces charged with hunting down targets for assassination or detention without trial and "in many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."

Is this what Aaronovitch calls democracy, liberty and truth? Let's turn to the latest batch of state department cables. Aaronovitch rejects Julian Assange's call for Hillary Clinton to resign from her post as US secretary of state on the grounds that (a) she is elected and he is not, and (b) she "authorised her spies to spy in the United Nations – as, one imagines, do the undocumented Chinese, Russians, Bolivians and Cypriots". But point (a) is irrelevant and, as for point (b), let me make two points of my own:

1) The fact that others break the law or engage in morally dubious behaviour does not justify the United States or, for that matter, the United Kingdom doing so also. Perhaps David was off sick the day his primary school teacher taught his class the rather basic lesson that two wrongs don't make a right; and

2) Clinton did not, in fact, authorise "her spies" to "spy in the United Nations", as he claims, but actually instructed her state department ambassadors, envoys and diplomats to do so, which, as the Guardian has noted, "appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying". That's what makes the content of Section 01 of 24 State 080163 so disturbing. Plus, I should add, the UN says that bugging the secretary general is illegal, under the 1946 UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Does US law-breaking not matter if the Cypriots are allegedly doing so, too? Is that really what Aaronovitch would have us believe?

And, yes, we've had gossip and tittle-tattle in some of these leaked US cables. But we've also had clear and depressing evidence of the "grand hypocrisy" on the part of the United States that Aaro is so desperate to dismiss in his column. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Berlin, for example, published by WikiLeaks on Sunday night, describes a meeting in which the then-deputy chief of the US mission to Germany, John M Koenig, urged German officials to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US" of issuing international arrest warrants for CIA agents in the shameful case of the German national Khalid el-Masri.

As the ACLU notes:

In 2003, el-Masri was kidnapped from Macedonia and transported to a secret CIA-run prison in Afghanistan where he was held for several months and tortured before being dumped on a hillside in Albania.

Charming. So I guess that's what Aaronovitch means when he refers to the United States, "the most powerful democracy", being on "our side", on the side of "liberty". Here's what the ACLU's Ben Wizner said in response to the el-Masri WikiLeaks revelations:

We have long known that both the Bush and Obama administrations have shielded perpetrators of torture and rendition from accountability for their illegal acts. We now know that US diplomats have also sought to shut down accountability efforts abroad. The United States' employment of diplomatic pressure to influence the legal proceedings of a democratic ally was improper and unseemly, particularly where the goal of that interference was to shield US officials from accountability for torture.

Even as many of our closest allies have acknowledged and addressed their official complicity in the Bush administration's human rights abuses, the United States has yet to reckon with its legacy of torture. The best way to restore our standing in the world, reassert the rule of law and strengthen our democracy is to support, not obstruct, meaningful accountability for torture.

Hear, hear!

On a side note, I must point out that it is ironic for a man who wrote, back in April 2003, that "if nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the [Iraq] war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again" to now write, as he does in the Times, that the Americans "haven't been lying to us".

Itis also worrying to see a man of David's intelligence, experience and acumen having failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war, and the associated WMD lies, deceptions and propaganda: in his column, he refers to the "possibility of the Iranian Bomb". Why the capital letters, David? Is that the Times's house style or the product of your own deliberate decision to fear-monger?

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.

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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.