Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from the Sunday papers.

1. Those who say history will absolve the Iraq warmongers are deluded (Observer)

Those who argue that last week's election in Iraq vindicated the decision to go to war there in 2003 ignore the huge number of civilians killed in the invasion, writes Henry Porter.

2. Warning -- Women are people, too (Independent on Sunday)

The party leaders are mistaken if they think that women voters are only concerned with family-friendly issues, says John Rentoul. The big issues -- taxation, public spending, jobs -- matter just as much to them.

3. It's Nick Clegg's chance to shine, so he'd better not fluff his lines (Observer)

The prospect of a hung parliament could finally give the Lib Dems a chance to shape government to their agenda, writes Andrew Rawnsley. But they will need to show exceptional discipline during the campaign.

4. Welcome to life under Nick Clegg (Sunday Times)

Meanwhile, in the Sunday Times, Martin Ivens argues that, unlike his predecessors, Clegg gives the appearance of being genuinely equidistant between Labour and the Conservatives.

5. A general election is a battle for hearts more than minds (Sunday Telegraph)

To have any hope of winning a Commons majority, David Cameron has to conquer a generation-old national assumption that the Tories are up to no good, writes Matthew d'Ancona.

6. Sam the one to play it for Cam (News of the World)

Cameron's greatest personal asset is his wife, Samantha, says Fraser Nelson. Now she must help to offset the Tory leader's perceived insincerity.

7. A shameful day for the House of Lords (Sunday Times)

A leader attacks the "establishment stitch-up" that has allowed peers who abused expenses to escape legal action.

8. David Cameron is selling a new Tory brand -- but I'm not buying it yet (Sunday Telegraph)

The Tory modernisers' crucial error was to allow their rebranding project to be exhibited in the light of day, argues Janet Daley. Voters now recognise it for the mindless, manipulative, media-driven technique that it is.

9. Don't celebrate these billionaires, be horrified by their existence (Observer)

We are wrong to welcome the growing number of billionaires, argues Will Hutton. Wealth is not always a sign of economic progress.

10. Wives, TV debates . . . How about fixed terms, too? (Sunday Times)

Having adopted TV election debates, we should also import fixed terms from the United States, argues a leader in the Sunday Times.

Sign up now to CommentPlus for the pick of the day's opinion, comment and analysis in your inbox at 8am.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.