Cut the bullfighting

Green MEP Caroline Lucas explains why she thinks that, despite its ancient history, the cruelty of b

In the European Parliament this week, I chaired an open seminar on the future of bullfighting in the EU. Although its organisers originate from varying backgrounds – European animal welfare, veterinary science and economics – they all agree on one thing: bullfighting has to go.

Despite a considerable number of states having banned the practice of bullfighting by law – Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom among them – it still takes place in nine countries around the world. This is nine countries too many. Yet it is encouraging to find that even where bullfighting is legal, certain regions have begun to phase it out, such as the Canary Islands in Spain, and most of France.

Public appetite for this cruel blood sport has long been on the wane, but that doesn’t stop the Spanish government from heavily subsidising the declining industry. It has been estimated that over 550 million euros of taxpayer money is allocated to the pro-bullfighting industry per year, even though Spanish broadcaster RTVE stopped live coverage of bullfights in August 2007 and recent Gallup polls showed that the majority of Spaniards either disliked bullfighting or had no interest in it. Worse still, the EU subsidises it. According to recent reports, breeders of fighting bulls receive 220 Euros per bull per year from the EU, on top of national subsidies. Yet the EU is supposed to be a community of values – one of which is a high level of animal protection.

A cruel and unequal game

The pro bullfighting lobby puts forward a number of claims for the preservation of the ‘sport’, which need be addressed. First though, it is worth considering the reality of a typical Spanish-style bullfight. The ‘show’ begins when the bull enters the arena and is provoked into charging several times, before being approached by picadores, men on blindfolded horses, who drive lances into its back and neck muscles. The subsequent loss of blood impairs the bull's ability to lift its head, and when the banderilleros arrive on foot, the bull can expect further pain from the banderillas, spiked sticks in bright colours, being stabbed into its back.

Now weak and disorientated, the bull is encouraged by the banderilleros to run in dizzying circles before finally, the matador appears and, after a few forced charges, tries to kill the bull with his sword. If he misses, he stabs the submissive animal on the back of the neck until it is paralysed. The idea is to cut the animal’s spinal cord, but if the matador botches the job, the bull may be fully conscious while its ears or tail are removed as trophies. On many occasions, the bull remains alive until it is dragged out of the arena to be slaughtered

Thousands of bulls are maimed and killed in such a way every year. Spain puts the official number of bulls killed in official bullfights in permanent bullrings in 2006 at 11,458, but when you take into account the bullfights in mobile bullrings and the bulls killed during training and other bullfighting events, the figure is more likely to reach least 40,000 in Europe as a whole, and about 250,000 internationally.

Why do people defend it?

A continuation of the ‘sport’ has been justified on the grounds of national cultural heritage, some on ecological grounds, while others believe that it plays an important part in a country’s economy. Such claims have been effectively refuted by animal welfare organisations, as well as by politicians and economists from across the political spectrum. Even Queen Sofia of Spain has expressed her dislike for the ‘tradition’.

Some have defended bullfighting as a national tradition, seeking to preserve it as a piece of cultural heritage without which their country’s identity would suffer. Nevertheless, many others have opposed it, recognising bullfighting for what is really is – a cruel blood sport causing unnecessary suffering to the animal.

Even if you believe that bullfighting is a tradition or culture, the fact that it dates back to prehistoric times and that artists have revered it can never really justify serious cruelty to animals. Cruelty is cruelty no matter where in the world it happens. Human societies and cultures have changed over many thousands of years, as has what traditions are deemed acceptable. Our understanding of animals has improved a great deal in recent times. There is no place in the 21st century for a ‘sport’ which relies on animal cruelty for ‘entertainment’.

The ecological argument is also tenuous. The bullfighting industry points out that many fighting bulls are bred in semi-preserved areas of land called dehesas, home to several protected species and cared for as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The industry claims that these areas will disappear if bullfighting is abolished, because their business prevents the dehesas being developed for other purposes.

But the breeding of fighting bulls is not the sole purpose and function of this land, plus local authorities have never identified the bulls’ removal as a threat to populations of protected species. The owners of the dehesas can choose to use their land in a variety of ways regardless of whether or not they keep bulls, and those that do keep bulls should be compensated for loss of activity. It is the job of local authorities to ensure that such land and wildlife is protected, and the necessary laws are already in place. Furthermore, the Foro Encinal, an alliance of twenty organisations whose role is to protect the dehesas has never identified the breeding of fighting bulls as beneficial to the land’s ecological balance.

Economic concerns focus on bullfighting as a vital part of the tourist industry in Spain; as a generator of money and as an employer of people. Yet, tourists will visit Spain regardless of whether or not bullfighting exists, and as people become more ethically aware on their travels, tourist attendance at the shows looks set to fall even further. Indeed, a ComRes poll commissioned in April 2007 found that 89% of the British public would not visit a bullfight when on a holiday.

Like most industries, the profits from bullfighting end up in the hands of a very small number of people in a bullfighting elite. Even more importantly, the subsidies that prop up this declining industry take money away from serious social problems such as access to public health, education, infrastructures, the elderly, public safety, social housing and environmental policies.

An unpopular and unacceptable ‘entertainment’

In Spain, the country perhaps most associated with the bullfighting tradition, a 2006 Gallup poll showed that 72.10 per cent of Spaniards were not interested at all in bullfighting and just 7.40 per cent were very interested; in Catalonia more than 80 per cent showed no interest at all.

Such statistics show clearly that the opposition to bullfighting is growing throughout Europe, and that it is no longer deemed acceptable for the EU or for national governments to subsidise an activity which relies on animal abuse to make money. It seems undemocratic at best to use cash from the public coffers to prop up an unpopular blood sport, at the expense of crucial public services.

It is our responsibility to ensure that adequate protection is provided for animals in our care to prevent unnecessary suffering. I call on the European Parliament to reconsider the financial assistance given to the breeders of fighting bulls, so that the efforts to ban the ‘sport’ altogether can gather pace. The longer that bull fighting persists, the longer our standards of animal welfare will fall short of the mark.

For more information on anti-bullfighting campaigns, visit the website for the Spanish organisation Save Our Shame (SOS) or see the League Against Cruel Sports’ ‘Balls to Bullfighting’ campaign to sign a worldwide pledge to boycott the ‘sport’.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Show Hide image

The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

***

The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

***

The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink