Cameron and Obama will meet at the Nato summit beginning today. Photo: Getty
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Cameron and Obama pledge to “confront” Islamic State, ahead of Nato summit

The Prime Minister and US President have vowed against isolationism in the face of Islamic militants and the situation in Ukraine; will Cameron finally clarify Britain's stance on air strikes against Islamic State?

A two-day Nato summit will begin today in Newport, Wales, and unsurprisingly the priority subjects are the rise of militant group Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Iraq and Syria, and Russia’s interference in Ukraine.

David Cameron and Barack Obama have both been criticised repeatedly for lack of action on overseas affairs in general, seemingly “paralysed” – a word former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw used on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning – by former foreign policy mistakes, compounded by the chaotic aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Cameron has been hit by the UK press for appearing not to know how to combat IS, with the Mail accusing him of mouthing “foolish nothings” and “dithering, posturing and waffle”. Obama, similarly, has been criticised for failing to halt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine; a Times leader article over last weekend used the adjective “hapless” to describe the US President, and called for Nato leaders attending the summit to move away from “the reactive politics of the Obama era” towards “credible deterrence”. Scepticism about their approach to the Middle East is summed up in the first line of the Sun's leader this morning: "David Cameron and Barack Obama have a few things in common. One is that they both need to grow a spine."

Now the two leaders – whose strong point in the eyes of the world does not seem to be foreign policy – are meeting at the Nato summit, with other Nato leaders, to address the crises spanning the Middle East and eastern Europe.

Ahead of the summit, they have written a joint editorial in the Times, headlined, “We will not be cowed by barbaric killers”, which not only uses strong, determined language to make clear they will be turning up the pressure on the dangers that face the world today, but also reveals an acknowledgement that many are cynical about their hitherto relatively hands-off approach to overseas crises.

Here are some extracts:

 

Avoiding isolationism

There are some who say that we shouldn’t get involved in addressing these threats. There are others who doubt if Nato can adapt to meet the challenges we face. It is crucial we address these beliefs head on.

First, those who want to adopt an isolationist approach misunderstand the nature of security in the 21st century. Developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria, threaten our security at home.

And Nato is not just an alliance of friends who come to the aid of each other in times of need. It is also an alliance based on national self-interest. Whether it is regional aggression going unchecked or the prospect that foreign fighters could return from Iraq and Syria to pose a threat in our countries, the problems we face today threaten the security of British and American people, and the wider world.

 

Islamic State

… we will not waver in our determination to confront Isil. If terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats they could not be more wrong. Countries like Britain and America will not be cowed by barbaric killers. We will be more forthright in the defence of our values, not least because a world of greater freedom is a fundamental part of how we keep our people safe.

 

Russia

With Russia trying to force a sovereign state to abandon its right to democracy at the barrel of a gun, we should support Ukraine’s right to determine its own democratic future and continue our efforts to enhance Ukrainian capabilities. We must use our military to ensure a persistent presence in eastern Europe, making clear to Russia that we will always uphold our Article 5 commitments to collective self-defence.

And we must back this up with a multinational rapid response force, composed of land, air, maritime and special forces, that could deploy anywhere in the world at very short notice. All this will also require investment from Nato countries in the necessary capabilities.

 

The proof of Cameron and Obama’s more forthright stance will be in their actions, rather than words, however – and the results of this week’s Nato summit will signal how they intend to act, or not to act. Both Cameron and Obama are known to talk a good game – and they’ve written a good game in the Times this morning – but new strategies, rather than words, are what the world will be watching out for.

On the Today programme this morning, the PM in an interview said, “I don’t rule anything out”, when asked about joining the US in air strikes against IS.

“I think we should judge all these things in terms of our own national interest… I absolutely think Islamic State is a direct threat to the United Kingdom. There’s no doubt we face a threat from this organisation… [that’s why we should] work with partners to put a fatal squeeze on this organisation.”

When asked for a second time whether Britain would be taking a more direct offensive role in the situation in the Middle East, he repeated: “we’re not ruling anything out”.

However, he warned that there is “no simple, straightforward, military-led answer to this” and called for a, “tough, long-term, intelligent approach”, cautioning against “Western intervention over the heads of neighbouring states [and people on the ground]”.

Asked whether he would consider working with President Assad in Syria to unite against IS, Cameron replied: “My view is that President Assad is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Part of the answer [to why IS has risen to prominence] is Assad’s brutality in Syria gave credence to this group.” Most notable from this interview was the PM's view that President Assad's "war crimes on his own people" means that he believes there is no legal barrier to attacking Syria, because Assad's government can be judged as "illegitimate".

His view of why a significant number of British nationals are joining the jihadists is that, “I’m very clear about what the nature of the problem is. There is a poisonous narrative of an extremist Islamic worldview… it is a perversion and it needs to be confronted and defeated in all its forms… The core problem is this extremist, medievalist, murderous world view.”

Perhaps the Nato summit will decide whether Cameron takes the UK, alongside the US, into a more militaristic role against IS.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor 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.