In this week’s New Statesman: The intervention trap

Olivier Roy asks: "As France and Britain are lured into Africa, what is al-Qaeda planning?" PLUS: Bryan Appleyard on the entitlement of the super-rich.

Olivier Roy: The intervention trap

In our cover story this week Olivier Roy – head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence – writes in an exclusive essay on al-Qaeda in Africa. The French and British military action in Mali misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. The complexities of al-Qaeda across Africa, and France’s multilayered reasons for intervening in the Malian conflict, leave few clear answers. He writes:

It is clear that we are still stuck in the kind of semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration when it launched its “war on terror” after the 11 September 2001 attacks . . .

There is nothing new or distinctive about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or any of the other small bands of international jihadists operating in the Sahel. The groups linked to al-Qaeda are nomadic, almost by definition – they are not anchored in the societies in which they operate.

The composition of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is a case in point: its members were from several different countries and of various races, and also included converts . . .

It would be absurd for the French to think that they could evict al-Qaeda from the Maghreb by occupying territory: al-Qaeda would simply regroup a little further away. And if the aim is the destruction of these groups, that is also absurd. Given the small numbers of fighters involved (a few hundred) and given that al-Qaeda recruits internationally, it would be easy for them to take flight, to cross borders or to return to London or Toronto in jeans and without beards . . .

Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said. In spite of the moralising, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategising (the west against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return . . .

Bryan Appleyeard: The age of entitlement.

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society, says the award-winning journalist Bryan Appleyard in the NS Essay this week. In an impassioned piece on the “rising narcissism” and impunity of those who made their wealth in rogue finance, Appleyard argues that we have entered a new “age of entitlement”, where the super-rich live in a “mirror-lined” and “legally protected” bubble.

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some­thing big, something moral, has changed . . .

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance . . . loading the world economywith ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone . . .

I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector. “There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral . . .”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester [the author of Capital] points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here . . .

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he [Lanchester] says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

Kathleen Jamie: The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom. With the vote timed for the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle that “secured [Scotland’s] independence and confirmed its national identity”, the poet Kathleen Jamie – who was invited to compose words to be inscribed on the new Bannockburn memorial – writes, in a Letter from Stirling:

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men . . .

It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”.

The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

PLUS:

 

Rafael Behr: The Tories are blinded by rage against the Lib Dems, while Labour’s cold fury is thawing

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr says the Conservatives are “fantasising about governing beyond 2015, without the shackles of coalition”, but notes that at the same time Labour’s post-election fury towards the Liberal Democrats is thawing. Read his piece in full on our website here.

Craig Raine: On Manet’s subtle sexuality

It would be impossible to paint ‘modern life’ without touching on the touchy subject of sex. Manet’s Olympia (1863) tried the direct address – the barely defiant ‘so what?’ of the courtesan, the sack artist, the cool professional – and ran into even more trouble.

Laurie Penny: Can Rihanna videos really turn a girl into a knicker-dropping strumpet?

The language of ‘sexualisation’ as employed by professional pearl-clutchers such as the Tory MP Claire Perry, implicitly assumes that sex is always something done to a woman rather than something we do… By this measure, a young girl merely has to leaf through a copy of Cosmo or stumble upon a Rihanna video on YouTube and wham, that’s it: sexualized. Ruined forever. Nothing to be done.

In the Critics:

  • Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth
  • Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business With the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein
  • Alexandra Harris reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten
  • Novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen
  • Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight.
  • Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s new documentary for BBC4, The Joy of Essex
  • Will Self's Real Meals column

And much more.

Read further in our “In the Critics this Week” blog here.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands and online available for purchase here.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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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.