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In this week’s New Statesman | The New Caliphate

A first look at this week's magazine.

Cover image: Reuters, edited by Dan Murrell

Cover story: The New Caliphate

From Bin Laden to Isis: Shiraz Maher on why the roots of jihadi ideology run deep in Britain

John Bew: the UK can no longer just follow America’s lead in the Middle East

Danny Dorling: Why London must be stopped

“The Scottish vote is a judgement on the capital’s arrogant elite”

Books: Autumn fiction special

Plus

The actor and campaigner Patrick Stewart: it's never “just” domestic violence

Roger Mosey's diary: in praise of Prince Harry, why Newsnight is a “dying horse”, and big cats in Cambridge colleges

The Politics Column: David Cameron has alienated all sides by vacillating over Isis

In the Critics: Mark Lawson on Will Self's Shark Leo Robson on Martin Amis and Ian McEwan Why the end of 35mm film may spell disaster for Hollywood

Cover story: The New Caliphate

Shiraz Maher, senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the current jihadist surge represents a final triumph for Bin Laden:

Had Osama Bin Laden lived to see the present state of the Middle East he would have been rather pleased. The realisation of his ultimate ambition is gripping the Levant with the announcement of a caliphate straddling parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling a piece of land roughly the size of Jordan and bigger than either Israel or Lebanon, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is demanding international attention unlike any of his predecessors.

Islamic State is perhaps the most aggressive invading force in the Levant since the Mongols. Moreover, it is being given a free hand to recast the contours of power in what remains one of the world’s most sensitive (and volatile) geostrategic locations. This is no accident. The implosion of both Syria and Iraq, coupled with western reluctance to intervene in what is seen as yet another Arabian calamity, has fuelled the sudden rise of Baghdadi’s millenarian militia.

This is precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned. His main thesis on the failure of the Islamist project was that western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.

The roots of jihadist ideology now run deep in British society, argues Maher, thanks to “a sophisticated Islamist network across the UK” which was established in the early 1990s:

Fighters from groups as diverse as Jabhat al-Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army have all told me of their concerns over the extremism of British jihadists. They are regarded as some of the most vicious and vociferous. The issue emerged in sharp relief this past week with the murder of the American journalist James Foley, seemingly by a British executioner with a London accent.

Our contributing writer John Bew considers the options open to the west in the face of the threat from Islamic State. The UK policy of following America’s lead in the Middle East is no longer viable, he argues, given that the global superpower is no longer willing to “do all the heavy lifting” or to act as “the world’s policeman”:

For the past two centuries, British foreign policy has been predicated on the preservation of international order (one built, of course, for its own ends). It is when that order has collapsed that the gravest threats to British national security have occurred: in the 1910s and 1930s. The US can afford to turn inwards, as it has done periodically throughout the past century, but Britain has more immediate interests at stake in the conflict in Syria, just as it did in Libya (when the US was momentarily willing to “lead from behind”). There are severe limits to what the UK can do as a middle-ranking power. But it can do better than firefighting every crisis with an emergency meeting of Cobra.

 

The NS Essay: Danny Dorling on the London question

Danny Dorling, author of All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, argues in an essay for this week’s issue that the dominance of the capital is threatening to choke the life from the rest of the UK and that we must act now to check the imbalance. Dorling suggests that the “London elite” are too arrogant to understand that the imminent referendum on Scottish independence is an indictment of London’s stranglehold:

What exercises many Scots right now is that the rich Londoners they hear most from appear to believe that there is no alternative to these inequalities and that the rest of the UK may even benefit from the trickle-down of some of the wealth of an ever richer capital. Growing inequalities undermine the case that Scotland is “better together” with London and the idea that Scots might moderate the arrogance of London’s elite should they remain in the Union with England.

It is taking a long time for the English chatter to turn towards the realisation that the Scottish vote is a judgement on London – and on the desirability of being linked so closely to what can appear to be a selfish, often stupid and always dominating force.

Dorling acknowledges that “it is hard to think of a scenario that would shake London from its trajectory of growing inequality and drift towards being a tax haven for the world’s super-rich” but he warns that some action must be taken. Building on greenbelt land, enabling more high-density, high-quality affordable housing, and moving institutions out of the capital (including parliament) would all help to redress the imbalance, he argues.

 

Roger Mosey's diary

In a diary for this week’s issue, the former BBC editorial director Roger Mosey says the end may be nigh for BBC2’s current affairs flagship, Newsnight:

It’s possibly because of the grimness of the news agenda that I find myself ending the day with BBC2’s Newsnight less often than I used to. I admire the energy that Ian Katz has brought to the role of editor, but there’s a sense he could be flogging a dying horse.

Twenty-four-hour news channels and all the commentary online make it ever harder to offer a definitive take on the day, and over on Radio 4 the Today programme mops up the key interviews. The senior correspondents’ pieces for the adjacent BBC and ITV ten o’clock bulletins cut away yet more of Newsnight’s territory. Jeremy Paxman’s ability to create a sense of theatre even on a dull night is missed.

A different slot and a revised brief might help revive the show, he writes:

I would move the programme to a new slot: start it at 11pm and give it up to an hour, with a brief to be more discursive. It should improve its coverage of science and culture. It could incorporate analysis of the newspaper first editions in the way that works well on Sky and the BBC News channel, and focus on intelligent viewers and alternative voices. It should disregard the ratings. One reason this may never happen is that there’d be one of those spurious media fusses about losing the 10.30 slot; but unless the programme is reimagined, and radically, it will merely lurk as the ghost of glories past.

Elsewhere in the diary Mosey, who is now Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, shares his experience of working with Prince Harry on the board of the Invictus Games. He is full of praise for the young man:

I sense the NS isn’t the most natural place to praise princes, but it was Harry’s experience at the Warrior Games in the US that drove him to create Invictus here. He turns up at every meeting and is a royal mile away from his tabloid image, turning out to be smart, politically astute and good at “doing human”. If you define a successful politician as someone most voters would like to go for a beer with, Harry, in another life, would be in electoral landslide territory.

Mosey also reveals that it has been necessary to class his new basset hound, YoYo, as “a very large cat” in order to comply with Selwyn College rules that allow the Master to keep felines only:

A visiting conference of American judges thought this was a glorious manifestation of Cambridge traditions, and for a while every time I left the house with the dog in tow I was greeted by a shout of, “Hey, I love your cat!” Happily, YoYo is not alone as a college dog; I believe there are two more in residence in Master’s Lodges elsewhere, with at least one more expected this October.

 

Patrick Stewart: it's never “just a domestic”

The actor and patron of Refuge Patrick Stewart argues that the dismissive attitudes towards domestic violence that once kept his mother trapped in an abusive relationship are still “embedded in our culture and in our institutions”. The result, he writes, is that every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales:

I have heard alarming comments from women using Refuge’s services about the poor response they still receive from police officers.

One woman was told that she should “just make up” with her ex-boyfriend though he’d assaulted her – an incident that the police officer involved referred to as “just a domestic”. Another woman reported that her partner was let off with a caution after he held a knife against her throat. These comments show how little we have progressed as a society in taking a stand against domestic violence.

[. . .]

Our system is broken. Women and children continue to die in large numbers because they are not given the support and protection they deserve.

Stewart calls for a public inquiry on the issue:

Refuge is calling on the Home Secretary to open a public inquiry into the response by the police and other state agencies to victims of domestic violence. In my mother’s name [. . .] I support this call. We need a bold shift in the way we, as a society, view domestic violence – and in the way our public services and state institutions respond to victims. Those negative attitudes I encountered as a small boy – attitudes that allowed the violence to continue – must be banished once and for all

 

The Politics Column: Cameron has alienated all sides with his confused response to the Isis threat

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton argues that David Cameron has lost credibility with both isolationists and interventionists by prevaricating over the threat from the extremist Isis:

Confronted by the savagery of Isis, he has oscillated between belligerence and caution, alienating almost all sides in the process. [Cameron’s] talk of a “generational struggle” against the jihadists, necessitating the use of military power, has disconcerted his party’s isolationists. “How many more failures do we have to endure before we learn to stay out of the Middle East?” one told me. His simultaneous refusal to recall parliament to seek approval for British action dismayed interventionists who believe that the UK’s responsibilities cannot be upheld through humanitarian and quasi-military support alone.

Cameron’s confused response has opened up an opportunity for the Labour Party but, as Eaton notes, Ed Miliband has “yet to make a set-piece speech on foreign policy” and his position remains unclear:

There is still time for the Labour leader to redress this – [Tony] Blair did not deliver his first major speech on the subject until 1997 – and he would be wise to do so. His MPs, some of whom (Ben Bradshaw, Mike Gapes, Pat McFadden, John Woodcock) have been making the interventionist case, and the public, increasingly disturbed by images of a war-torn world, are waiting. Tom Watson, one of the party’s most influential backbenchers, told me: “Most countries will be extremely disappointed that Britain seems to have given up on foreign policy for the last five weeks . . . Cameron has given Labour a huge opportunity.”

 

Mark Lawson on Will Self's Shark

Although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

Plus

Helen Lewis: why the NHS should offer all obese people a second chance

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts: monstrous beheadings are not unprecedented – they happen every week in Riyadh’s “Chop-Chop Square”

Sophie McBain on the book on happiness that will make you quit your job

Anoosh Chakelian celebrates the much-maligned Comic Sans font

The Science column: Michael Brooks takes a bird’s-eye view to explore the homing instinct

Zara Aziz on “Black Wednesday” and why you shouldn’t fall ill in August

Ian Steadman on Russia’s claim to have found life in space

Our wine lover Nina Caplan on why getting to know Burgundy is a life’s work

Tracey Thorn, self-blaming middle-class mother, begins a crackdown on sugar

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times