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In this week’s magazine | Isis can be beaten

A first look at this week’s magazine.

“The best of times, the worst of times”

A guest column by US ambassador Matthew Barzun

John Simpson in Baghdad: Islamic State can be beaten

Plus

The Great Ebola Scare: why we must stem the panic in Europe

George Eaton: Labour might not be at war with itself, but Ed Miliband desperately needs to inspire his supporters

Howard Jacobson: What makes us human?

Helen Lewis: internet trolls thrive on fiction, not facts

Felix Martin on the coming age of mediocrity in

Mariana Mazzucato wins the inaugural NS Speri prize for political economy

Erica Wagner meets Ken Burns, the US pioneer of long-form television

The Guest Column: Matthew Barzun

While acknowledging the current horrors of ebola and Islamic State, the US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, wonders why we are so determined to dwell on the negative in our global narrative. It may be the worst of times in some senses, he argues, but it is the best of times in many other ways; child mortality, extreme poverty, damage to the ozone layer and the HIV infection rate have all been reduced in recent years:

So why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? Do we believe there’s a common unravelling force at work behind the ebola tragedy, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the independence campaign in Scotland? My guess is that it might have more to do with how we feel than how things are.

Barzun argues that although at such moments we may feel drawn to strong leaders with a “grand master plan”, nimbleness and flexibility are the qualities needed to deal with global threats:

           What is the best way to lead and govern in times of remarkable change?

Here’s what Teddy Roosevelt said at the dawn of the progressive era: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” And one of America’s great unsung heroes, John “Gil” Winant, ambassador to Britain during the Second World War, explained in 1946 his approach to leadership in chaotic times as, “Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere . . .”

[. . . ]

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. And it is hardly fair to accuse the US of not having a highly detailed blueprint but simultaneously warn us that we should be taking into account our allies’ opinions and concerns. We take our responsibilities seriously but cannot be responsible for everything that happens. Other international actors make choices for good and for ill. So even the most far-sighted diplomacy must sometimes be reactive.

 

Cover story: John Simpson on why Isis can be beaten

The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, files a despatch from Baghdad, where there are clear signs that Islamic State’s grip is weakening as western recruits begin to lose their resolve. Contrary to the defeatist tone of western politicians and media commentators, Simpson argues, Isis can be beaten:

“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.

How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?

More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.

Simpson believes the emphasis on Kobane is unhelpful and has skewed the picture. Islamic State is indeed in control of that small town on the border between Syria and Turkey, but it is a “different story” in Baghdad, where, he points out, the Iraqi national army successfully repelled IS fighters only three weeks ago:

Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective.
The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.

Simpson senses that the IS rank and file are not as dedicated as they once were. The jihadis are fighting on several fronts in two countries and reports suggest that demoralised western recruits are increasingly repulsed by the atrocities they have witnessed:

A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.

The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry.

 

Special report: the great ebola scare

Michael Brooks, the New Statesman’s science correspondent, takes a dispassionate look at the facts of the ebola outbreak and the real threat posed by the virus in Europe. Western fears about mass contagion are largely unfounded, he argues, and the widespread anxiety must be stemmed in order to avoid a “short-sighted and short-lived” response:

Amid the rising panic, a few calm voices are struggling to be heard. Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the House of Commons health select committee, has said that she expects the UK to get five cases in total, at the rate of roughly one a month. The NHS, she says, is perfectly ready and able to cope. Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, concurs: ebola is not a disease you have to fear when living in a wealthy country. “The likelihood of this causing a major epidemic in Europe or the US is very, very low,” he says.

Brooks suggests that the “panicked reaction” to ebola is a symptom of the public mood and the current “economic and political gloom”.

In Liberia, however, the situation remains dire, as Clair MacDougall reports in a letter from the capital, Monrovia. To make matters worse, health workers on the front line are on the verge of striking:

With close to 500 infected people in treatment centres, and almost three times as many yet to access care, the strike threatened to derail efforts to contain the crisis in Monrovia, now the centre of the ebola outbreak in West Africa. Given the huge risks and sacrifices endured by local medical staff, it is not hard to understand their anger.

At least 200 health workers have been infected with ebola and 90 have died, according to the latest government figures. Yet pay is modest.

 

George Eaton: the politics column

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton argues that even though the Labour Party is not engaged in outright civil war, it is mired in a despondency that is just as self-destructive:

This is not a party at war. There has been no repeat of what Labour’s policy review head, Jon Cruddas, described to me as “the gang warfare” that disfigured the Blair and Brown years. By historic standards, the party that produced the MacDonald split of 1931, the struggle between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites and the SDP schism of 1981 remains united. At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party following the conference season and the near-death experience of the Heywood and Middleton by-election, there were just two dissenting voices: the Warrington North MP, Helen Jones, and the former welfare minister Frank Field. “It was hard to avoid the undercurrent of anxiety but the group dynamic inevitably led to the PLP rallying around,” a shadow cabinet minister observes. But while not locked in combat, Labour is desperately in need of inspiration.

 

Howard Jacobson: What makes us human?

The novelist Howard Jacobson is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show.

Jacobson, whose most recent novel, J, was shortlisted for yesterday’s Man Booker Prize, suggests that laughter is the route to “conscious humanity”:

The Navajo celebrate a baby’s first laugh as a rite of passage, a moment in which the baby laughs himself, as it were, out of inchoate babydom and into conscious humanity. It’s a wonderful concept and grants a primacy to laughter that we, who probably laugh too automatically and certainly far too much, would do well to think about. If it’s laughter that makes us human, or at least kick-starts the process of our becoming human, what does that say about what being human is?

[. . .]

I choose to believe that laughter is the portal to creativity, not necessarily in the sense of making things but in the sense of connecting to a world outside the self, in the first instance noticing that there is a world that isn’t you.

[. . .]

What makes us human is the joy we take in looking out; but even more, what makes us human is the impulse to go on wondering where that joy comes from and accepting that we will never know.

 

Mariana Mazzucato wins the inaugural NS Speri prize for political economy

Mariana Mazzucato, RM Phillips Professor in the Economics of Innovation at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, has been awarded the first New Statesman/Speri Prize for Political Economy for her work on smart growth and the entrepreneurial state.

Prof Mazzucato said: “Ignoring the key role of the state – or the taxpayer – in wealth creation has, in my view, been a leading cause of inequality, allowing some (hyped-up) actors to reap a rate of return way beyond their actual contribution.”

Mazzucato will explore this “dysfunctional dynamic” further in the inaugural New Statesman/Speri lecture on Thursday 13 November (6.30pm). For details visit: www.newstatesman.com/events

 

Plus

 

Sophie McBain meets the 84-year-old psychologist Walter Mischel, inventor of the marshmallow test

Melissa Benn reviews two books on the
politics of primary education

Our TV critic, Rachel Cooke: not even a priapic
Pepys can save ITV’s Great Fire

Peter Wilby: why TV debates are the best
way to decide the next election

Angels and whores: Michael Prodger on the
unsettling work of the artist Paula Rego

Jessica Thatcher on plans to help cities
such as Nairobi beat gridlock using ski lifts

Leo Johnson rallies his north London neighbours
for a spot of civic-minded winemaking

Ian Steadman on the Mars One project
and the dangers facing the first colonists

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Paul O’Grady,
David Cameron, and a stolen kiss at the Pride of Britain Awards

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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.