<![CDATA[World-affairs]]> <![CDATA[Rouble trouble: oil's plunge has given Putin a serious headache]]> In June a barrel of Brent crude oil cost $115. On Wednesday it cost less than $59. The plunge is a result of higher global production  mainly due to shale drilling in the US  as well as weaker demand from large economies such as China and Germany.

For most of us lower petroleum prices are a good thing. It is cheaper to fill up our cars and the falling cost of producing goods can spur economic growth. But for some oil-producing countries crude’s tumble is a major headache. Ask Vladimir Putin.

Since the start of his campaign of irredentism in Ukraine in February, Russia’s president has shrugged off the strong criticism of his policies by European and North American leaders. When sanctions were imposed he retaliated by restricting food imports from the West. Thanks partly to the state-controlled media, but also to the rise in living standards and the financial stability under his rule, Putin’s domestic approval ratings remain high.

But the fall in the price of oil, which together with natural gas accounts for more than two-thirds of Russia’s total exports, now threatens Putin’s standing at home. It has already put huge pressure on the Russian rouble, which traded at less than 40 to the US dollar as recently as October. This week the rouble slid to 80 to the dollar – and that was after the central bank raised interest rates by 6.5 percentage points, to 17 per cent, on Monday night. The rouble has since recovered to around 63 to the dollar, but only after aggressive central bank intervention.

The bank’s deputy governor, Sergey Shvetsov, said on Tuesday that the rouble situation was “critical”, the stuff of his “worst nightmares”. Some Russians agreed, rushing to purchase foreign currency and goods before prices increased further. Apple stopped selling iPhones and computers online in Russia because the currency’s volatility made it too difficult to set prices.

Despite the signs of panic, a major financial crisis in Russia may be averted, unlike in 1998 when the currency last collapsed. In recent years the country’s fiscal policy has been relatively prudent, and high commodity prices have enabled the government to amass $400bn in foreign exchange reserves. Sovereign borrowings are modest.

Even so, the mild recession that seemed inevitable even before this week now seems likely to be severe; the central bank has forecast a 4.5 per cent contraction in GDP in Russia in 2015 if oil prices stay at around $60 a barrel. 

And that will make like harder for Putin. Writing in the Financial Times on Wednesday, Sergei Guriev, a former head of the New Economic School in Moscow, said that the Russian authorities had shown little understanding of how to deal with the financial predicament. International markets were witnessing "a gathering storm but no captain", Guriev added, leaving only two certainties: “First, unless sanctions are lifted and the oil price rebounds, the Russian economy will grow much worse in 2015. Second, we can predict that Moscow’s response — in both economic and foreign policy — will be unpredictable.”

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<![CDATA[Two years after the infamous Delhi gang rape, India’s women still aren’t safe]]> One recent October afternoon, as the intense heat of a summer in Delhi waned to a more bearable 30 degrees, a golf tournament took place at the Delhi Golf Club, a members’ club situated on 220 acres of prime real estate. A few stalls were set up around the grounds, with different vendors promoting products to the people gathered to watch. One stall in particular, with a banner saying “The Safe Women Foundation”, caught my attention. It was selling a luxury women’s magazine, thick and glossy, full of fashion shoots and beauty adverts. Alongside the book, for the cost of 100 rupees (£1), was a book called Women 24 Secure: a woman’s guide to personal safety.

“Every Indian woman steps out of her house with the fear of being followed, harassed or molested,” reads the introduction. “She finds herself unsafe til the time she returns back home.” Over 100 pages, the book lists a huge range of safety measures, such as not going out at night, making sure that not many people know if you live alone, varying your route home from work, and taking particular care in car parks. It goes on to detail some eye-popping self-defence moves, with full photographic guides: “pull hair and strike”, “crouching girl, hidden tigress”, and “head-butting” are just a few. “Instead of being stunned by a pervert grabbing your breast, stun the pervert,” begins one set of instructions, which shows how to block a would-be groper’s hand and elbow them in the face. Another section explains how to use belts, spray deodorants, stones, and forks as makeshift weapons.

Aimed at urban professional women, the book is a clear indicator of the way in which women in India’s major cities feel under siege daily from sexual harassment and violence. “I carry pepper spray with me, I don't walk anywhere by myself except inside a mall, I don't go out alone at night, and I don't take taxis,” says Leia Sharma, a piano teacher who lives in south Delhi. “I don't know any men who do any of those things.”

Sexual violence in Delhi has been hotly debated ever since a brutal gang rape in 2012. The assault happened on 16 December, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was travelling home from the cinema with a male friend. They were picked up by a private bus of the type that frequently circles Delhi’s streets. Over the course of several hours, the girl was violently raped by six men, including the driver, and she and her male friend were badly beaten. They were left for dead on the side of the road. The woman, widely known in India as “Nirbhaya”, or “fearless one”, died from her injuries 13 days later, while receiving emergency treatment in Singapore. The sheer extent of the violence was shocking, generating national and international headlines.

Wide scale public protests soon followed in Delhi and other major cities in India, with thousands of demonstrators berating state and central governments for failing to protect women. Insensitive comments from government ministers and other officials did nothing to quell the public outrage. “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” said one of the defence lawyers in the case. In the aftermath of these mass protests, the government assembled a judicial committee to recommend legal reforms, and in early 2013, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was introduced. The changes set out in this new law included the establishment of fast-track courts to deal with rape allegations and new legislation against sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking. The so-called “two finger test”, widely used to test whether rape victims were virgins, has been outlawed. Separately to the legal reform, the perpetrators in the Nirbhaya case were, ten months after the attack, found guilty of sexual assault and murder. Four of the five were sentenced to death by hanging, which is highly unusual in rape cases. (The fifth was a juvenile and not eligible for the death penalty; the sixth committed suicide in prison).

It has now been two years since this brutal assault shocked the world. Were these reforms the actions of a government desperate to show they were taking action, or have they resulted in lasting change?

Karuna Nundy is a Supreme Court lawyer and the co-author of the Womanifesto, a six-point plan for improving women’s rights distributed at the last election. “One of the biggest changes since those protests is that the idea of patriarchy as separate from men became quite widespread,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. “All those people coming out into the street showed that this is not just a women’s problem, this is not a gender issue – it’s a larger democratic issue. Government exists in large part to make sure that people can be free of violence from each other. That’s one of the fundamentals of the social contract.”

However, Nundy and other feminist campaigners are quick to point out the shortcomings of the 2013 legal changes. The new law did not outlaw marital rape, which accounts for the majority of sexual assault in India (and elsewhere in the world). Introducing fast-track courts is a largely decorative measure; these cases are heard by the same courts and judges, and are therefore afflicted by the same problems of resources and time. There simply aren’t enough judges to hear the cases, and no-one wants to see the standard of trials reduced. The introduction of the death penalty for sexual assault is also seen as problematic by many feminists, who object to the idea that rape is worse than death. And there’s a basic issue to be addressed before legal changes are even considered.  “Implementation is a problem,” says Nundy. “If you implement the law just the way it is, even though its flawed, violence against women would go down dramatically.” Existing legislation against dowry payments and gender-selective abortions is rarely enforced due to a poor rule of law across the board and undersized, corrupt police forces.

But the impact of a shift in mindset is demonstrable. Indian government statistics show that in 2013, there was a 35 per cent increase in the numbers of rapes reported. The number is expected to increase again in 2014 – although an estimated 90 per cent of rapes still go unreported. There is also a far greater media focus on such incidents. It is difficult to open a newspaper in India without reading about an atrocity against a woman: honour violence, gang rape, abuse of young girls. After the December 2012 protests, there was a period of national soul-searching about why these crimes were so commonplace. Part of the reason is demographic: gender-based violence in India starts before birth. Gender-selective abortions and female infanticide are widespread, to the extent that the male-to-female population ratio is 0.93 (worse than it was in 1970). Child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence are extremely common. And patriarchal attitudes are normalised. A 2012 report by Unicef found that 57 per cent of Indian boys and 53 per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. In many rural areas, tribal justice and feudal practices continue, including the routine use of gang-rape as a way to settle scores. In a population of over a billion people, there are huge gulfs between rich and poor, rural and urban, and from state to state, but a restrictive and patriarchal morality is a common thread. In urban centres such as Delhi, women are more independent than ever before and do not live under the same restrictions as women in less developed areas. Yet for all these greater freedoms, women still live with the constant threat of sexual violence– the National Crime Records Bureau says that 93 women report a rape in India every day, with the largest number in Delhi.

The Centre for Social Research (CSR) is situated above a bank in Vasant Kunj in south Delhi. A framed poster outside its office is emblazoned with the slogan: “Let’s embrace change and restructure gender relations”. Among other things, the organisation trains the police in gender sensitivity, and runs a rape crisis centre.  “That there is violence against women is now established fact,” says Amitabh Kumar, the CSR’s head of media and communications. “Before the 16 December protests, there was a lot of hypocrisy. Today, even if people don’t believe there is a problem, there is social pressure to agree with it – the norm has changed. Even if it’s a superficial change, that means that a generation down, your son won’t have heard you saying women are asking for it.”

This has gone right up to the highest echelons of government. “Our heads hang in shame when we hear about rapes,” said newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech in August. “Why can't we prevent this? When a daughter steps out, parents demand to know where she's going. But when a son returns home, does anyone dare ask where he is coming from? He might have been with the wrong people, doing wrong things. After all, a person raping is someone's son. Why don't parents apply the same yardstick of good behaviour for their sons as for their daughters?”
Yet for all this increased public discussion of violence against women and the need for protection, women still do not feel safe. The Delhi Metro system has ladies’ only carriages, but many say this offers scant protection. “I would never take the Metro on my own,” says Sharma, the piano teacher. “Friends of mine have taken the Metro and men have tried to assault them in public on a crowded train.” When I last visited Delhi, relatives excitedly told me about the introduction of the mobile phone taxi app Uber. The app identifies your driver by name and license plate, and your journey can be tracked on GPS, so it was seen as a safer option than hailing a cab on the street. That changed this month, when almost exactly two years after the Nirbhaya assault, a woman was allegedly raped by an Uber driver. The government response was to ban internet taxi apps. This is evidence of what many see as misguided policy making; a desire to be seen to be taking action, without thinking through the most effective way to make changes. “A lot of it is just lip service,” says Nundy. “When someone in public life says something horrible like ‘boys make mistakes’, political parties slam him. But in terms of what action has been taken, it is just bits here and there.”

The Forum to Engage Men (FEM) is an organisation that works with men to counter gender injustice. Its offices are in the affluent Delhi district of Saket, in the basement of a hostel for young single women who have migrated to the city for work. These “working women’s hostels” are a government initiative to provide safe accommodation in convenient locations for women who need to live away from their families because of work, a reflection of the changing face of India.

Satish Singh, the head of FEM, has been working with men on gender issues for over a decade. In 2002, he started a network called Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women, and he runs gender sensitisation programmes in rural areas of India, teaching men in villages to treat their wives better and break out of traditional gender roles. His work has had considerable success; in the areas he works, men eschew domestic violence and help with cooking and childcare. This kind of fieldwork is revolutionary, but the idea behind it – that masculinity needs to be addressed if there is any hope of reducing gender-based violence – is gaining currency, particularly in the two years since the December 2012 protests. The hyper-masculine ideal still dominates in India, but there have been some high-profile attempts to counter it. In October, Vogue India ran a short film online, starring renowned actress Madhuri Dixit. “We teach our ‘tough boys’ not to cry, but instead we should teach them not to make women in their lives cry,” read the promotional blurb.

“Men have the privilege in a patriarchal society, but they also have to pay the cost of that privilege,” Singh tells me over a coffee in his basement office. “In South Asia, men have to be protector, successor, leader of the family, and take all that burden. In one way this centralises the power, in another way it brutalises men. Not all men are able to be protectors. Then they are not men because they are not successful. We have to address this idea of masculinity.”

The perpetrators in the Delhi case all lived in impoverished areas and were, in differing ways, victims of the structural violence of inequality. This does not justify their actions, but it does contextualise them. A stereotype in India is that people in Delhi, particularly men, are aggressive. According to Singh’s analysis, men who feel emasculated by their inability to succeed – which, in fact, is due to failings of education, social mobility, and employment opportunities – act out their masculinity in an ever-more aggressive way.

Many campaigners in India speak of a confused attitude to sexuality. Bollywood movies and imported films and TV series from America depict romantic and sexual relationships, but this is not accompanied by proper teaching or discussion of how relationships should work. Singh suggests that traditional codes of modesty and morality, which prohibit sex outside marriage, and strictly proscribe female sexuality, have confused the whole notion of consent for many young people. “All women are taught in South Asia that they can’t say yes. So women always say no, and men always believe that no means yes. Men don’t like it when a woman easily says yes to a sexual relationship, as they believe it means she is of loose character, and men believe their masculinity is only accepted if they are sexually violent. In South Asia, people have sex but no sex education.”

The Nirbhaya case was not the first brutal gang rape to shock India. The previous July, a 17-year-old girl in the north-eastern city of Guwahati was sexually assaulted by around 20 men. The incident was filmed by a passing TV crew and later broadcast. There was national outrage. Nothing changed. Around the time the Delhi gang rapists were being sentenced, a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai. Her attackers, too, were sentenced to death. But what of the structural factors that led to these attacks taking place?

Sexual violence and violence against women is a global problem, and many of the issues that Indian campaigners describe are common to countries all over the world: a lack of funding for crisis centres and counselling, police refusing to record cases or making victims feel uncomfortable, a lack of female officers. “The police are generally very harsh,” says Dorothy Kamal, a rape counsellor for CSR. “People are afraid of them.” India’s police forces are chronically overstretched; and misogynistic social norms still dominate, for all the current public discussion. “Recognising the problem is positive, but when it comes to solutions, we are still grasping in the dark,” says Kumar.

Most agree that it will take time, above all else, for social norms to change. Feminist campaigners are pushing for the adoption of a broad public education programme about sex, relationships, and consent, but this seems a long way off given the repressive morality that still dominates public life. “I’d like to see citizenship classes in schools where you learn what it is to be a girl and a boy, and how it’s a social construction,” says Nundy.

Until the public discussion translates into meaningful social change, women still live with the mindset illustrated by the booklet I picked up at the Delhi Golf Club: “Even with all the strength she embodies, a woman remains afraid to walk down a street or enter an empty house on her own.” Those with the funds to do so travel everywhere by car, and those who do not must simply manage the risk.

“I remember seeing a comic strip about how a feminist fantasy is to be able to go out for a walk in the middle of the night,” says Nundy. “It doesn’t sound wild – but it speaks to that deep desire for freedom. A lot of women are realising that freedom in their minds, and realising that is something that should happen.”

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<![CDATA[How India’s Dalit women are being empowered to fight endemic sexual violence]]> Today marks the second anniversary of the brutal gang-rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus. After the heat generated by it began to fade away, activists and commentators raised the unanswered and, in some ways, unanswerable question of why this particular case had set India alight when sexual violence against women, especially Dalit (the new term for Untouchable) women, is rampant. However, what it did do was open up a space and a consciousness which focused media attention on the issue, empowered more women to come forward, took away some of the shame that led to under-reporting and led to a raft of legal changes in rape legislation. It is doubtful whether the infamous Badaun case of the two Dalit girls who hung themselves after being raped by upper-caste men, the facts of which are now muddied by counterclaims, would have had the exposure in the Western media that it had without the interest generated by the Delhi case.

However, the conviction rate for rape cases brought by Dalit women stands at an appallingly low 2 per cent as compared to 24 per cent for women in general. One organisation, Jan Sahas (People’s Courage), which represents Dalit women who work mainly as manual scavengers (cleaning dry toilets with their bare hands) has bucked the trend by raising the conviction rate from 2 to 38 per cent. Their director, Ashif Shaikh, was in London recently to pick up an award from the Stars Foundation for liberating more than 14,000 women from scavenging. He spoke about the innovative methods used by his organisation to improve access to justice for raped women.

Jan Sahas set up its own network of 350 lawyers, the Progressive Lawyers Forum, to provide legal support in over 5000 cases of atrocity, which included nearly 1,000 cases of rape against mainly Dalit women across six states in 2013, to counter the corruption of the public prosecution system. Lawyers earn 150 rupees per case (£1.50), low even by Indian standards, a payment rate that attracts incompetent individuals who are infinitely susceptible to bribes of 10-15,000 rupees (£100-£150) offered by the generally upper-caste families of the accused to scupper the case.

Jan Sahas has also trained 200 female survivors of sexual violence as “barefoot lawyers” to support victims currently going through the criminal justice system. Many of them are illiterate and do not know their rights. They face tremendous pressure from family members not to pursue the case either because of the stigma attached to it or because the family has been paid off by the accused, pressure from the wider community/village, pressure from the accused and the police.

Shaikh explained the kinds of delays and frustrations faced by women who persist despite these pressures. Jan Sahas is trying to develop medical protocols in dealing with rape victims which are non-existent in most states. This results in women facing any of the following: the two-finger medical test to ascertain whether women are virgins as a way of discrediting rape accusations which was banned post the Delhi case but is still practiced in the regions; medics who do not want to get involved in a legal case will not examine a woman on their shift which sometimes leave them waiting for up to 40 hours, so weakening their medical case; or medical students are taught not to get involved in such cases because these women are likely to end up “accusing them of rape”.

Where the police are concerned, the litany includes: police disbelief of women’s claims; police rape of raped women because they are seen as “loose”; careless and erroneous police statements which will lead to the judge throwing out the case; bribes to quash the investigation; not lodging an FIR (First Information Report), an important first step in starting the legal process and investigation, and which is mandatory in allegations of rape. Instead the police will record it in their daily diary (rojnamcha) which has no legal status and distorts rape statistics but satisfies an illiterate woman that action is being taken. The transfer of a case from the rojnamcha to FIR status will only happen where pressure is being brought on the police.

That is where Jan Sahas steps in. They empower women through a three day training programme which includes role play in a mock courtroom to understand the legal process. When women are empowered in this way to become leaders and advocates for themselves and others, a model that Jan Sahas has borrowed from its campaign to liberate scavengers, it produces unprecedented results.

The untouchability of Dalits is so etched in Indian cultural attitudes that separate utensils are kept in caste-Hindu households for Dalits. Although rape is an act of violence, misogyny and male power, and although men everywhere can overcome other hatreds such as racism towards black women slaves, it is nonetheless staggering that men who fear defilement through less intimate forms of “touch” think nothing of flushing themselves into the bodies of Dalit women.

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<![CDATA[In Pakistan, fear has become mundane – will the Peshawar attack change anything?]]> By now, you are probably familiar with the bare facts of the case. This morning, at around 10am local time (5am GMT), militants wearing army uniforms stormed a school in Peshawar, a violence-wracked city in Pakistan’s north-west. They killed children and teachers, taking others hostage. At present, the death toll stands at 126. The majority of the dead are aged between 12 and 16. Scores more are injured, and according to spokespeople for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which carried out the attack, hundreds are being held hostage – although the numbers are not verified. The Pakistani army says it has killed six terrorists and is searching for more. The operation is still ongoing.

The Army Public School and Degree College teaches the children of military personnel as well as the children of civilians. The TTP says the attack is revenge for the Pakistani military’s current operation in the tribal areas of Pakistan; it claims it attacked a school “because the government is targeting our families and females”. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced since the military operation began in June. Operation Zarb-e-Azb (literally, “sharp strike”) aims to attack the power structure of the TTP and associated groups, and to clear out the militants’ safe haven once and for all. Since the start of the offensive, Pakistan has been waiting for the reprisal attacks that the group promised.

But even in the blood-soaked context of Pakistan – a country that has lost well over 40,000 innocents to terrorist attacks since 2001 – this morning’s incident in Peshawar is shocking. It is difficult to match the sheer horror and senselessness of the mass slaughter of children. Perhaps aware of the potential damage to its cause, the TTP has said that its gunmen have been instructed “not to kill minor children”; scant comfort for the families of the scores of older children who have already been murdered.

The attack is shocking, but it fits into a wider picture. Terrorism exists to create terror; the feeling that nowhere and nothing is safe, that the very fabric of daily life is under attack. Nowhere is that more evident in Pakistan, a country where health-workers and schoolchildren come under direct attack, where bomb attacks and kidnappings are so frequent that incidents with a low death toll barely make the news, and where public space has become a tense and uncertain terrain. Violence is the constant background music to life, and for the most part, people focus their energies on getting on with things, readjusting their routines – again – to guard against the latest threat. Fear becomes mundane, just another facet of daily life.

Occasionally, there are large-scale incidents, inventive in their brutality, that jolt this apparently unshockable nation. There was the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in 2012, the huge bomb attack on a Hazara Shia snooker hall in January 2013, a spate of assassinations of polio vaccinators that began in late 2012, the bombing of a church in Peshawar in September 2013. Each of these incidents prompts a period of national mourning, a public outpouring of grief, and the question: how much more can we take? There are condemnations from politicians and promises of action. (In this case, the prime minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to personally oversee the operation against the TTP: “These are my children and it is my loss”). And then, in the face of weak state institutions that lack the capacity to take control of the situation, and security forces that do not speak with one voice, very little actually changes. Gradually, as people focus their energies on coping and taking whatever steps they can to protect themselves, things return to business as usual – until the next big scale attack comes around and the country is left reeling and traumatised, again.

The question now is whether this incident will actually change anything. There is a chance that the sheer brutality of the event will answer some of the internal political debates about how best to tackle the terrorist threat. As recently as spring, the Pakistani government was pursuing talks with the Taliban, even as violent attacks across the country surged. Many in the mainstream political right wing still agitate for appeasement and negotiations rather than a military operation. And amongst the wider population, there is a fault-line of people who explicitly or tacitly support the actions of the TTP and associated groups, even as they suffer the effects of this campaign of terror. Some commentators have suggested that the sheer brutality of this assault will undermine the arguments of those who would like to see negotiations with the TTP, and will perhaps reduce that element of support amongst the wider populace. The group is seeking the destruction of the Pakistani state as its minimum, and speaks only the language of violence. That is no starting point for a meaningful settlement.

The Pakistani government has announced three days of national mourning. In Peshawar, the process of grieving is only just beginning. The city, located in the restive province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and is situated not far from the militant-plagued tribal areas and the border with Afghanistan, is well used to terrorist attacks, but this incident surpasses the day-to-day violence it has become accustomed to. The horror is crystallised in the fact that local media has reported that the city is running low on coffins.

Culpability for the attack is with the TTP, but also with the authority figures who have given these groups the space to flourish and grow. As Peshawar prepares to bury its dead children, who will stop more from meeting the same fate?

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<![CDATA[From Shia LaBeouf to Rolling Stone's frat house story, the trouble with "I Believe Her"]]> The first line in the feminist battle against male violence isn’t always “I believe her”. Sometimes, she is not to be believed. The BBC Two documentary Police Under Pressure: Sex Crime, broadcast last month, followed South Yorkshire Police through two investigations into missing teenage girls. They receive a tip-off that one girl has been seen at a hotel in Bradford, and we watch Detective Constable Karen Cocker watching the CCTV. What she sees is unmistakable. The girl scampers down the staircase after a man, squirming against him giddily. “She dunt look like she’s there reluctantly. She looks like she’s there because she wants to be there, dunt she?” says a male hotel employee, sounding almost hopeful that this apparent enthusiasm will prove . . . something. “I think we’ve got to bear in mind her age,” says Cocker, soft but terse. “She’s 13.”

Further footage shows that there are three men with the girl. They lead her in and out of different bedrooms. It is a record of pimping and raping in progress. But when the officers catch up with the girl, she denies that any crime has taken place: she was there willingly, she says, and none of the men had sex with her. Cocker does not believe her. Physical evidence supports what the video suggests: the girl has been raped, by so many men that it is impossible to identify any individual’s DNA from the sample. Victims tell these kinds of lies all the time. They lie because they are afraid of the police, or because they are afraid of the perpetrators, or they lie to themselves, because they are afraid of knowing they have no control. They lie by retelling the lies that they have been told by the men who abuse them: he loves me, he’s my boyfriend, he said I wanted it really.

“I believe her” is powerful because it’s simple; because it’s simple, it slides into being simplistic. This is the way of effective slogans, and I am not going to reject it for being effective. We know that “he said, she said” is not an equal equation. Habit and tradition mean that what he says is heard, while what she says must scale mountains of reflexive doubt before it even registers as a whisper. “I believe her” is a promise, simply, that we will listen – that, over the hum and throb of the misogyny that we live in and that lives in us, we will let her voice reach us. In a crude sense, this is just a matter of playing the odds. We know that male violence against women, including sexual violence, is endemic. When a woman tells us a man has harmed her, the probabilities are standing on her side, if we are willing to acknowledge them. (Not everyone is, of course.)

But “I believe her” is a beginning, and not an end. In the post-mortems of Rolling Stone’s A Rape on Campus story, a lot of scrutiny has fallen on “I believe her”: the failure of journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely to appropriately factcheck the account of a gang rape given by her source Jackie is counted as a failure of excessive belief. The first version of Rolling Stone’s retraction (now edited) read: “our trust in [Jackie] was misplaced”. There’s something sickly about this insistence that the publication’s only vice was too much virtue. In reality, there is plenty that Erdely and her editors could – and should – have checked in the process of putting together the story, and none of these checks would have implied cynicism about Jackie as a victim. Details such as the date of the party at which she was assaulted, and whether the boy she alleges took her to the party was a member of the fraternity she named, have been shown to be uncertain after publication. Rolling Stone had a duty to its source to check those details before.

Those inaccuracies might have been of no matter to the overall narrative. Rape is traumatic, memory is uncertain, and after two years, maybe these are understandable lapses. (I got flashed once. The police came to my house immediately with mugshots of likely offenders, which I dutifully flicked through while I became gradually aware that my brain in its shock had stored nothing but a blur of hideously pink penis poking from some green cords, then completed the picture with the face of an outdoorsy TV presenter who definitely wouldn’t have been hanging around in a Sheffield underpass. Brains are strange. They often let us down.) But, understandable as they might be, they should not have appeared in the published version. If Jackie’s story proved impossible to reconcile with the facts, it shouldn’t have been published at all. Certainly, it makes no sense at all to me that Rolling Stone would agree not to present Jackie’s claims to her alleged attackers because she feared reprisals – but then use her real first name in a story which gave sufficient detail to make her exposure inevitable.

In this instance, “believing the victim” seems to have been nothing but a dereliction of moral duty on the part of the publication. It is right to accept every testimony of victimhood in good faith, and it is right for police and journalists to test that faith with a confirmation of the available facts. We don’t know what happened to Jackie: even if she committed outright fabrications (something far from proven), that does not not mean her testimony of rape is false. All kinds of women become victims of sexual violence, including ones who are otherwise liars. But by publishing this young woman’s story without checks or anonymity, Rolling Stone has left her open to an incredible volume of abuse – a young woman who, even according to her most sceptical friends, showed every sign of having experienced some kind of profound trauma in September 2012. (You may notice that I am not particularly concerned about the effects of this flawed reporting on the alleged perpetrators. That is because there haven’t really been any: feminists didn’t dox any fraternity members. Only the alleged victim has had her name and address broadcast, along with public calls for her to be punished. Unpleasant as this is for the young men who appear to have been wrongly implicated, they will recover, and Jackie may not.)

The belief we extend to victims is not unconditional. We believe because of what we know: about violence in general, and about the specifics of the case. So what about when the person we are asked to believe is not a her? Shia LaBeouf claimed to have been “raped” by a woman while he took part in an art installation, and several feminist writers have suggested that there is a “feminist imperative” to believe him, as we should believe all victims. But there is a serious problem here: it is very hard to know what LaBeouf is asking us to believe. Rape, generally understood as forcible penetration with a penis or other object (not least under English law), could not have taken place in this instance, and LaBeouf does not specify what did happen. There is no form of sexual violence committed by women as a class against men as a class, and there is no extended cultural history of disbelieving men in any case: “believing him” simply means granting the default authority to male words, in a situation where it is impossible to know what they signify. If “I believe her” has become totally detached from the analysis of male violence and female oppression, then it has also become meaningless.

In Police Under Pressure, several of the abusers of the girl at the hotel are convicted – largely thanks to physical evidence. The second girl is found at the home of a man in Bradford. Again, she initially denies that any sexual activity has taken place, but after careful interviewing, she is willing to testify. A case is put together and brought to court. But the girl is found to have made a false statement under oath about a matter not related to the substance of the case. She is not believed. The man in whose home she was found goes free. It is a wrenching thing to watch this injustice take place, and all the more so because it is normal: just a little over 1% of all rapes will result in a conviction. Most rapists walk, and often they walk simply because women’s words are not considered strong enough to stand in court. This is why “I believe her” matters. It is not the cheat answer to difficult questions of fact. It does not exonerate institutions from their other duties to victims. It is not a shortcut to justice. It is just the start when we look for the truth about male violence. We still have the rest of the work to do. 

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<![CDATA[One thing I learned from living in New Orleans – some ex-nuns know a lot about Mace]]> When I watch police using tear gas against protesters, I find it pretty appalling. I am well aware what tear gas can do, as I once had my own supply. Not pepper spray: an actual canister of the hard stuff.

I didn’t ask for it or buy it, of course, but I was working in a club in New Orleans and finished my shift very late.

There are always problems with walking in the States. It is regarded with suspicion. In Miami, I loved walking in the tropical rain but cars would always stop. Walking meant you were either a hooker or in some distress. When I explained that I just liked it, drivers looked very disturbed.

In New Orleans the police would stop me and ask for ID, even though it’s a much more walkable city.

And mostly I felt safe, as I worked till late then went out: so it would be getting light by the time I went home. But Roz, who ran the club for the dodgy owner, was worried about me.

Roz had been a nun. Not by choice. She had been put into a convent in Ireland for not being the full ticket. She’d not escaped until her thirties, and ran away to America. She never slept, which I put down to convent routine but maybe was to do with the jar of black bombers she kept under the till. She and the guys behind the bar were very protective of me, even as they laughed at my accent and kept making me say draught beer and tomatoes.

The head barman, Silv, would say: “How are you getting home, Suzie Q?”

“On the bus.”

They all found this incredible even though New Orleans had good buses – even the streetcars with Desire as their final destination.

“Here, take this,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Mace. But not that shit you buy in shops. This is the real shit.”

“OK,” I said.

“Anyone bother you, girl, straight in the face – they won’t get up again.”

This seemed extreme but they were insistent.

“And don’t go around with it in the bottom of your bag. Have it in your pocket ready to use.”

I did as I was told, but was rather put out that no one really hassled me. It was quite frustrating.

Then one morning at about six, when I was coming home from the most fabulous blues gig – you knew it was the real deal when the pianist pissed on stage – a guy came up to me at the bus stop and asked what time the next bus was.

“Get away from me,” I screamed. “I’ll Mace you.”

And before he had the chance to, I had. He was on the ground, screaming, writhing and unable to breathe. Thank God the bus came, so I got away from this attempt at
self-defence. I really hoped no one had seen the “attack”.

Still, it did make me think twice about accepting the “ladies’ gun” the barman offered me the next day.

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<![CDATA[Project Martyr: the British doctor who went to work in Syria]]>

Rami Habib in his field hospital. Photo: Tom Pilston

 

In early 2011, Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester, flew to his native Syria because his father had suffered a stroke. It was a tumultuous time in the Arab world. The peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were rising up against their repressive rulers. Habib cheered them on, though he never imagined that his countrymen would do the same. When protests first reached his home town of Jableh, on the Mediterranean coast in the north-west of the country, he was too fearful to join in. After a few weeks, he became convinced that the revolution might be the only chance for Syrians to conduct their lives with dignity and freedom. Ignoring his parents’ entreaties, Habib took to the streets with hundreds of his fellow townsfolk. “The people of Syria want the regime to go,” they shouted.

For Habib, it was one of the most exhilarating moments of his life. “I thought I was dreaming,” he says. “A year before, we’d have been killed for chanting that.”

Those early protests were peaceful. They had nothing to do with Islam, he says, though the demonstrators were mostly Sunnis who felt oppressed by the regime. The protesters demanded democracy, free speech, economic opportunity, an end to corruption. Habib naively envisaged a Syria more like Britain, France or Germany. He could not think of returning to Leicester and his wife at such a momentous time. It was his “holy duty” to his country to stay.

That summer, the regime’s security ­forces opened fire on the protesters in Jableh, occupied the central square and erected checkpoints. Paramilitary thugs called shabiha toured Sunni districts in pick-ups, firing AK-47s into the air to keep people indoors. Habib moved his parents and youngest brother, who has Down’s syndrome, to an apartment he owned in Salma, a ­mountain resort 20 miles inland, with views of the Mediterranean. It was a town to which Syrians would go each summer to escape the heat. Habib and his family had spent many happy holidays there, picnicking in the surrounding forests, barbecuing, ­promenading, watching the sun set over the ­distant sea.

Salma was still peaceful then, although it was filling with Sunni refugees from coastal areas controlled by those from the same Alawite religious group, a heterodox Shia sect, as President Bashar al-Assad. Habib’s father died that November. The protests reached Salma shortly afterwards.

As in Jableh, the government cracked down. Eventually, in June 2012, after a night of ferocious fighting, the loose alliance of rebel civilians and military defectors called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) seized Salma. Habib rejoiced. He joined the rebels and set up a field hospital in Salma’s main mosque. Across the country, soldiers and officials were deserting a regime that appeared tantalisingly close to collapse. In three or four months, it would all be over, Habib thought.

Two years on, the revolution appears further than ever from achieving its aims. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the UN, and ten million have fled their homes. Salma has been reduced to ruins. Its few remaining inhabitants, Habib among them, are attacked daily by a resurgent military. The FSA’s hopes of ousting ­Assad have evaporated. And the rise of the jihadist group Isis (also known as Islamic State) has dramatically changed the conflict. In the eyes of many outside Syria, it has become a war between savage Islamic zealots and a brutal dictator, with Assad the lesser of two evils. The US-led coalition is bombing not Assad but his enemies, making his survival all the more likely.

“Isis has hijacked the revolution, destroyed the image of the rebel movement and thrown a lifeline to Assad,” Habib says when we meet in October in Antakya, the modern-day Antioch, a Turkish city near the border that is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, including, now, Habib’s mother and brother. The original mainstream rebels, those fighting for freedom and democracy, feel betrayed, abandoned and forgotten, he says. “It’s an appalling situation. It shows that the west simply doesn’t care about stopping Assad or saving ordinary Syrians from his barbarity.”

It has become too dangerous for ­western journalists to enter Syria, so Habib had to drive across the border to see me, using his doctor’s pass to enter Turkey. We spent a day talking in coffee houses or on park benches in the warm autumn sun. He was casually dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans but had aged since I first visited him in Salma early last year; his beard is turning grey, his waistline expanding. Though a doctor, he smoked heavily and said that even in Antakya he did not feel safe from Syrian government agents. He is soft-­spoken, articulate and thoughtful – certainly no extremist.

Some nights, after another ­gruelling day treating Assad’s victims, he says he feels close to despair. Lying on his mattress in the basement of a ruined apartment block, he wonders if the uprising has been worth the cost and if he should return to his wife. “I say, ‘Hey, Rami, isn’t it enough for you now – three years in this revolution? You should go back to the UK and lead a normal life.’”

Those moods seldom survive the night, however. In the morning he realises that his skills are needed far more here than in Leicester, that Salma’s rebels and civilians depend on him. Above all, he understands how the regime’s brutality makes its eventual overthrow imperative. “The whole of my life I’ve thought these are not the right people to rule my country,” he says. “But when the regime started to hit civilians and kill them indiscriminately, that gave me proof that the regime should be kicked out – even though we might die in the process.”

Habib was one of eight children of a prosperous metalworker from Jableh, a medium-sized town with an old Roman ­amphitheatre, a small port and many citrus and vegetable farmers. He had a happy childhood – swimming, fishing, playing by the sea – but he grew up in a country where Sunnis, who account for nearly three-quarters of the 22 million Syrians, were treated as second-class citizens. Children were taught from infancy that walls have ears and bribes were required to secure telephones, electricity and passports. When he was 11, the then president, Hafez al-Assad – Bashar’s father – sent the military into the city of Hama to crush a protracted revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular Ba’athist regime. Some 20,000 Sunnis were massacred as much of the old city was destroyed by tanks and bombs. Later, Habib watched as the regime sought to reduce Jableh’s Sunni majority by giving Alawites from the surrounding villages land and cheap apartments. He hated the Assads, both the father and the son who succeeded him in 2000.

“We felt this was not our country,” Habib says. After studying medicine in Aleppo, he left to work in Saudi Arabia – not least to avoid military service. There he met Rachel, a Filipino nurse, and, when she was offered work in Britain in 2004, he followed and married her. They lived near the old Filbert Street football stadium in Leicester, a multi­cultural city in which he immediately felt at ease. He enjoyed the order and freedom: “You could discuss any issue without feeling you would be arrested at the end of the day,” he says. He and his wife had holidays in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. He grew to love the UK and still considers it home. He trained as a paediatrician, working at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leicester General and Glenfield hospitals.

The medicine he practises today bears scant resemblance to that. Days after the FSA seized Salma in 2012, the regime launched a counteroffensive with helicopter gunships and a barrage of Russian-made Grad rockets, which scatter widely and kill indiscriminately. “The whole town was shaking. It was deafening. I could not believe the regime would do this to its own people,” Habib says.

Habib and his team of four doctors and eight nurses worked through the nights, amputating, stitching, dressing, using the little medicine and equipment they had. They sent the most seriously injured to Turkey, 30 miles to the north, but some died en route or while waiting several hours to cross the border.

“It was a sea of blood,” Habib says. “I never saw anything like this in Leicester, only in the movies. A few times I cried, when women and children were cut dead. Too many died in front of me.” At one point he was filmed ­denouncing the regime in a burst of fury. The video was posted on YouTube, making him a marked man.

Salma found itself right on the front line of the territory of north-western Syria held by the FSA, a disparate and disorganised collection of ex-soldiers, idealistic former civilians and a few Islamists with a lot of spirit but too few weapons. Eager for revenge and determined to stop other towns defecting, the regime has scarcely let up since the initial bombardment. First, it cut Salma’s water and electricity. Then, in August 2012, it began pounding the town with tanks and heavy artillery from “the Tower” – a new military base it built on a mountaintop a mile across a plunging ­valley and clearly visible from Salma. Today it routinely attacks Salma with missiles fired from MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets but the most terrifying weapons of all are the barrel bombs dropped from the heli­copters that circle above the town ­almost every day.

The bombs are packed with explosives as well as nuts, bolts, lengths of iron rod, engine parts and tank shell casings. Soldiers light the fuses with their cigarettes before pushing the steel barrels from the helicopters. They fall for ten to 15 seconds with a loud whistling sound, causing Salma’s residents to run for shelter. Sometimes the bombs explode in the air, sometimes when they hit the ground. The shrapnel destroys buildings, vehicles, trees, people – anything within a 200-yard radius. In a single day, the regime may drop ten or more on Salma. ­Habib has to patch up the victims’ faces, mutilated limbs and shredded abdomens in his makeshift hospital. “They kill utterly indiscriminately: fighters and civilians, women and children, occasionally whole families,” he says.

Habib was nearly killed by one. He had moved his hospital out of the mosque, after it was hit by two dozen rockets in one day, and into the basement of an abandoned apartment block. Early one morning, the building was hit by a barrel bomb. Habib, who was sleeping on the first floor, heard the third, fourth and fifth floors collapsing above him. He began reciting the shahada, the prayer Muslims say before death. Though covered in debris and shattered glass, Habib survived. He has no doubt the regime knew where the hospital was and targeted it deliberately. The rebels have caught and executed at least ten informers in Salma – “fair treatment for betrayers”, Habib says.

The town today bears no resemblance to the bustling resort it once was and it is hard to imagine it ever will again. Even last year, when I stayed for two days, it resembled a scene from Armageddon. The forests had been set ablaze by shells. Elegant apartment blocks and the town’s mosques lay in ruins. Scarcely a building was undamaged, or windowpane unshattered. The shops and restaurants had been abandoned and looted. The streets were strewn with rubble, fallen trees and toppled street lights. The electricity cables had been sold for their copper in Turkey. Gutters were clogged with bushes and weeds. I saw some bearded fighters chopping wood outside the buildings they had commandeered for bases but hardly anyone else. The only movements were of curtains flapping in gaping windows, the occasional feral dog, or a battered FSA pick-up speeding down a deserted street.

“Anyone who knew Salma before the revolution would cry if he roamed around it now,” says Habib, who has not visited his own ruined apartment in more than a
year because he finds it too painful. “It used to be a beautiful place. Now it’s tragic.” Hundreds of fighters and civilians have been killed in the town and nearby villages and thousands injured. Several ambulances have been destroyed.

The rebels managed briefly to break out in August last year, capturing the Tower and a dozen Alawite villages, but were soon beaten back. They, in turn, have thwarted several regime offensives. Asked how many friends he has lost, Habib replies “too many” and reels off their names. Occasionally, he has found himself treating captured soldiers, even as regime shells were falling around him. “As patients, I have to treat them, though I hate them,” he says.

Fewer than 2,000 people remain in a town that once had a summertime population of perhaps 50,000. Most are rebel fighters. Some are Salma residents who cannot afford to move to Turkey or would rather take their chances in their homes than a refugee camp. A few are families who have fled from government-held territory and occupied abandoned apartments. Somehow this tiny, residual population adapts and survives. A hosepipe brings water from a spring two miles away. Charred tree trunks from the forests provide firewood during the bitterly cold winters. People sandbag their doors and windows, run across any open space visible from the Tower and drive without headlights at night. The ­children attend two rudimentary schools. Even the youngest can distinguish between the sounds of mortars, rockets, shells and barrel bombs and know to take shelter without being told. The only good thing about the MiG attacks is that their rockets hit before you even hear the jets, Habib says. “By the time you see them, you are safe.” A cloudy day brings a little relief, since the helicopters with their cargoes of barrel bombs cannot fly.

Habib has a generator for his hospital, where he treats cases of hepatitis A and typhoid, diseases seldom seen in peacetime. He has assembled a proper operating theatre and built a reinforced-concrete safe room for his staff. His self-styled Salma Field Hospital Foundation, which is supported by western donors and NGOs, runs a bakery, brings in essential supplies from Turkey and distributes blankets, clothes and food parcels. He recently repaired a bulldozer and created a new dirt track into Salma because the existing road was in full view of the Tower. He mediates between the diverse groups that fight under the banner of the FSA but often squabble among themselves – usually over access to ammunition. “Some people call me the mayor of Salma,” he says, laughing.

Other rebel-held towns and cities have suffered even worse than Salma. The Assad regime has systematically destroyed great swaths of its own capital, Damascus, and of Aleppo and Homs. The government has used chemical weapons and has fired Scud missiles and dropped cluster bombs. It has used shabiha to ethnically cleanse Sunni villages and kill women and children. It has used rape, torture, abductions, firing squads and mass executions as weapons of war. It has bombed schools, hospitals and bakeries.

Seared by the experience of the Iraq and Afghan wars and wary of being sucked into another Middle East quagmire, the US, Britain and their allies have demanded Assad’s removal but withheld the means. They have threatened air strikes after the Syrian army unleashed sarin gas against the rebels, killing hundreds, but then backed off. They have imposed some largely ineffective sanctions but rebuffed the rebels’ appeals for no-fly zones, safe havens and humanitarian corridors. With Iran and Russia backing and emboldening Assad, attempts at diplomatic solutions have failed and two UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have quit in frustration. Both the Syrian National Council and Syrian National Coalition have been promoted by the west, though both consisted largely of exiles with few links to the rebels on the ground. “They were
irrelevant. I heard of them only through the media,” Habib says.

The international community has provided some humanitarian assistance to the rebels but Habib calls it “a sticking plaster that merely keeps us alive”. The best aid, he argues, would have been weapons to finish the war back in 2012 when the regime was reeling. He does admit that the fragmented, disordered and occasionally brutal FSA could have done more to win the west’s confidence – not least by guaranteeing protection for Syria’s many religious and ethnic minorities in a post-Assad Syria – but concludes, “In my opinion, Assad has had a licence to kill.”

The US and its allies, including Middle Eastern countries, have now intervened militarily but not to help the rebels. Instead, the campaign is a desperate attempt to contain Isis, a group of mostly foreign jihadists that grew out of al-Qaeda’s resistance to the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003. It gained a foothold in north-eastern Syria last year and uses terror to suppress local populations – beheading opponents, raping and enslaving women and massacring so-called infidels as it seeks to establish an Islamic ­caliphate across Syria and Iraq. The trigger for foreign action was Isis’s advance towards Baghdad but its very public execution of five British and American hostages, most likely in Syria, also rendered continued passivity politically impossible.

To Habib, the US-led air strikes suggest that America cares more about a few of its own citizens than the tens of thousands of dead Syrians. They suggest it considers Isis’s atrocities worse than Assad’s. By targeting Assad’s enemies, they are manifestly helping the regime, which scarcely disguises its pleasure. “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria,” one Syrian diplomat was quoted as saying in a ­Damascus newspaper in September. Alongside the air strikes, Barack Obama has promised to train and equip several thousand moderate rebels but primarily so they can fight Isis, not Assad. Habib is sceptical, though he firmly believes that strengthening the FSA is the only way forward. “Why have they waited three years?” he says.

The rise of Isis helps Assad in other ways, too, by changing western perceptions of what began, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as a people’s revolution. “It was rebels against the regime. Now it’s the regime against extremists. The international coalition is together with the regime against the extremists,” Habib argues. “Where are the rebels in this picture? They’re forgotten . . . Isis has destroyed the image of the whole rebel movement.”

Isis has lent a spurious credence to the Syrian government’s claim that the uprising was inspired from the outset by foreign ­jihadists. It prevents western journalists ­entering Syria to report on the regime’s atrocities. And, while world attention is ­focused on Isis, Habib says that Assad’s forces have quietly stepped up their assaults on Salma and other rebels strongholds. “Isis is the most effective weapon the regime has,” he says.

Particularly galling was the US decision to bomb Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Isis, after it claimed that it was shielding senior operatives who were planning attacks on western targets. Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest rebel groups, is an al-Qaeda affiliate that – like Isis – wants eventually to establish an Islamic caliphate. But its immediate priority is removing Assad and moderate rebels ­consider it an invaluable ally in that quest.

Around 150 members of Jabhat al-Nusra fight alongside the FSA in Salma. Most are Syrians and last year they helped eject from the town dozens of their colleagues who had defected to Isis. “We love them [Jabhat al-Nusra], so long as they don’t interfere with our lives,” says ­Habib, who complained only that they try to stop him smoking because they consider it un-­Islamic.

“They are very strong, very sincere and willing to die to achieve any mission given to them. They have good weapons and ­ammunition and they’re stronger than the FSA. You can’t win any military operation without Jabhat al-Nusra,” says Habib. His great fear is that the air strikes will encourage Jabhat al-Nusra to join forces with Isis against the US.

In one other way Isis has complicated ­Habib’s life. It has rendered any British citizen who travels to Syria suspect – even a doctor. He says the police have already quizzed friends in Britain about him and that donors to his foundation fear they will be accused of funding terrorism. He has not returned to Britain since the uprising began but, if he tried to do so, “I would, of course, be questioned. They would need to know I’m not a threat to the UK.”

Habib has no intention of returning, however, even though he cannot envisage an end to the conflict any time soon. His long-suffering wife remains in Britain, sees him only occasionally in Turkey and frets about him constantly. His mother begs him to leave and Habib is the only member of his family left in Syria. But he gambled everything on the revolution succeeding and still clings to the belief that somehow it will. “Obviously, anybody in this area can die at any moment but we remain committed to the cause,” he said. “That’s why we call this ‘Project Martyr’.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

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<![CDATA[The departure of a third defence secretary finally kills off Obama’s hopes of a “team of rivals”]]> November was a tough month for Barack Obama. It began with a huge defeat for the Democrats in the midterm elections, in which the Republicans won control of the Senate. It ended with more criticism being heaped upon his management of US foreign policy, after the secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, announced his resignation. The usual cycle of leaks and counter-leaks seemed to confirm that it was not a mutual parting of the ways: Hagel had been pushed and the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon had hit a new low on a range of issues, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.

Much like leading the Home Office in the UK, being the US secretary of defence is one of the toughest jobs to hold on to in Washington, DC. Charles A Stevenson, the author of the 2006 book SecDef: the Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defence, recently noted that 23 individuals have held the position since it was created in 1947. If one includes Hagel’s departure, nine of them have been fired or forced to resign. By contrast, since 1789, only two secretaries of state have succumbed to the same fate.

Hagel is Obama’s third secretary of defence to go in six years, following Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. All of them have purportedly “retired” but that hides the real story. Gates, who survived from the Bush years, broke rank when he published his memoirs shortly after he left office. In Duty, he complained that the Obama White House was more centralised and controlling on national security than any since the days of Nixon. A few close advisers – some of them with minimal experience – held too much sway and they were more concerned with polling figures and partisan politics than long-term strategy. Gates’s replacement, the former CIA director Panetta, appointed in April 2011, did not last two years. He was even more forthright in his own memoirs, Worthy Fights, which bemoaned how the president “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader” and sometimes “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities”.

The odds are that Hagel will follow suit and offer some choice words of his own. Back in October, a memo that he wrote to the national security adviser, Susan Rice, was leaked to the press (presumably by someone in his office). In it, he criticised US Syria policy for its lack of overall coherence. Counterclaims have since been made, suggesting that Hagel was getting his revenge in early – grandstanding with a view to posterity – because of an anticipated “shake-up” of the national security team. Rice was untouchable, as was Obama’s influential chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Despite tensions with the president over Syria’s chemical weapons and the collapsed Israel-Palestine peace process, the secretary of state, John Kerry, was too entwined in negotiations with Iran to be pulled out.

What was intended to act as an attempt to “reboot” the administration’s foreign policy is now an unseemly mess. The front-runner to replace Hagel, the former undersecretary of defence Michèle A Flournoy, swiftly ruled herself out. Some believe that Flournoy is keeping her powder dry for a position in a potential Hillary Clinton administration – and is unwilling to take up the poisoned chalice for what will be a very difficult two years. Earlier this year, Flournoy voiced some veiled and carefully worded criticism of the overall direction of strategy, just as Clinton has done – not outright rebellion but enough to set herself apart from Obama.

It was supposed to be different. During his race for the Democratic nomination against Clinton in 2008, it was widely publicised that Obama was much enamoured with a book by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In particular, Obama was impressed by Lincoln’s ability to bring former opponents into his team. This seemed particularly important in foreign affairs, which had been the subject of such bitter dispute under George W Bush. In came Clinton as secretary of state. Obama’s appointments of Bob Gates and Chuck Hagel were also symbolic. Both fitted a certain mould. They were Republicans who had served in Republican administrations but who were known to be critical of the excesses of the Bush administration – particularly the war in Iraq – and spoke to Obama’s purportedly “realist” credentials in foreign affairs.

If the idea was to create a broader, bipartisan basis of support, it failed. Regarded as something of a renegade, Hagel found his nomination a bruising process; as a result of Republican filibustering, his approval only just crept through the Senate. Gates and Hagel came to feel that they were there for window-dressing and that all major decisions were taken in Obama’s tight-knit kitchen cabinet. On a trip to Afghanistan during Obama’s first term, Gates reportedly erupted in rage when he discovered a direct telephone line between the military’s special operations headquarters and a top national security official in the White House, in effect cutting out the Pentagon.

In truth, Obama inherited many of his foreign policy headaches from his predecessor. One area of contention between the president and Hagel is reported to have been the latter’s foot-dragging over the closure of Guantanamo Bay, which remains open. What is beyond question is that the latest soap opera is a sign of severe dysfunction. The team of rivals has disintegrated, with many of them becoming a thorn in the president’s side as he limps on for a final two years.

Ed Miliband’s team – reportedly engrossed by Goodwin’s latest book, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt – might take note of the limits of historical analogy. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

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<![CDATA[From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants]]>

Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor

Hoppers Way in Singleton, Kent, is a quiet suburban cul-de-sac of red-brick detached houses, each with its own garage and driveway. Parked outside No 8, there is often a large white-and-grey camper van – a luxury Swift Kon-tiki 679 model, with a double bed in the back and another over the cab. Singleton is a suburb of Ashford, the last big town on the M20 as it approaches the Channel Tunnel entrance at Folkestone and a stopping point for Eurostar train services between London and the Continent. That makes it a convenient location for the rental business run by Teresa and Stephen Tyrer, who hire out the motorhome for £1,000 a week to people wishing to travel to Europe.

In early September, the Kon-tiki was in the possession of Paul Coles, 50, and his 22-year-old daughter, Joanne, from near Matlock in Derbyshire, at the southern end of the Peak District. That is about as far from the sea as you can get in England. The Coleses often travel abroad: Joanne is an accomplished motorcycle racer and competes at international meetings. On this occasion, they were attending a competition in Andorra, a principality on the French-Spanish border.

Joanne’s team won gold at the trials, and she and her father returned to the UK on 15 September. During the 1,200-kilometre drive back to Kent, they would have crossed two international borders. The first was on leaving Andorra for France. Andorra is not part of the European Union; it is a tax haven that charges non-citizens €400,000 per household if they want to take up residency there. But for temporary visitors with EU passports, the state is unofficially part of the Schengen Area, the zone of free movement that covers most of the European Union, though not Britain.

The second border was at Coquelles, just outside Calais in northern France, where drivers queue up to put their vehicles on trains that will take them through the tunnel. Since 1994, British passport control has been here, inside French territory (in return, the French get to place their own controls at Folkestone). The arrangement, which is known as “juxtaposed controls” and has since been widened to cover cross-Channel routes elsewhere in Britain, France and Belgium, was a response to fears that better transport links and closer European integration would bring crime, disease and unwanted guests. It is part of a larger system designed to ensure that the inhabitants of Kent suburbs and Derbyshire villages can enjoy the benefits of free movement while being shielded from its consequences.

To some extent, it works: Home Office figures show that between April 2013 and April 2014, 18,000 people – about 50 a day – were stopped at these border controls on the European continent because they did not have the correct documents to enter the UK.

At around 1pm, the Coles family pulled up to the driveway of 8 Hoppers Way and began unloading the camper van. As Paul Coles recalls, he was round the back of the Kon-tiki, sorting out his belongings, when he looked down “and saw these two white eyes staring at me”. A young black man pulled himself up from underneath the motorhome, stood in front of Coles and started to shake and cry. Coles, after he had recovered from the shock, gave him a sandwich and a banana.

The police were called; they searched the man, took notes, and then drove him away in a patrol car. A terse official statement issued later said merely that the man was 18 and from Sudan, and had been handed over to the Home Office’s immigration enforcement department. The Coleses were left to wonder how he had managed to cling to the underside of the vehicle, and for how long.

That young man was one of many who have arrived in Britain in similar circumstances. There was the 16-year-old boy found underneath a school coach as it made its return to Ilford, in Essex, after an outing to France. There was the man who squeezed behind the driver’s seat of a 59-year-old woman’s Fiat Panda, only to jump up as she arrived in Dover, shouting: “I’m an orphan.” And there were scores of others: mostly young men, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, who were found hiding in cars and lorries that crossed the Channel to Britain.

Who are these people, and why do they take such risks? For the past year, I have been researching the journeys taken through Europe by clandestine migrants, and examining the reasons they take them. This autumn, I set out to follow one typical route, tracing it back from London to the shores of the Mediterranean.

About a week before the Coleses made their surprise discovery in Kent, I went to a hotel in south London to visit Samuel, a gentle-voiced man in his early thirties who came from the city of Debarwa, Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. I had first met him in August when he was still on the French side of the Channel. Samuel told me that a few weeks after this, in late August, he had walked to a lorry park a few miles outside Calais, near the approach road to the Channel Tunnel. In the darkness, as the drivers slept, he found a suitable vehicle. It was a large container lorry, with three pairs of wheels at each end and a detachable cab; the kind you see everywhere on Europe’s roads. They are like the red blood cells of our motorways, carrying goods that keep our high-street shops full, our restaurants cooking and our building sites building. They are also popular with stowaways, and contain several places where a person can be concealed.

Of these, the most obvious is inside the container itself, among the cargo, but this is difficult. The back doors are usually locked and breaking in is noisy. In Calais, some criminal gangs have keys that will open these doors, but they charge between €500 and €7,000 a time and often steal the migrants’ money. Some people try to run after the lorries and open the doors when the vehicle is in motion but this, too, is hard. Instead, many others try to hide on the underside of the lorries, crawling below the back section and manoeuvring their bodies on top of the rear wheel axle. There is just enough space to hide here, lying above the axles and balancing with your hands and feet on top of the wheel arches on either side of the vehicle. (The young man who hid under the Coles family’s motorhome probably used a similar method.) It is not easy to hold on, particularly when the vehicle is moving, and those who fall off risk being crushed to death under the wheels.

Six other Eritrean men were with Samuel that night, which meant they could push one another forward, along the narrow gap that separates the rear axle from the underside of the container above, until they reached the middle of the vehicle. Most lorries of this type have an extra storage space there, in between the two sets of wheels – a metal frame that holds a box or a spare tyre – and it was on top of one of these boxes that the six men squeezed together. “You couldn’t move your arms,” Samuel recalled, “and there wasn’t much air to breathe.”

The men hid at midnight and the lorry did not move until 5am, and in all that time they dared not move or make a sound, for fear of being discovered. Once on the motorway, the breeze allowed Samuel and his companions some fresh air, but they still had to remain concealed for another four hours as the lorry was transported by train through the tunnel and towards its destination in England. When they reached Kent, the men started banging on the container to alert the driver, but it was only when the lorry reached its depot several hours later that a staff member heard them, helped them climb out, and called the police. Samuel told officers that he was a refugee and wanted to claim asylum; they kept him in cells overnight before handing him over to immigration enforcement staff, who took him to London.

When I arrived at the hotel in the Crystal Palace area to meet Samuel, I was surprised to find an ornate white Victorian building near a park, with a blue plaque on the front wall noting that the French novelist Émile Zola had once lived there. A friend who resides nearby told me later that the hotel usually hosted coachloads of German schoolchildren. But recently it had been rented by the Home Office, an early sign of a crisis, news of which reached the media a few weeks subsequently. Companies contracted to provide housing for asylum-seekers (the system was privatised in 2012) had been failing to do so, forcing the Home Office to step in and find accommodation at short notice for hundreds of people. This led to a flurry of headlines about asylum-seekers being housed in “luxury” hotels. In reality, their living conditions were crowded and dirty. Some 600 people had been placed in Crystal Palace, even though the hotel had only 98 bedrooms.

Samuel and I walked along the high street to find a café where he could sit and tell me about his journey. The night underneath the lorry was only the last stage of a 9,000-kilometre odyssey, during which he witnessed a friend die of thirst in the Sahara Desert, squeezed into a leaking smuggler boat to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, and was so badly beaten by French police that he needed hospital treatment.

Tens of thousands of Eritreans, men and women, make similar journeys to Europe every year to escape from compulsory military service, which can last for up to 25 years in their country. This year so far, 37,000 Eritreans have come to Europe to seek asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, making them the second-largest refugee group after Syrians. Most of the Eritreans go to Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, not Britain.

While still in France, Samuel told me why he’d wanted to reach the UK: he spoke English and he had heard there were jobs here – he was willing to do anything to earn a living. France was less attractive; he had friends who had been left living on the street because of a housing shortage in the asylum system. But Samuel had no idea how Britain’s asylum process worked, and now seemed bemused to have ended up where he was.

The biggest shock of all was discovering that most of the others in the hotel had made much simpler journeys. If you have the money to apply for a visa, or to buy false documents, you can travel to the UK through a legal route and then claim asylum on arrival. Airports are the single biggest route into Europe for irregular migrants, according to the EU border agency Frontex.

“Our journey is very long,” Samuel told me, referring to those who traverse the Sahara. “We cross many countries, sacrifice our life. But many people in the hotel arrived on flights. When they hear about us, they are surprised – they say our life is already passed.”

Passage to Europe: common migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East

The next day I caught the P&O ferry from Dover to Calais, at the start of a weekend of protests there. Until May, the first thing you would have seen on leaving the French port on foot towards the town centre was a makeshift tent camp, home to several hundred migrants. Others lived elsewhere in the town, in squatted buildings and self-built camps. Most had come from countries where conflicts or internal repression were rife, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. As the volume of migrants living rough in Calais grew steadily leading up to the summer, the police demolished the tent village and several other camps, sometimes using tear gas to clear them. Riot police had been sent to patrol Calais, and the migrants complained of rough treatment.

On the Friday afternoon, around 150 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea marched through the terraced streets of working-class Calais chanting, “We want human rights!” under the impassive, occasionally hostile gaze of the town’s people. Every now and then, the protesters would switch to a chant of “UK! UK! UK!”. Two days later, on the Sunday, the anti-migrant group Sauvons Calais (“let’s save Calais”) held a rally outside the town hall, with the support of activists from several extreme-right political parties who had been bussed in. As their leaders addressed the crowd, calling for fire hoses to cleanse the town and blaming the traitors and “collaborators” in government who had allegedly opened the door to migrants, a group of masked anti-fascists tried to attack the gathering, but was stopped by police.

Calais has long been a stopping point for undocumented migrants hoping to reach the UK. In 2002, after a flurry of negative press coverage, the British government pressured France into closing a Red Cross camp at Sangatte, just outside the town, because it was deemed to be attracting migrants. Since then, the local policy has been one of deterrence, by making conditions as harsh as possible for the unwanted visitors. But as migrant numbers in Calais have recently swelled – from a few hundred last winter to the present high of well over 2,000 – the sight of destitute refugees trying increasingly desperate methods to reach the UK has drawn unwelcome attention. Fights have broken out between migrants of different nationalities as they compete for access to the lorry parks. To circumvent the smuggler gangs, groups of migrants have tried running into the ferry port en masse, hoping that a few of them will be able to hide before the police catch them.

On the Saturday between the two protests, I visited one of the largest migrant squats, a former scrap metal yard nicknamed Fort Galoo, after the name of the company that was once based there. It had been reclaimed by members of the pan-European No Borders Network, who work to disrupt what they see as unacceptable state controls on migrants. Fort Galoo was surrounded by high walls, with a small office building in one corner. On its ground floor was a generator surrounded by a spaghetti junction of extension cables. At sunset the power would be turned on for a few hours and a scrum would develop as the migrants crowded round to charge their phones. About 100 people, mainly East Africans, lived upstairs or in tents in the courtyard. There was a fire hose, still connected to the mains, for washing, and a few toilets donated by the charity Médecins du Monde. Two ageing portable buildings had been made into women-only living quarters. Female migrants are in the minority in Calais but face extra hardships: they run the risk of sexual harassment or assault and because they tend to avoid the more physically demanding methods of hiding, such as hanging beneath vehicles, they are open to exploitation by people smugglers.

Looking around the yard, I noticed a group of men and women sitting on plastic chairs in a semicircle. They were being lectured by a man who was writing out French phrases on a whiteboard. He wore a shabby corduroy jacket and spoke to his audience in Arabic-accented English, ostentatiously pronouncing phrases such as “education is the progressive discovery of our own ignorance”. Mekki was originally from Sudan and now resident in Calais, and he came to the squat most days to give the residents language lessons to help them negotiate life in France and Britain. He did this for free: in Calais, there is a whole community of volunteers, from the No Borders radicals to individual well-wishers, who help feed, clothe and advise the migrants.

During a break in the lesson I chatted with some of Mekki’s students. They asked me to conceal their identities. The first was a middle-aged woman from an East African country, who wore a matching blue-patterned dress and headscarf and had been carefully writing down phrases in an exercise book. She told me she had been a scientist studying how to increase grain output in her famine-prone home region. But a government crackdown on her ethnic group had disrupted her work. So one day she left home, travelled overland to Egypt and took a boat across the Mediterranean. She had two teenage sons, and the first they knew of her plan was when she phoned them a fortnight after she left and said, “I’m in Calais.” Why not stay in France? I asked. She looked at me a little sternly. “I’m 40 years old,” she said. “Language is the main problem. I speak English, not French. I can’t start ‘A, B, C’ again if I want to do a PhD.”

By now, Mekki was ready to begin teaching again. He asked me to come to the front and explain the meaning of some English proverbs he had written on the board. I read them out and the students repeated them softly in unison: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” As they did so, I recognised some of the people who had been chanting angrily at the migrants’ demonstration a day earlier. The last proverb was one I had not heard before: “A bush grows best where its roots are.” I could not resist asking: this one was wrong, wasn’t it? Surely people can feel at home wherever they settle. A dozen people looked up at me and shook their heads.

***

Say “refugee”, and usually it evokes a sympathetic image: a terrified family on the run from a war zone, in urgent need of protection. Say “economic migrant”, how­ever, and the picture gets murkier. If they are fleeing poverty and not war, so what? Do we owe them a living? Are they even here to work, or just to scrounge off our welfare systems?

But it is possible to be one and the same thing. Several hundred thousand people apply for asylum in Europe each year, but once there, refugees need the same things as the rest of us: not just shelter, but a chance to build a life. Many try to do what millions of EU citizens do every year and travel to the parts of Europe where they think they have the best chance of achieving that.

Standing in their way is a treaty known as the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they enter. When they first claim asylum, their fingerprints are taken and placed in a Europe-wide database: if a refugee is stopped in, say, Sweden, but the database shows that he first arrived in Italy, he can be sent back there. The Home Office told me that over 12,000 asylum-seekers have been removed from Britain under the Dublin Regulation since it came into force in 2003.

The system does not always work. In late September, a young Sudanese man con­tacted me on Skype. “Hassan” and I had first met in February, when he was living under a bridge by the canal that rings the centre of Calais. He spoke good English, and loved American R’n’B. “I don’t like hip-hop, I can’t understand the words,” he’d said. “Except Eminem. ‘Lose Yourself’, from 8 Mile? Beautiful. I go to the internet and read his lyrics and sometimes I think they’re to do with me.”

Hassan had a Twitter account, so we swapped details. But the account remained silent for months, and I had begun to wonder where he was. Had he become a casualty on the motorway outside Calais? Then one day in August, I saw a tweet: “Fuck the police! They ain’t shit but a legal gang.”

Hassan, now 23, had spent almost his whole adult life in Europe. When he was 18 and still living near Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, he was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a member of a rebel militia. It was a case of mistaken identity, he said, but the police put him under surveillance. He fled to Turkey on a false passport and then to Patras in Greece, where he claimed asylum. That was in 2009, the year after the global financial crash, an event that exposed profound inequalities between EU member states and sent hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens abroad in search of work. Hassan needed to work for a living, too, but he faced a double bind. First, the growth of racism in Greece had made daily life intolerable for him and other black immigrants, as they faced frequent harassment from the police and supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement. Second, Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system left refugees for years at a time with “temporary” iden­tification documents that gave them no right to travel.

In early 2014, Hassan decided he needed to get to Britain. He had cousins in Cardiff and he wanted to study to become a film director. At Patras, a port city that faces western Europe, he sneaked on to a ferry bound for Italy and hid beneath a lorry. To know which Italian port you’ll arrive at from Patras, you have to count the hours the journey takes: 24 hours and you are in Ancona; if it is 35 hours – as it was for Hassan – you have reached Venice. During the entire voyage he had to stay out of sight, scooping water from the floor when he got thirsty.

It was night when Hassan arrived at the port of Venice, which is some distance from the city itself. On the road in, police asked to see his documents. All Hassan had was his “pink paper”, the temporary document issued to refugees in Greece. The police could have arrested him but they chose not to: a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Greece detains refugees in inhumane conditions has led to most EU states suspending Dublin returns there. National courts also sometimes consider other economically struggling countries on the edges of the EU – Bulgaria, sometimes even Italy – unsuitable for returns. The deep inequalities within Europe have thrown the Dublin system into crisis.

After walking for several hours, Hassan reached the outskirts of Venice – an industrial sprawl built inland from the historic city – where he came across a Bangladeshi man. Hassan asked him for directions to the nearest mosque. He was tired, hungry and cold and had only €2 in his pocket. At the mosque he told the imam his story. Wait here, the imam said; after people have come to pray we will have a collection for you so you can buy a train ticket to Milan.

Italy’s second-largest city, Milan has become a hub for migrants who want to make clandestine journeys to northern Europe. It is a ten-hour drive to Berlin from there, or just eight to Paris. Syrian refugees here often try to reach Sweden or Germany, where they have a good chance of being granted asylum. Others with less certain claims might head for London, where they have heard there is work available on the black market. Milan is a multicultural city and a newly arrived migrant can find people from similar backgrounds who are willing to help. Europe’s police forces are aware of these underground networks: on 13 October, 25 EU states launched a two-week operation to round up, detain and deport “irregular” migrants and to gather intelligence on their methods of travel.

When Hassan reached Milan, he met an Eritrean man outside the train station who took him to a part of the city where other Sudanese people lived. He stayed there for five days until a relative was able to wire him money, then he caught a train to Ventimiglia, the last stop on the coastal line that leads into France. There has not been much of a border there since the Schengen Agreement, but in 2011 the French government temporarily blocked trains coming from Italy because of the number of undocumented migrants on them. When Hassan crossed, the border was open: he caught a train from Ventimiglia to Nice, and then Paris. After three days sleeping on top of the air vents outside a Métro station, he boarded another train, to Calais.

When we talked over Skype in late September, I asked Hassan what had happened during the months when we had lost contact. “I began getting tired of trying and failing to get into the UK,” he told me. Every time he hid under a lorry, it turned out to be going to the Netherlands. “The more you fail, the more upsetting it is to have to walk back to Calais in the morning.”

He was on the verge of giving up when a friend told him that refugees in Scandinavia were treated better than in Britain, and suggested he go there. He went back to Paris and paid a Sudanese contact €500 to drive him to Denmark. He was living in a refugee reception centre outside Copenhagen when we spoke, and was happy about where he had ended up. “They know we have come from struggles,” Hassan said, “and they don’t want us to be in our rooms all day on the internet. They teach us Danish; they really want us to learn the language.”

In early October I visited Augusta, a port on the east coast of Sicily. On the quayside, a yellow powder that stained the tarmac was swept upwards by the breeze, stinging my eyes. It was sulphur, a by-product of the oil refineries a few miles south from where I stood, watching people disembark from an Italian navy patrol boat and taking their first steps on European soil.

There were more than 100 of them: families with young children from Syria and Gaza; teenage boys and young men from Sudan; young women from Somalia. Some had only the clothes they were wearing, while others carried small bags of possessions. A few were so weak that they had to be carried off the boat. One Arab man strode down the metal walkway with a laptop briefcase as if he was on his way to the office.

Augusta is one of Italy’s major commercial ports. Its fate has long been linked with events in North Africa. In the past decade many European powers, including Britain, sought to strike deals with the oil-rich regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi, but Italy was the single biggest beneficiary. At one point a third of the country’s energy requirements were met by Libyan oil, much of which passed through ports such as Augusta. Other deals were struck, too: in 2008, under an agreement between Gaddafi and Italy’s then prime minister, Silvio Berlus­coni, Libya committed to halting the flow of migrants setting sail for Europe from its Mediterranean coast.

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, that deal has unravelled. Libya’s coast is now a major launching point for smuggler boats carrying migrants across the Mediterranean. The frequency of such crossings has increased as the world experiences its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. It is no longer possible to claim asylum at the overseas embassies of most European states, and the EU has been investing heavily in fences and surveillance at its land borders, which pushes more people to attempt journeys by sea.

Europe takes only a small proportion of the world’s refugees – some 86 per cent are hosted by developing countries, according to UNHCR – but the Mediterranean is the world’s most deadly route for migrants. More than 3,000 people drowned there last year. In October 2013, after one particularly deadly sinking off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, the Italian navy launched Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation to find migrants at sea and bring them to land at ports such as Augusta.

At the quayside, police officers wearing medical face masks and stab vests gave the signal to move. Nobody said much as we walked away from the water’s edge towards a white tent that offered shelter from the midday sun. The migrants, I later discovered, had been lost at sea for a week. Now, all you could hear was the slow tramp of feet over tarmac.

A man turned round to me and asked if I had any cigarettes. His name was El Haji, he said, from Darfur. “You’re from London? See you there,” he joked.

Already these people were being monitored and tracked by EU officials. Their final destinations would be determined by their wealth and their ability to negotiate Europe’s asylum system. Those with the money would pay €800 for a taxi ride from Sicily to Milan. Others would try to make their way up the Italian mainland in stages. Many would stay in Italy and chance their luck in a country with a weak economy, already struggling to accommodate the 150,000 or more refugees who had arrived on its shores this year.

First, though, they needed to be documented. Outside the white tent the refugees were told to sit on the floor, in the sun, as they waited to be registered and fingerprinted. Even in October, temperatures in Sicily can reach 30°. A Syrian man who had a baby boy strapped to his chest in a sling asked for some sunscreen but was told to wait. The heat got too much for him and he started walking unsteadily towards a medical tent run by Médecins sans Frontières. His wife walked with him, taking hold of their son. When the man was a few metres away from the tent, he took back his boy and held him, somewhat defiantly, for the last few paces. As he reached the doctors, they took his son and pointed towards a camp bed. He collapsed on to it.

The next day, I visited the old town in Augusta, at the end of a peninsula on the other side of the bay from the port. On a dusty road buckled by an earthquake that shook the town over a decade ago, I found an old school building that had been hurriedly pressed back into service to house children rescued from the sea without their parents. Under Italian law, adult refugees and their families can be put up at reception centres around the country, but unaccompanied minors must be looked after by the local council in the town where they arrive. About 4,000 of these minors, mainly boys, had passed through Augusta since the start of Mare Nostrum; nearly 3,000 were being looked after; the rest were unaccounted for.

There were several dozen teenage boys living at the school when I visited. Most came from West Africa; there were smaller groups from Egypt and Bangladesh. They slept on camp beds, ten to a room, and the building was left unsupervised in the evenings and at weekends. They got three meals a day, but no money, and spent much of their time wandering around the town, begging outside supermarket doorways. The people of Augusta were generous, if disturbed by the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their doorstep.

The boys pooled their money to buy cheap smartphones, and in the evenings, some of them would sit in a row on tiny primary-school chairs outside the school gates, trying to catch a wifi signal from the pizza shop opposite. They chatted on Facebook with friends and family back in their home countries, and posted photos of themselves pretending to buy expensive clothes and electronic goods in the shops on Augusta’s main street.

One of the boys, Ibrahim, was 17 and from Guinea, a poor country with rich natural resources including bauxite ore, the raw material for aluminium, without which modern travel – in trains, aeroplanes, lorries, boats and camper vans – would not be possible. First Ibrahim had gone to Senegal to study, but his parents couldn’t afford to keep paying for his education. Then he had tried to become a tailor and went to Mauritania to look for work. When that did not work out he went home again, and decided to set out for Libya. He’d never intended to come to Europe, but the chaos in Libya, where the assault and murder of black Africans has become commonplace, was such that he decided to flee. I asked Ibrahim whether he’d like to go back to Guinea. “Life there is not very stable, you know,” he said.

In October, Italy announced the end of Mare Nostrum. The intention was always that it would run for a year as an emergency programme, a stopgap until a rescue operation supported by all members of the EU could launch. But it is unclear whether the replacement operation will focus on saving lives, or on keeping boats out of European waters. The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others. 

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

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<![CDATA[The case of Eric Garner shows that cameras won’t stop police brutality of black people]]> The National Guard is withdrawing from Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson, who won’t face charges for killing Michael Brown, has resigned from the police force, saying he hopes this “will allow the community to heal”. Attorney General Eric Holder is working on a plan to end racial profiling. And President Barack Obama, looking to build “community trust” in police, requested $75m from Congress to help provide roughly 50,000 body cameras to state and local police departments. 

The assumption is that cameras are objective, silent witnesses that provide indisputable evidence, and also that people behave differently when they know a camera is capturing their actions. And the implication is that, had the shooting death of Michael Brown been recorded, we’d know exactly what happened – and justice would be served.

The case of Eric Garner should put an end to this fantasy. 

Video cameras are an old technology by now. They’ve been used to document police abuse against minorities at least since before Bull Connor, and since the days of Rodney King we have been able to see considerably more of the abuse, as cell phones and security cameras and dashboard cams keep track of encounters between the police and people of colour. And yet, police brutality of black people persists. The only difference is that we are more aware of it. 

After all, an amateur video did capture a white New York City police officer’s chokehold on Eric Garner earlier this year, and the camera’s presence changed neither the Garner’s fate nor that of the officer. Garner is dead, and a grand jury voted on Wednesday not to bring criminal charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.

On 17 July, 2014, as the video below shows, Garner was unarmed and standing on a sidewalk in Staten Island. Plain-clothed and uniformed officers interviewing him decided to arrest him. They knocked Garner to the ground and one officer put him in a chokehold. That officer then pivoted, putting his knee into Garner’s back while using his hands to push Garner’s head into the pavement. 

“I can’t breathe,” Garner wheezes from beneath the pile. “I can’t breath.”

“Once again,” the video’s narrator said, “police beating up on people. All he did was break up a fight. This shit is crazy.”

Before long, Garner was dead.

This video part of an archive of abuse that is vast and growingbut has failed to produce a more trusting environment or fairer justice system. 

Consider the video of Donrell Breaux, from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, confronted by a police officer in his comfortably middle-class home. “You’re scaring me,” Breaux says to the officer, and then pleads to a friend who’s filming the encounter, “Don’t leave with camera.” As the officer redoubles his efforts to handcuff Breaux and reaches behind his back, he becomes terrified. “What are you reaching for?” he asks, his voice trembling. “Please don’t shoot me!” 

As others have noted, there are hundreds of these videos on YouTube, some with millions of views. Advocates of police body cameras might enthuse over this collection, holding it up as proof that sunlight is a natural disinfectant. But it isn’t clear at all that the increasing ubiquity of cameras – or the massive circulation of such videoshas actually decreased the number of men and women of colour victimised by overly aggressive policing. 

But some of these videos do confirm that for people of colour, the court of last resort in this country is the one that delivers financial awards rather than verdicts. In the following clip, a black man is lying on the sidewalk when a white officer kicks him in the face. 

The man recording the incident from some 20 feet away shouts to the victim, “I got it all, G. I got the whole thing, bro,” while a female onlooker shouts, “You gonna get paid.” They assume, for good reason, that the cop won’t be punished by his police department or by a criminal court. Justice for the disenfranchised is reduced to a simple cash payout. 

Of course, these videos do more than simply provide convincing evidence for lawsuits. They show the willful resistance and inventiveness of poor and racially marginalised Americans. In settings that are emotionally charged and dangerous, ordinary people are acting as interpreters and recorders of historyof police brutality racism, yes, but also of our cops’ post-9/11 militarisation and depersonalised policing strategies. There are other cameras out theredispassionate security cameras and dashboard cams, and body cameras showing the police officer’s perspective – but witness videos are as close as we, the viewers, get to the victim’s perspective. While the cameras stop nothing, they do allow us to see. 

These videos are also a living document of an endemic problem in America, and taken together, they serve as a sort of public archive of black pain and suffering – a moral argument for humanity over hair-triggers. They’re also proof that something more than “healing” and “trust” will be required in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in so many other places in America. Viewed all together, they tell us that it is worth dwelling on the pain and the remorse and the anger, worth listening to Eric Garner’s plea for one more breath, and worth thinking about what a deeper, more permanent repair of our social fabric would look like. 

Matthew Pratt Guterl teaches at Brown University, and is the author of “Seeing Race in Modern America”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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<![CDATA[At the gates of power: how Marine Le Pen is unnerving the French establishment]]> On a rainy November morning, dockers from Calais are firing flares in protest against port job losses outside the regional council in Lille, the capital of France’s old industrial north. Inside the plush chamber, a tall, solidly built blonde woman in jeans and boots crooks a leg over her knee and flicks through a news magazine. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, which has 18 council seats, has dropped in from a day at the European Parliament in nearby Brussels, where the party has 23 MEPs. Le Pen looks bored as the councillors drone on about allocating €1.1bn of EU money to help revive the bleak economy of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

When her moment comes, she launches into a riff on the evils of the Union. EU funds just reinforce the dictatorship of Brussels and impoverish the downtrodden rural and small-town folk of the region, she says. “I have to remind people ad nauseam that this is not European money. It’s part of French taxpayers’ money that transits through Brussels with the rest going to pay for central and eastern Europe.” With that, the terror of the French political establishment picks up her papers, closes her beige wool jacket and slips out to a car for the drive back to Paris, missing the council’s splendid lunch. So it goes for Le Pen as she tills the fertile electoral soil of the north as the prelude to a run at the Élysée Palace in two years’ time.

France has been frightening itself with visions of a President Le Pen since 2002 when Jean-Marie, Marine’s father and the founder of the far-right Front, landed in the run-off for the presidency. He was roundly defeated by Jacques Chirac when voters rallied in a “republican front” to block the leader of a pariah party. Now, with his pugnacious daughter in charge of the family firm, the prospects of an anti-Front reflex are dimmer and Marine’s prospects look bright.

The country is in a foul mood. The sense of dispossession at the hands of a hostile world is feeding contempt for la France d’en haut – the governing caste. President François Hollande and his Parti Socialiste (PS) have been disowned by many of their disappointed voters, discredited by scandal and economic failure. Civil war is tearing apart the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the centre-right opposition whose leadership is about to be reclaimed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.

Marine Le Pen, 46, the youngest of the 86-year-old patriarch’s three daughters, is gliding above this desolate landscape, a protective, Joan of Arc-like warrior in the eyes of her followers. The blunt-spoken Le Pen fille remains divisive. More than six out of ten people do not trust her to run the country, according to an October poll. But she ranks as one of France’s most popular politicians, with a 46 per cent approval rating, after managing to shed much of the racist stigma that made her father unelectable since she became the party’s leader in 2011. After four decades as an uncivilised stain on the electoral landscape the revamped Front is on the brink of the mainstream. As Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, put it in a wake-up call to his bedraggled PS in September: “The Front National is at the gates of power.”

In the spring, the “de-demonised” Front won the biggest score of any party in the European elections and took control of a dozen electoral areas, including the towns of Béziers and Fréjus and the seventh arrondissement of Marseilles. It also won in Hénin-Beaumont, a run-down rust-belt town 20 miles south of Lille, which has become the shop window for Front administration and the base for Le Pen’s battle for the north.

Her plan goes like this. Under an Hollande reform, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, one of the 22 regions of metropolitan France, is to be merged next year with Picardy, creating a super-region of six million people under a planned shrinkage to 13 new administrations. The Front has long been popular in the north, which is at the top of its arc of strongholds extending south-east through Alsace-Lorraine to the Mediterranean coast. Le Pen won 23 per cent of the northern presidential vote in 2012 and came just behind Sarkozy. With its new creed of defending the dispossessed, the Front may manage to take Nord-Picardy in elections late next year and that would put Le Pen within credible reach of the Élysée in 2017.

This scenario is not wishful thinking. It was put to me by Le Pen’s chief local adversary. Daniel Percheron, the Socialist who has presided over the north for 14 years, thinks that Le Pen can win the super-region despite her part-time presence. “From that moment, we will be facing a presidential election of a new kind. She will have a new credibility, a legitimacy that has never existed for the far right in France,” Percheron said. A typical provincial baron, the 72-year-old senator sighed as he acknowledged Le Pen’s skill at winning over his own clientele. Old taboos against the far right have fallen, he said. “Left-wing voters are crossing the red line because they think that salvation from their plight is embodied by Madame Le Pen. They say ‘no’ to a world that seems hard, globalised, implacable. These are working-class people, pensioners, office workers who say, ‘We don’t want this capitalism and competition in a world where Europe is losing its leadership.’ ”

Le Pen, whom I have interviewed several times, going back to 2003, is amused by the left’s indignation over the way that she has broadened her attraction, softening the anti-immigration rhetoric and adding Socialist voters to the party’s hard-right faithful. When we last talked at length, in November 2013 in Le Carré, the party’s seat in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris, she mentioned that Charles de Gaulle – whom she admires – was accused of being both a fascist and a Bolshevik.

In her husky smoker’s voice (she quit tobacco two years ago and now vapotes with electronic cigarettes) she said: “France is neither on the right nor the left – it’s just France . . . I don’t have the feeling that I tell patriots on the left different things from what I say to patriots of the right.”

Physically imposing, caustic and never letting her guard drop, Le Pen is an uncanny chip off the old granite block as she expounds her harsh, France-first creed. The armour was already in place when I first visited her 11 years ago. Back then, she was the party’s young legal counsel and was being groomed by her father for leadership.

She became hardened early because, as a Le Pen, she was always an outsider, she told me. She was the “daughter of the monster”, as she put it, growing up in the comfort of Montretout, the mansion at Saint-Cloud bequeathed to her Breton-born father by a party supporter in the late 1970s. When she was eight, a bomb had destroyed the family flat and she had felt no sympathy from anyone. No one was arrested for the crime.

There were years of Jean-Marie’s constant absences, and humiliation as a teenager when Pierrette, her mother, posed naked for Playboy. That was an act of revenge in a feud with her husband after she walked out on him, abandoning her daughters to set up home with a journalist. During Marine’s twenties, there came the paternal banishment of Marie-Caroline, the eldest of the three Le Pen daughters, after her husband defected to Bruno Mégret, a Front lieutenant who mounted an abortive takeover of the movement.

The wayward Marie-Caroline has never been accepted back into the fold but Pierrette was given a home on the Montretout estate, in the same complex as Marine, and until recently she helped take care of Marine’s three teenage children.  Jean-Marie lives nearby with Jeanne-Marie (“Jany”), his second wife.

Le Pen scoffs at talk of a dynasty but she is the heiress to the family enterprise that sprang from the murky pool of nostalgists for Vichy France and French Algeria that Jean-Marie, a former troublemaking MP and paratrooper, hammered together in 1972.

And as Marine Le Pen enters middle age, a younger generation is now emerging, in the shape of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 24, one of the Front’s three MPs, who is the daughter of Yann, Marine’s second sister. Perky and articulate beyond her years, Marion is already a star. She is said to be closer to the patriarch than Marine because she shares her grandfather’s uncompromising beliefs, opposing gay marriage, for example, while Marine tolerates it.

Also helping keep power in the family is Louis Aliot, one of the party’s five vice-presidents, Marine’s domestic partner – and her paid assistant in the European Parliament. A rugby-playing lawyer and Front militant from Toulouse, Aliot got together with Le Pen after she divorced, first from Franck Chauffroy, a businessman, and then from Éric Lorio, a former Front official and councillor in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

The Front’s old guard dislike the way that she has “de-demonised” the party, down to details such as banning leather jackets and requiring blazers among the personnel. But Le Pen has imposed her authority since her election as party leader nearly four years ago and scored well in the 2012 presidential race. She has distanced herself from the father who still admires the wartime occupation and she disowns him openly when he reverts to the old sulphur, as he did this summer when he suggested that disease was a remedy for African immigration to France. “Monsieur Ebola can solve the problem in three months,” he said.

He has also taken issue with Marine’s plans for rebranding the party, with the aim of dropping the “Front” label, which conjures up brown shirts and stiff-armed salutes. “Only bankrupt companies change their names. That would be betraying the militants who built the movement,” Jean-Marie said this month.

Tension between father and daughter reached a peak in August after one of his dogs killed Arthemys, her cat, on the Montretout estate. She moved out with Aliot and her three children and they now live in a closed community in nearby La Celle Saint-Cloud.

Yet Le Pen père, who continues to stir trouble as the honorary Front president, is proud of the daughter whom he acknowledges neglecting as a child. “Marine is more shy, less warm, less sentimental than me, perhaps. She is my daughter all the same,” he told Serge Moati, a documentary-maker. “People have tried to break the tie between Marine and me but they don’t manage to.” His daughter has an independent mind but she is refusing to “follow the rule of killing the father”, he added.

A Parisian bourgeoise, child of the 1980s, Le Pen defends her father, though she has jettisoned his retro obsessions with the Second World War, the colonies and race that have landed him multiple court convictions for hate speech. On 20 November, the Paris Appeal Court fined him €5,000 for a pun it deemed a racist insult against the Roma. He had said that, “like birds, they steal naturally”. The French for steal (voler) is also the verb for “to fly”.

Yet, for all Marine Le Pen’s feminine stamp on dad’s nasty party, hostility to immigration remains her stock-in-trade. She has merely shifted the ground, focusing on radical Islam rather than race, lumping together the Muslim immigrant presence and the assault on the nation that is supposedly waged from Brussels by free trade. She says that France is finally waking up to the ruin wreaked by immigration, the euro and the removal of internal EU frontiers. The country needs to reclaim its monetary and territorial sovereignty, she told me.

“Before the total opening of frontiers with the EU, France was a trading nation and rather more so than today . . . From the moment that they put in place the convergence criteria for the euro, our exports collapsed and our imports collapsed. With control of our frontiers, we will just be like 95 per cent of the countries of the world.”

This goes down well in milieux where people would never have acknowledged sympathy for the old man. “Marine talks sense,” is a line you hear in suburban cafés and workplaces whenever the conversation gets around to la crise, the sense of decline that has hung over French life for decades. Saying “I’m with Marine” is easier than voicing admiration for the Front. Blurring lines, the daughter talks less of the Front than her Rassemblement Bleu Marine – “the navy blue rally”, a flag under which her candidates run in local election campaigns.

Middle-class sympathisers liken the FN movement to the US Republican Tea Party, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and the readership of the Daily Mail, yet she is not there yet. The old stigma dies hard. Farage has refused to ally his Ukip MEPs – the other big anti-EU bloc in Strasbourg – with Le Pen’s because of what he calls the Front’s racist DNA. The differences do not stop at the past. Le Pen’s lurch to anti-capitalist populism is the opposite of Farage’s freebooting market ideas. Les Anglo-Saxons are the adversary in the Le Pen universe, while Putin’s Russia is her favoured model. If only France had a patriotic leader who stood up for the nation like Vladimir, she says.

Farage’s rejection upsets Le Pen, but she makes no excuses for refusing to conform to the more civilised manner that, to some, can make him seem unthreatening. “I’ve had long talks with Nigel Farage,” she told me when she was still courting him. “But his Ukip is a young movement which is suffering the same strong demonisation that is applied to everyone that opposes the EU. He is not tough enough yet to resist the demonisation.”

Le Pen’s task is to turn her insurgency into a machine that could plausibly govern. She says she is ready to become prime minister in “cohabitation” with Hollande if he dissolves parliament and the Front wins a majority. She is alone among the party leaders in demanding dissolution, which she says is needed because the most unpopular administration in modern French history has lost public trust. She voices admiration for David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum on EU membership, and says that within six months a Prime Minister Le Pen would hold a vote to tell Brussels (as she put it in an interview with Europe 1 radio in October): “Either you reform and you give us back our sovereignty and independence over the currency, or I will propose that France leaves the Union.”

There is little chance of any such thing, given that Hollande has no need to call elections that would be suicidal, and that the Front would have little hope of winning because of the eliminating power of the two-round electoral system and the party’s thin structure. It would need to jump from three MPs to the 200 or so required to secure a working majority. But Le Pen is out to remedy the weakness. Where Jean-Marie never tried to move beyond a protest movement, she and her entourage in Nanterre are weaving networks of activists, anointing candidates, courting business leaders and senior civil servants and trying to win respectability with the thinking classes.

The work at ground level is being waged by Front stars such as Steeve Briois, a 42-year-old who triumphed in March in Hénin-Beaumont, Le Pen’s northern perch, winning the mayoral seat in the first electoral round. Few local people have a bad thing to say about Briois, who is greeted with cheers when he wanders the streets of red-brick terraces and drops in to the market square to chat like any French mayor.

“He’s a nice guy. La Fête de la Musique was great this year, thanks to Steeve,” said Dorothée, a shopkeeper, referring to the popular Midsummer Night party associated with the Socialists since the government invented it in the 1980s.

To clean up the town’s finances, which had been run into the ground by a sleaze-ridden PS council, Briois brought in as his deputy Jean-Richard Sulzer, 67, a Paris University economist and veteran Front policymaker. “It’s excellent being able to put our ideas into practice,” Sulzer told me. “It shows people we can run a clean shop.”

A long-time oddity in the academic world because of his Front role, Sulzer insisted that many colleagues are rallying to the cause. “A substantial number of teachers are going to vote for the Front. They won’t admit it. It’s a perfectly hidden vote but our network of intellectuals is spreading rapidly,” he said.

The party’s chief asset on the intellectual side is Florian Philippot, a 33-year-old who hails from the civil service elite and who is, in effect, Le Pen’s deputy. A disciple of de Gaulle – a figure abhorred by Jean-Marie and the old guard – Philippot is shaping Le Pen’s new doctrines of shoring up the welfare state and defending the poor.

The crossover from “brown to red” is vital for her fortunes. She is doing an excellent job capturing les petits blancs – the dispossessed white inhabitants of the suburbs and small towns – says Pascal Bruckner, a star essayist from the post-1968 era. “The genius of the Front is the way it has taken over the values abandoned by a left that converted to multiculturalism,” he said on television recently. The Front is offering old-fashioned certainties, a lurch back to the imagined golden age of the mid-20th century. This was the era of the “Trente Glorieuses”, the 30 years of growth that are the stuff of fashionable nostalgia, reflected in retro pop songs, comedies set in the 1960s and above all by Le Suicide français, a new, bestselling rant against the evils of modern France by Éric Zemmour, a right-wing essayist.

Le Pen is subliminally promising a return to this imagined golden age that ran up to the mid-1970s. She is forecasting a surge to 3-4 per cent economic growth simply from stopping immigration, slapping tariffs on imports and leaving the euro. Her contempt for Sarkozy, Hollande and what she calls the discredited political classes goes down well. “They have failed. They are bankrupt,” she told a radio phone-in in mid-November. “They didn’t react for decades when our sovereignty passed into the hands of the European Union and we became a vast playground for the multinationals.”

It is perhaps easy to be carried away by the spectre of President Marine. As implausible as it seemed until lately, the big parties are taking the prospect seriously. L’Express news magazine recently published a cover report explaining “Why the worst is possible”. It quoted Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, saying that her victory could no longer be excluded. It is expected that Le Pen will reach the run-off for the presidency in 2017. A recent Ifop poll showed her topping the vote or coming second to the UMP in a notional first-round presidential vote. In all hypotheses, she would relegate Hollande or any other Socialist to third place. Her most redoubtable adversary at the moment would be Alain Juppé, the UMP elder statesman, a former prime minister who is nearly 70. He is eclipsing Sarkozy’s attempted comeback, according to Ifop.

Yet it is unlikely that Le Pen will be able to pull it off. Some calm analysis comes from Jean-Yves Camus, an academic authority on the Front. “If her opponent in the second round is Sarkozy, he wins the match easily, and if it is Juppé or anyone else from the UMP, they will still beat Marine Le Pen,” Camus told me. We are back to the matter of the so-called anti-Le Pen Republican Front. “The question is, if a left-wing candidate reaches the second round, will UMP voters back the Socialist to block Le Pen?”

He thinks that, for all the sympathy on the right for Le Pen, they will flinch from putting her in the palace. “They may back the Front locally, but in a presidential election the question is whether it has the capacity to run the country. The Front does not have the elite necessary to take the controls of the state. It’s as simple as that.”

Le Pen has done a solid job harnessing the nation’s discontent, Camus agrees. “But it’s not very difficult, given the toxic atmosphere that reigns in French politics and the colossal errors being made by her opponents. Marine Le Pen has only to stay in her armchair and watch the news.” 

Charles Bremner is Europe editor of the Times

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<![CDATA[The First World War in Africa has been all but ignored – it’s time to remember it]]> The ceramic poppies commemorating the dead of the First World War are being removed from the Tower of London. Each of the 888,246 flowers represented a member of the British or Colonial armed forces killed during the conflict.

With British focus so firmly on the trench warfare for which the war is so rightly remembered, the other conflicts that made this a genuinely “world war” have received little, if any, attention. How many British school children have been instructed on how the Japanese fought alongside the Royal Navy, or captured German islands in the Pacific?

The war in Africa has also been all but ignored. Just how many of the vast sea of poppies at the Tower represented the contribution of the South African forces who died in the campaign to take the German colony of what is today Namibia? Yet the fighting in what was then German South-West Africa had major repercussions for the entire region.

In August 1914, just days after Britain declared war on Germany, the South African prime minister, Louis Botha, sent a telegram to London offering to assist the war effort. On the face of it this was an extraordinary decision. Botha had only signed his own peace treaty with Britain 12 years earlier, at the end of the Anglo-Boer war – the most costly conflict Britain had fought since the fight against Napoleon. Yet here this Boer war general was offering troops to his former imperial enemies.

By the end of August the first shots had been fired along the Orange River, the boundary between South Africa and Namibia. The conflict should have been a push-over. Germany had only 5,308 Schutztruppe – or protection forces – in the colony. South Africa’s newly formed Union Defence Force mobilised a force more than ten times this size – with over 67,000 men.

But the fighting the vast, desert terrain was intense.

The South Africans managed to lose the first confrontation. At the oasis of Sandfontein they ran into well-organised German forces who managed to force the ignominious surrender of the South African officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Grant.

Although no more than a setback, the battle for Sandfontein, just north of the Orange River, had major repercussions. Many Afrikaners were already deeply unhappy about supporting the British when the Germans had assisted then during the Boer war. Now they saw their opportunity.

Manie Maritz, in charge of troops in the Northern Cape, was ordered to mobilise his forces. But instead he contacted the Germans across the border and won their support for transforming South Africa into an independent Boer republic.

Other Afrikaner Generals joined the revolt. General Christiaan Beyers – the Commandant-General of the Union Defence Force – was among the rebels. “It is sad that the war is being waged against the ‘barbarism’ of the Germans,” Beyers wrote in September 1914. “We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.” His reference to the deaths of 26,000 Afrikaner women and children in the British concentration camps during the Boer war resonated with many of his people.

It took the Union forces until February 1915 to bring the rebellion to a halt. The rebels were treated with kid gloves: rather than being put before a firing squad for treason they were given prison sentences and soon released. Botha knew better than to turn them into martyrs. Despite this the rebellion left a permanent scar on the Afrikaner psyche, with many hard-liners continuing to blame Botha and his colleague General Jan Smuts for siding with the British.

The South African forces, once fully mobilised, soon dealt with the German troops and on 9 July 1915 they surrendered. Botha declared martial law and – leaving a strong garrison – returned to South Africa to plan the campaign in east Africa.

The Namibia campaign was, of course, only a side-show compared with the war in Flanders. But it threw up some fascinating elements, which have been highlighted in a new book by Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck.

These include:

  • The role of the one section of Namibia’s black community, the Basters, who raised a company of 176 men to protect their own area. When the Germans attempted to force their participation in the wider conflict they revolted, leading to clashes between the Schutztruppe and the Basters.
     
  • A company of black troops from the German colony of Cameroon helped guard prisoners and mounted patrols – sometimes riding oxen, since most horses had been requisitioned by white soldiers.
     
  • There were clashes along the Namibia-Angola border. Germany attempted so resupply its forces in Namibia overland via the Portuguese colony, but Portugal, in line with its treaty obligations with Britain dating back to 1386, intervened to halt the convoy. Fighting erupted, with skirmishes continuing until early 1915.
     

The longer-term fallout from the war transformed southern Africa. Namibia became a South African mandate territory, under the League of Nations. When the United Nations attempted to end this, Pretoria resisted and it was only in 1990 that the country finally gained its independence.

For South Africa the bad blood engendered by the Namibia campaign lingered on.

Resentment against Smuts, South African Prime Minister in 1919 and then again in 1939, was intense. General Smuts served in the Imperial cabinets during both World Wars, fuelling Afrikaner accusations that he had sold out to the British. It was among the reasons the National Party came to power in 1948, bringing with it the system of apartheid. 

“The First World War in Namibia, August 1914- July 1915” by Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck is published by Gondwana History in Namibia

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<![CDATA[Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism]]>

Small victory: Iraqi Shia militia celebrate their destruction of Isis-owned vehicles outside Tikrit, northern Iraq. Photo: Reuters

As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.

During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma (“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.

So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.

This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.

Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.

Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.

After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children; in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.

Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.

In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.

In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.

After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.

Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.

Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback; it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.

The road from Mecca: Saudi Arabia may be the only regional power capable of defeating IS. Photo: Bruno Hadjih/Anzenberger/Eyevine

In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey; in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world; this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.

The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity; the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.

IS may have overreached itself; its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun; to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity. 

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Bodley Head, £25)

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<![CDATA[Letter from Kosovo: disarray in the heart of the Balkans]]> Kosovo has been without a government since the inconclusive general election six months ago; yet the remarkable thing is how little difference this has made. The other remarkable thing is that the foreigners who exercise real influence here – the Americans, but also the EU – have held off from telling local people what to do, though that is starting to change.

The constitutional crisis hasn’t dented the realities: rampant corruption, a broken economy, plus an unsettling new factor, the rise of Islamic extremism. Not a happy record, 15 years after Kosovo broke away from Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and six years since independence.

The election left the previous ruling party, the PDK, with the most votes. It is led by Hashim Thaçi, a former head of the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army, often derided as a man from the villages who made good when the Americans made him their protégé after independence.

The PDK was outnumbered by a coalition of opposition parties, with another former army commander, Ramush Haradinaj, who leads the small AAK, emerging as their most likely prime ministerial candidate. Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga, was unable to resolve the impasse and referred it to the constitutional court. Now the US and British ambassadors are hinting that parliament should be reconvened; this could send Thaçi into opposition.

Jahjaga, Kosovo’s first female president, hasn’t come out of the crisis well but her standing was already compromised. When the US ambassador announced her appointment at a gathering of party leaders, no one had heard of her. But then, most people assumed the US and the EU would intervene. As Ardian Arifaj, Thaçi’s spokesman, told me: “Kosovars expect internationals to get involved . . . we interpret it as support and friendship.”

The question is, whether a new government could change things. Unemployment stands at 40 per cent. Cynicism is the default mode. When the son of the Speaker of parliament beat up a couple of policemen earlier this year because they had stopped him for speeding, he wasn’t arrested, but it made a mordantly funny sketch by the satirical TV production company Stupcat.

Corruption is rampant. A friend who works with an aid agency asked an official for help; she asked what was in it for her. “Lunch?” he volunteered. The privatisation programme, which began in 2002, is a scandal; it conspicuously benefited Thaçi’s friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist president: his son-in-law’s company won the electricity distribution contract for the knockdown price of €26m. The US company Bechtel has done rather well, too. As a result of its deal to build the nation’s roads, a kilometre of motorway costs way more in Kosovo than in France. As one insider observed, “I don’t mind Americans looking after their interests; I just wish we got a bit more out of it.” As for politicians, Arbana Xharra, editor-in-chief of the daily Zeri newspaper, says bluntly: “They have millions and only their salary. It’s so easy to read: they give government tenders to the companies that support them.”

Then there is Shik, a Mafia-style shadowy organisation, formerly the intelligence arm of the Kosovo Liberation Army, run by a deputy leader of the PDK. The US declared it defunct but Xharra says it is still powerful, using blackmail and manipulating contracts.

Naturally, the man who would be prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, wants change. “We have a derailed society,” he told me when we met at his offices in Pristina. Haradinaj is a physically active man, affable but tough-looking, which may be no bad thing. “We need to bring back a sense of direction and build a society that is based on the rule of law and the credibility of institutions. We should have a functioning state, a functioning society.” Trouble is, his party was found guilty of corruption in the local authorities it runs and a member of his party on the privatisation board was alleged to have taken bribes.

Haradinaj points out that this happened while he was at The Hague – where he faced, and was cleared of, war crimes. He argues that a change of government matters. “There’ll be change even if we don’t do as good as we think we will; we’ll disrupt the continuity.”

Eulex, the EU’s law-enforcement agency, oversees administration of law in Kosovo but this, too, is problematic. Eulex is being investigated by the EU for corruption and, more hair-raisingly, colluding in criminal activities (including assassinations) by Shik. Thaçi’s adviser Ardian Arifaj told me, “For the US, Kosovo is a success.” It makes you wonder: what does failure look like? 

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<![CDATA[Ferguson has reinforced racial fear and lethal stereotypes]]> The decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson with the unlawful shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown has reignited protests across the US. The judgment was met by violent outrage on the streets of Ferguson.

After months of deliberation, a grand jury ruled that there was “insufficient evidence” to convict Wilson of acting illegally. At the heart of the controversy is whether this incident was motivated by racism or the officer’s “reasonable fear” for his life. American law enforcement officials are permitted to use deadly force when their safety is perceived to be in mortal danger. Opponents charge, however, that this shooting had little to do with fear and everything to do with the unjust racial profiling by police.

These are not mutually exclusive. The public stereotyping of black American males still justifies the use of lethal force against them by authorities at increasingly alarming levels. And as long as racial fear can be used to justify that force, killings like that of Brown will continue.

Scare stories

Racial fearmongering has long been used to legitimise violence against African-Americans. Before the civil war, black slaves were commonly depicted as savages who needed to be tamed by the white race. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular, an image of blacks as sex-crazed threats to white moral decency was used to justify their lynching and the rise of white supremacist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

In today’s America, racial fear is most obviously manifest in the widely held stereotype of African-American males as dangerous criminals. The image of the “violent thug” terrorising the inner city and increasingly the suburbs remains a strong.

It is this fearful representation that has helped to legitimise the government’s war on drugs that has disproportionately targeted black communities and led to the incarceration of African-Americans at a staggeringly disproportionate rate.

It is not surprising, then, that police officers would “instinctually” have a heightened fear for their safety when confronted by a black suspect. This is not just their individual racism coming into play. Instead it is the result of years of social conditioning to see blacks as “dangerous”. In the words of one expert: “The fact of the matter is that whiteness presumes innocence and blackness presumes guilt, and you have to prove yourself otherwise.”

Lethal force

This purportedly “reasonable” fear of African-Americans makes them especially vulnerable to aggressive and often lethal policing tactics. These tactics are needed, police argue, to effectively deal with “thugs” whose lifestyle is supposedly defined by the use and celebration of violence. Otherwise innocuous fashion choices – hoodies and low-slung jeans – become coded as warnings that people should fear for their safety.

The infamous 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is a case in point.

Not surprisingly, the parents of Trayvon Martin have supported the Ferguson movement, saying publicly that the officer “should be held accountable” and even visiting the Brown family and protestors in Missouri.

Smear campaign

In the case of Ferguson, much has been made of the fact that the vast majority of the town’s police force is white, while the vast majority of its citizens are black. It’s also been reported that more than 90% of all arrests in Ferguson are of black people – despite evidence that they are less likely to be carrying contraband, for instance, than white citizens.

Tellingly, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the Ferguson police made an ill-planned attempt to depict Brown, who had just graduated from high school and was headed to college, as a “typically” dangerous black youth. They released a video showing him appearing to steal an item from a local shop where he briefly fought with the store owner.

The police were widely criticised for taking the time-honoured approach of demonising their black male victim as “dangerous” to imply he somehow “deserved” his violent end. And yet, the strategy has not only persisted; it’s been extended to the protesters now taking to the streets of Ferguson.

What started out as peaceful demonstrations in August 2014 soon turned violent when riot police armed with military-grade weapons began attacking the protesters.

According to an Amnesty report, police met protesters “using armored vehicles which are more commonly seen in a conflict zone rather than the streets of a suburban town in the United States”.

This echoed video footage of police taunting the crowd. One CNN video showed an officer saying to the protesters: “Bring it you fucking animals! Bring it!”

Some sections of mainstream US media, however, have largely blamed the protesters for the violence, depicting them as an angry black mob creating “chaos” who the authorities were acting appropriately in aggressively putting them down.

Equally, the Ferguson protesters made much of another example of the racial double-standard: a violent riot among mostly white individuals intoxicated after a “pumpkin fest” in New Hampshire, which was widely depicted as merely being “rowdy” and chaotic despite the fact that police used tear gas to shut it down.

Now, instead of talking to the media, the Ferguson protesters are increasingly relying on social media outlets to get their message out and present themselves as constructively fighting for justice. As one woman who went to the protests to observe what it was like for herself first hand, put it:

They (the media) totally took advantage of stereotypes about race and making any black person that shared emotion seem violent. They painted all these protests to be violent mobs of people terrorising, and that’s absolutely not the experience I had.

In response to the police’s racial stereotyping, a national twitter campaign has begun, with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

Black men in particular have used the feed as a forum to post everyday pictures of themselves next to ones that could be misused to portray them as “thugs” (for instance holding a fake gun at a costume party).

After the jury’s decision on November 24, the first concern of the authorities was to make sure the protesters didn’t engage in widespread violence. This masks the broader message being promoted by those in the movement, one they expressed in an open letter in the aftermath of the ruling:

This fight for the dignity of our people, for the importance of our lives, for the protection of our children is one that did not begin Michael’s murder and will not end with this announcement. The “system” you have told us to rely on has kept us on the margins of society … housed us in her worst homes, educated our children in her worst schools, locked up our men at disproportionate rates and shamed our women for receiving the support they need to be our mothers

To end this cycle of violence and preserve the dignity of black lives, we have to end the stereotype of the “dangerous” and “violent” black threat. Until then, as Ferguson has so tragically shown, American racism will continue to make the fear and killing of blacks seem “reasonable”.

Peter Bloom does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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