Novichok for the Soul

Jeremy Corbyn and the murder of the Russian spy

People with unpalatable opinions rarely broadcast them in all their glory to the world. Instead they obfuscate by making impossible demands for evidence; deflect with whatabouttery, and make false equivalences with vague references to historical wrongs. The casual observer can never glean their true motives and opinions without undertaking more than a little work.

George Galloway, for example, would rage eloquently against the mendacity and double standards of the capitalist West for the BBC’s cameras without ever disclosing his own rotten values in full. A well-meaning viewer with a casual interest in politics might easily have caught Galloway on Question Time in 2004, in the midst of one of his famous tirades on the hypocrisy of US foreign policy — as it suffocating Iran with sanctions while simultaneously lining the pockets of Saudi Arabia with oil money and gorging itelf on arms deals — and think, “the man’s got a point”. You had to dig a bit deeper to find Galloway’s fawning interviews with the holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Press TV, or personally slobbering over Saddam Hussein in his palace.

Those who have followed the career of Galloway’s old friend Jeremy Corbyn know that he too is a veteran of the same section of the hard left that spent a generation in the political wilderness before launching its successful conquest of the Labour Party two years ago. But where Galloway’s narcissism, bullying and outright enthusiasm for fascism eventually revealed him for the fraudulent crank he is, Corbyn’s total lack of ambition prior to 2015 and gentle, fuddy duddy demeanour have shielded him from the same level of exposure.

For those that have followed Corbyn’s career, his attitude towards foreign despots has always been a source of anxiety. While he has never entered the same realms of brazen dictator worship as Galloway (with the notable exception of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro), Corbyn’s tendency towards tyrants of a certain nature has always been one of limp indifference at best and sympathy bordering on admiration at worst.

Corbyn’s reaction to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal has shown him at his most troublingly — and publicly — equivocal over a dictator since he entered the spotlight of British politics. Since Theresa May confirmed her belief in Russian — and more specifically Vladimir Putin’s — culpability for the attack on Skripal, Corbyn has set to work busily debunking this logical conclusion with a level of conspiratorial scepticism and deflection that was once rarely seen in mainstream politics.

Corbyn has repeatedly cast doubt on “the evidence” that Russia and Putin were behind the attack, and, a week after May announced her conclusion, he still refuses to blame Moscow outright for commissioning it.

Corbyn claims to need “an absolute, definitive answer” on who supplied the novichok to murder Skripal before he rushes to judgment. But what grounds are there, really, for doubting Russian responsibility? Mr Skripal is a former spy and an enemy of the Russian state, who has been attacked with a chemical weapon created by the Soviet Union which is only realistically available to the Russian government. Russia has a history of similar attacks in Britain, and Vladimir Putin has a taste for ruthless displays of power and manufactured foreign threats — particularly at election time. Add to that the total absence of any other plausible explanation, and it is difficult to see how anyone could conclude that there was any reasonable doubt as to Russia’s guilt.

But this is apparently not enough to satisfy Corbyn. What would? Corbyn has remained vague and faintly ridiculous on this — absurdly suggesting that trustworthy Russia should be allowed to test the novichok used in order that they can confirm their culpability once and for all. The fact that Russia has already been given an opportunity to engage constructively with the UK, and has responded with contemptuous scorn and sarcasm, has apparently not swayed Corbyn from believing in the wisdom of this course of action.

Not content with this unmerited scepticism, Corbyn has also deflected attention away from Russia and Putin at every opportunity he has been given, either through the classic hard left tactic of raising the straw man of Western hypocrisy, or through simply talking about something similar but unrelated. Rather disgracefully, following Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour called into question the reliability of our own chemical weapons intelligence, making a not-so-subtle and totally specious comparison to the fabricated evidence used to justify entering the Iraq war. The fact that the two situations are not remotely analogous (for those seeking clarification: Russia attacked the UK; Iraq did not) would not deter him from, again, deliberately casting doubt on Russian responsibility.

Corbyn has also raised the two red herrings of war with Russia and Russian oligarchs. In an article for the Guardian, he urged the UK not to “slide into war” with Russia or to “create a division where none exists” before making more phoney calls for “dialogue”. The reality that in fact the only mainstream politicians mentioning war at all are Corbyn and his acolytes has not prevented him from using it as yet another way of deflecting attention away from the seriousness of the attack. Corbyn’s sudden interest in Russian oligarchs who stash their ill-gotten gains in London property is equally misleading: this is a good cause to raise at any time in Parliament except now, because whatever else they are guilty of (and that is a long list), “the oligarchs” are not responsible for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal — and if any are, then they are accessories to Putin and his inner circle.

What is so frustrating about Corbyn is his ability to disguise his conspiracism in the language of measured, calm rationalism. In isolation, his words seem reasonable. As with Galloway, the casual observer could easily be forgiven for hearing Corbyn’s measured calls for “caution” and “evidence”, his warnings against war and subtle references to previous government failures that seem superficially relevant but actually aren’t, and think “the man’s got a point”.

But if one takes any time to think about it, it is clear that Corbyn’s reactions have been anything but rational. For what rational person could reach the conclusion — on no evidence whatsoever — that “mafia-like groups” are as likely to have obtained novichok and used it to murder an enemy of the state as Putin and his government cronies are? What rational person responds to a deliberate chemical attack on British soil, that puts the lives of several British citizens at risk, with whatabouttery? What rational person sees the expulsion of some diplomats — in response to a chemical weapon attack — as a disproportionate act of war?

It takes some effort to see Corbyn’s comments for what they really are. Unlike Galloway, Corbyn does not scream conspiracy, he implies it. He does not directly voice support, or make open apologies for Putin, but he does his work for him when he casts doubt on clear evidence of his guilt and employs open apologists like Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray as advisers. His foggy and equivocal stance on Russia should not be compared with the Theresa May’s — instead it should be compared to the clear and unambiguous terms in which he (often justifiably) condemns the USA, calls for immediate sanctions on Saudi Arabia and Israel and slams the Tories on domestic policy.

This makes being a Corbyn critic hard work. The task of first researching and then explaining his history to those with better things to do is long and arduous. Corbyn and his supporters maintain a veneer of respectability that makes it difficult for people with only a passing interest in politics to understand their insidiousness. As his critics work themselves into a frenzy over the morsels they are given, latching on to his associations with terrorists, anti-Semites and fascists that no one can remember anymore, in a desperate attempt to persuade an apathetic public that actually his “failures to condemn” and the people he calls his friends MEAN something, the majority laugh them off as the cranks, rather than the mild, kind-bearded leader of the opposition.

Perhaps the Skripal episode will change people’s minds. But it probably won’t.

 

Photo source:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/the-hat-the-hat-the-hat-the-hattttttttt?utm_term=.wvPNBBZP7o#.ldYj44y5KD

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From Foucault to Corbyn: the Left’s sordid relationship with Iran

By Jack Staples-Butler

The Islamic Republic of Iran was born in a hostage crisis which has never really ceased. Since 1979, the Iranian regime has repeatedly employed the abduction and arbitrary arrest of foreign nationals, frequently targeting those with dual Iranian citizenship, as a matter of state policy. There are several interpretations as to the rationale. The most obvious is material cynicism; prisoners arrested on bogus charges of espionage are a source of bargaining power with the international community; Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband believes his wife was taken as leverage in Iran’s dispute with the UK over an arms deal dating back to the 1970s. Alternately, there is evidence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards have escalated the taking of foreign hostages as part of an internal power struggle with other parts of the regime. The most disturbing interpretation is one of the regime’s millenarian convictions; when Iran accuses Zaghari-Ratcliffe or hundreds of others of being CIA or Mossad agents, the charges are not entirely bogus fictions but sincerely-held delusions of a regime governed by thought disorder. It represents a disturbed pattern of thinking which has many sympathisers in the rich world. Any government that institutes ‘Death to America as an official public slogan can reasonably expect a little help from left-wing friends in the West.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was an early harbinger of what would later be dubbed the ‘regressive left’ or more fittingly, the ‘tyrannophile left; the emergence of a Western socialist left so desperate for allies against capitalism and liberalism that it saw embracing a neo-feudalist theocracy as a virtuous act. A regime led by a Supreme Leader and unchallengeable priesthood which executed trade unionists and social democrats by firing squad, hanged gay people from construction cranes and banned countless books and works of art became a cause célèbre for some of the most vaunted intellectuals and political figures on the left. Michel Foucault, the godfather of post-structuralist theory which has saturated academic departments since the 1980s, declared the mullahs of the Islamic Revolution could execute and torture whoever they liked, because Islam does not “have the same regime of truth as ours.” Foucault, the architect of queer theory now proverbially applauding the mass execution of gay men, was not alone. David Greason’s article ‘embracing death: the Western left and the Iranian revolution, 1978-83 covers much of this deeply unsettling ground, as do the themes of Paul Hollander’s recent book on ‘Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship‘.

Jeremy Corbyn’s hosting of a phone-in show on Iran’s state-controlled Press TV, a gig which netted him a total of £20,000, was not merely motivated by greed or vanity (the more likely motive for Alex Salmond taking a lavish new hosting job with Russia Today). Corbyn might have found presenting gigs or newspaper columns elsewhere; working for the anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist information arsenal of the Islamic Republic was just too appealing. George Galloway, a long-running presenter on the network, described the English-language propaganda channel Press TV as a “voice for the voiceless”. The voices of Iran’s political prisoners were unavailable for comment. Press TV’s website published lurid Jew-baiting editorials by Holocaust deniers before, during and after Corbyn, Galloway former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone were on their payroll – perhaps the network’s fixation on ‘Zionism’ earned Livingstone’s goodwill?.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-American journalist whose imprisonment, torture and false confession was facilitated by Press TV at the same time Corbyn was presenting his talk show. After Ofcom revoked Press TV’s right to broadcast on UK satellite and cable channels due to its involvement in Bahari’s torture, Corbyn continued his presenting gig for another six months. Bahari’s description of Western leftists, including Corbyn, Livingstone and Galloway, was of a new generation of “useful idiots”, adding:

“These are people who have a grudge against the US government or capitalism as a system, and as a result, they embrace whoever is against the American government. This means that sometimes they embrace regimes with atrocious human rights records like the one in Iran.”

Most British discussion of the imprisonment and maltreatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe this month has focused on the careless talk of the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and subsequently Michael Gove. However, a regressive myopia has affected discussion of the issue, wherein Johnson’s bungled response is believed to hold greater importance than a dictatorship’s policy of arbitrarily imprisoning and executing civilians using show-trials. The height of this disorder of accountability was the granting of an Observer editorial to none other than Jeremy Corbyn, who demanded Johnson’s resignation for, among other things, potentially condemning a British citizen imprisoned in Iran. The regime in Tehran has long proved it will domestically do what it wants, when it wants. Although Johnson’s words are now being quoted with delight on Press TV, the greater material prize for any propaganda channel is always the enthusiastic Western voices lining up to praise the regime. The selective myopia and amnesia of left-wing politician and their surrogates now attacking Johnson would be comical if not undercut by the sordidness of their own involvement with the Islamic Republic and its state media.

Celebrating a century of anti-totalitarianism

By Oscar Clarke

This year is the hundredth since the victory of the totalitarian idea in Russia. And there is little to be thankful for about the world that was called into being by Lenin a century ago. The Revolution promised salvation, and a large part of the European intelligentsia embraced it with a religious fervour. It produced leader-worship, famine and slavery, all the while hunting heretics with an assiduity which renders the Papal inquisition inappropriately tame as an historical comparison.

But there is, nevertheless, something to be celebrated in the sanguinary centenary of Bolshevism, which becomes apparent when I glance at my bookshelf. There I see Koestler, Serge, Borkenau and Silone, the four writers to whom Orwell referred when he coined the term “the concentration camp novel” to summarise the literature of nineteen thirties Europe. I also see Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, Sebastian Haffner and Victor Klemperer, Kanan Makiya and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. To wit, I see a whole genre of literature – anti-totalitarianism – that also got started in 1917, which produced some of the most indispensible works of the last century.

Had the Russian Civil War gone the other way, something doctrinally akin to Nazism might have emerged instead. For the White Russians, like Hitler, saw murdering Jews as a war aim. They were among the first true believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by which theory Bolshevism – like capitalism before it – was simply a tool in the Jewish plan for world domination. It was White Russian emigres who brought the conspiracy theory, in the early nineteen-twenties, to Germany, where they also introduced political murder: Vladimir Nabokov – father of the novelist of the same name – was shot three months before Walther Rathenau.

Following a fascist triumph in Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and the other old Bolsheviks would have emigrated instead, perhaps to Vienna, where they once fraternised in the same cafes as a destitute Hitler. But more likely to Germany, homeland of Marx, Hegel and capital H History, especially if the Revolution of 1919 had brought the Communists to power there.

Such a counterfactual history would make for an intriguing novel. The author might proceed through the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, trying to divine how the twentieth century would have been altered by a fascist Russia and a communist Germany. But when, to get a feel for his subject matter, he came to study the literature of the period, he would likely be met by a revelation: history might not have diverged much at all from its actual course. For fascism and communism were two sides of the same coin.

One source for this lesson, composed around the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, would have been Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. At the beginning of the novel, Rubashov, a victim of the Moscow trials, is having a nightmare about his arrest, years earlier, by the Gestapo. In the dream, he is awoken and forced to dress, but he can’t quite manage to do so, because his body is overcome by the paralysis which nightmares often afflict us with in their most fearful moments.

Meanwhile, two men are banging on his door. Only this time they are not there on Hitler’s behalf, but on Stalin’s. In the final moments of Rubashov’s dream, someone pulls a plug and he hears water running down the pipes behind the wall. He wakes and has time to recover his sense of irony as he observes the portrait of Stalin hanging above his bed, then Stalin’s men break through his door to play the same roles as the Gestapo men in the dream. This time, Rubashov is able to dress, but somebody pulls a plug and water comes cascading down the pipes behind his wall.

The two totalitarian regimes had become mirrors of one another. In the final semi-lucid moments of his life, at the end of the novel, this truth dawns upon Rubashov. After receiving a shot in the back of the neck, his dream recurs:

Outside, someone was knocking on the front door, he dreamed that they were coming to arrest him; but in what country was he?

Whose colour portrait was hanging over his bed and looking at him?

Was it No.1 or was it the other – he with ironic smile or he with the glassy gaze?

A shapeless figure bent over him, he smelt the fresh leather of the revolver belt; but what insignia did the figure wear on the sleeves and shoulder-straps of its uniform – and in whose name did it raise the dark pistol barrel?

The two totalitarianisms were not only united by their penchant for political liquidations, but by their attempts to submit truth to their dogmas. It was Franz Borkenau’s book, Spanish Cockpit, which was at the centre of the famous rift between Orwell and the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin. Borkenau had been an agent of the German Communist Party, but had left after learning the lesson that Orwell would learn in Spain: that Stalin was actually keen to prevent revolutions abroad (he preferred Hitlers and Francos). Orwell had been asked to review the book for the magazine, and he praised its honesty. But this honesty offended the Stalinist orthodoxy of the time. Martin rejected the review, explaining that “it implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong”.

In Orwell’s postscript to Homage to Catalonia, he wrote:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie… and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Spain had taught Orwell about the most frightening aspect of totalitarianism, its disavowal of the concept of truth. Just as, in Germany, truth was what Hitler thought and Goebbels announced, truth in British newspapers, in the name of solidarity with the Russian Revolution, was what Stalin decreed. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, co-founder and proprietor of the Left Book Club, and a conspicuous “fellow traveller”, rejected Homage to Catalonia.

In The Totalitarian Enemy, Borkenau compared Hitlerism and Stalinism explicitly. He picked up on a more obscure feature of totalitarianism, which will be familiar today to anyone who has spent any time perusing the English language magazine of the Islamic State, Dabiq, named in honour of the town where IS prophesy their victory in a final, apocalyptic battle with the unbelievers. This feature is messianism. With the revolutionary sects of the middle-ages, the anabaptists and the French revolutionaries, the totalitarianisms shared “the idea that some complete salvation could be worked on this earth through an accumulation of atrocities.”

Hitler actually talked of the Third Reich lasting for one thousand years, just as Revelations promises the millennial reign of Christ. Trotsky, meanwhile, posited that a “man of the future” would be born when the Revolution had completed its work. In his memoir, Victor Serge recorded the following exchange between a Stalinist and a left oppositionist, which demonstrated the callousness by which the believers in this future sought to attain it:

“you can’t make an omelette,” says the Stalinist, “without breaking eggs.”

“I see your broken eggs”, comes the reply, “now where is this omelette.”

In antiquity, Borkenau observed, “there is no evidence that there ever arose… the idea that spiritual or material salvation could be won through the destruction of all higher civilization by inspired fanatics.” In the history of the Judeo-Christian world, by contrast, this idea has recurred again and again. Another of the great foes of totalitarianism, Albert Camus, left his readers to consider that thought, by concluding his allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, The Plague, thus:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

 

Twenty-Five questions to Owen Jones on his conduct regarding Venezuela

By Jack Staples-Butler

“What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened… but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

– George Orwell, ‘Arthur Koestler – The Darkness at Noon’ – 1941

 

Hello Owen,

I hear you have finally broken your English-language silence of over 750 days on Venezuela. Some questions:

1) In 2008 Human Rights Watch was expelled from the country by force. Why didn’t you feel the need to mention this in any article you wrote?

2) Who paid for that ‘Election Observer’ trip you went on in 2012, and why was it not UN or EU-organised but one by Chavez-backed ‘UNASUR’?

3) Why did you consistently repeat Chavismo’s lofty claims about oil production, poverty rate etc despite many economists warning otherwise?

4) Why did you contribute to the demonisation of Venezuela’s opposition by repeating Chavismo propaganda tarring all with ‘CIA coup’ etc?

5) Did it ever cross your mind from 2012 onwards that Chavez referring to Kim Jong-il as a “comrade” he mourned might be a warning sign?

6) Did Chavez’s hero-worship of Fidel Castro and claims he wanted to turn Venezuela into ‘Venecuba’  ever cause you any concerns?

7) Did Chavez’s suppression of independent trade unions, social democratic parties and NGOs ever prick your conscience as a leftist?

8) Did Chavez’s hours-long rambling speeches which TV stations were forced to broadcast ever strike you as disturbing or suggest he was mad?

9) Did the fleeing of tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens to neighbouring countries strike you as odd or unsettling at all?

10) In your three years of writing praise and apologetics for Chavez, did you ever read any Human Rights Watch or Amnesty reports – at all?

11) Did you think it honest, decent and proper to take part in a propaganda tour in 2012 organised by the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.K.?

“… In addition to our Venezuelan guests plus Ambassador Samuel Moncada, a fantastic array of speakers includes: Owen Jones; Seumas Milne; Ken Livingstone; Esther Armenteros (Cuba); Alicia Castro (Argentina); Frances O’Grady (TUC) & Jeremy Corbyn MP.”

12) Did you ever tell people who went to those speaking events about the collectivos? Were you aware of the collectivos, Owen?

13) Did you support the Chavismo policy of taking street gangs, politically indoctrinating them then turning them loose with their guns?

14) Did you ever mention to your readers that Chavez was a 9/11 Truther, a Moon Landing hoaxer, and believed the CIA had given him cancer?

15) In other words, a psychologically disturbed crackpot whose spiritual successor is probably Donald Trump?

16) Did you think it ethical to propagandise on behalf of this regime, knowing as you did the history of the USSR and the Useful Idiots?

17) Given you mentioned the Useful Idiots and insisted you weren’t, did you read anything by Caracas Chronicles or a non-Chavismo NGO?

18) Do you feel any sense of moral responsibility for acting as an apologist and legitimiser for a regime now starving its people to death?

19) Do you feel any pangs of conscience? Do you feel a sense of remorse? Do you think of the people whose lives Chavismo has ruined?

20) Do you feel any obligation to your readers whom you spent 2012-15 misinforming about Venezuela only to then go silent on the subject?

21) Do you recognise that for your young and unworldly readers, you were their main source on Venezuela at the time? That they trusted you?

21) Did you stop talking about Venezuela in 2014-15 out of shame, guilt, embarrassment or just political expediency?

22) If yourself and Jeremy Corbyn had been listened to in 2012-15, the UK could now look like Venezuela. Why should you be listened to now?

23) Can you name a single Tory, Lib Dem or New Labour MP who said that Saudi Arabia was so amazing that it should be emulated in the UK?

24) Can you explain why you have deserted the subject of socialism in Venezuela and your ‘solidarity’ with it until forced to speak on it?

25) Finally, why did you live your life from 2015 onwards ‘as if’ nothing happened? As if you did not personally cheer on this catastrophe?

Those are my questions. Call me an Obsessive Angry Detractor if you want. Your right to self-righteous self-pity is now as bankrupt as Venezuela.

France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.

I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.

A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.

I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.

In the fight against extremism the Burkini is the wrong target

By Deanne DuKhan

Yet another incendiary issue is upon us, being hotly flung back and forth on social media, and predictably a common starting point for exchange is a straight flush of generalised assumptions. This debate, over the burkini ban, didn’t heat up because of the ban itself but in response to images of it being carried out -and indeed it wasn’t pretty. I am one of those who recoiled at the sight, but it didn’t take a photo to trigger unease over police being given a remit to force women to peel off long coverings if they wished to remain beachside. The thought had already given rise to questions and to visions of frankly ridiculous scenarios. Who, for instance, would distinguish between inappropriate ‘provocations’ and perfectly appropriate uses of long sleeves and scarves to protect, say, sensitive skin from the sun? It’s hard not to picture it: “Officers, I overdid it yesterday, I look like a boiled lobster, it’s just to keep me from blistering” – “Ah, ok Madame, as you were then, bonne journee”.  And off the cops go, looking for a legitimate misuse of cloth.

What a triumph over extremists this vision suggested. Imagine the fear instilled in them, looking at the reality, pictures of four police officers showing who’s boss, wielding zero tolerance for fabric. A sillier use of police time and resources in an area where a terror attack has recently occurred I feel hard pressed to find.

In search of a measured defence of the ban, to consider arguments supporting it, I came across this http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/france-right-ban-burkini/ in The Spectator, which effectively lists examples of incidents in France as illustration of a mounting problem in the form of Muslim fundamentalism. The author’s argument is that the more fundamentalist norms go unchallenged, the more their practitioners are emboldened to be intolerant of any other values. Nicolas Sarkozy gave us a similar argument, that the burkini should be outlawed in order to prevent an irreversible cementing of a growing sense of entitlement to impose fundamentalist practices on others. A confidence in warning targets of their choice to comply or face hostility and possibly aggression.

No one who isn’t a fanatic wants to see that outcome. And few would attempt to argue that the burka is not an instrument of oppression. So if France is indeed increasingly beset by fundamentalist vigilantes, looking to culturally embed the same powers over women they would expect in countries where the veil is required by law, is the ban not a fair line in the sand?

Before I attempt an answer, I should point out exactly why I feel even remotely well placed to do so. I know the French clash of cultures well. During high school I lived in Nanterre, then a delightful shithole of a place, a banlieue of Paris, where a passage through one of its three RER stations by a woman alone late at night will often instantly yield first-hand experience of the type of harassment the Spectator piece refers to.

My time there was in the late 80’s in case anyone feels a need to frame this as a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. It wasn’t my first experience of it either. Earlier I’d spent my childhood in the Israeli city of Bat Yam, another gem of a locale, still today awash in the undercurrent of a proprietary Middle Eastern brand of seething hatred for women who don’t know their place; and that was in the 70’s, when it was far worse, when people knew how to do a shithole properly.

As a lily-white girl from semi-rural Connecticut, wearing shorts when it was hot out, in places like the number 10 bus from Bat Yam to Jaffa, I was unusually conscious of how steeped in hostility to women the local culture was. There was a contrast from what I’d known back home that told me it didn’t happen everywhere. Not all of said hostility, by the way, was from Muslims. I found region to be more common a denominator than religion. There were plenty of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who treated all females with contempt, while some Muslims, and some Jews, would go further, approaching females with a sense not just of superior status, but of a kind of collective ownership. It was a view one encountered regularly.

There is nothing about a set of views that inevitably resulted in menacing harassment that is defensible. How regrettable it is to see the West be so passive and accepting of the mainstreaming of such behaviour in certain communities, missing opportunity after opportunity to build up Muslims and Middle Easterners who fight this from within, who promote legitimate religious practice and respect for equality of the sexes and for human rights. After all, no one should get special dispensation to not abide by the law, under any circumstances. And as for the burka, the idea that women should be treated as akin to cattle, to be subject to full control by men, is indisputably disgusting and enraging.

These are my views and my personal experience of men using cultural cover to subjugate and denigrate women. It’s intolerable.

But I find it difficult to conclude that the burkini ban is anything but a nonsense.

There have been thoughtful articles this week. We’ve heard the perspectives of feminists, conservative and reformist Muslims, liberals and secularists. We’ve even seen some rather grand invocations of laicite, the uniquely French iteration of secularism.

What is getting lost in this current conversation is what gets lost in a lot of public conversations about reactive policies, particularly those enacted in times of crisis. And they’re not secondary considerations:

  1. Direct cause and effect, in other words what the policy is actually meant to accomplish, and whether in practice, in situ, it will be even remotely effective in achieving its ends
  2. the implications for the people directly and tangibly affected; which in this case, is not those men who do impose the veil on the women in their lives, but the wearers themselves

Like a lot of other poorly conceived policies, instead of being precise and occupying a defined, critical space in a broader strategy, the ban is a clumsy, poorly targeted, blunt instrument. The ban’s highest value is in providing cover to nervous politicians who currently haven’t an inkling of how to confront a problem that they happily averted their gaze from for decades. It gives an animated, outraged public something to gnaw on until somebody comes up with something resembling a real, comprehensive plan of action. That in this instance the public is rightly animated and outraged, by both what has happened in their country and by the notion of ‘modesty’ dressing, does not make the policy response an appropriate one, never mind the most effective.

We’re not even getting our terms of reference right. For starters, the Burkini itself is not a version of a burka, which would cover the face and must be loose fitting. It can’t be seen as expression of, or adherence to, militant extremist views. To militant extremists a woman on a beach, mixing with men and women in various states of undress, is unthinkable.

Keeping the focus on the burkini specifically, surely the core question must be whether such costumes are worn voluntarily. If they are, it’s no use trying to argue that oppression or misogyny are the issues, because if they are, the ban wildly misses its mark. At the moment the simplistic proposition seems to be that all burkini wearing women around the world are either oppressed – forced to wear it, or, in choosing freely to wear it, too gullible, stupid or weak to think for themselves. To overcome generalisation, we must make a clearer distinction between environments where women do not have a choice, and those where they do, a French beach being an obvious case of the latter. A wearer there is not subject to laws and/or cultural penalties if she opts for a bikini or even to go topless. She may well face punishment from a husband or family or community, but in weighing a national law, it has to be in context of an environment where she is legally at least, free to choose.

The picture of oppression is not the conceptual monolith we tend to use for discussion. So-called modesty dressing is required for women in different forms by different means in different places. Even in those places where a burkini wearer is not doing so of her own free will, or is consciously complicit in promoting militancy, she is still at best an end user; the last, lowest cog in the well-developed, well-oiled machine of an ideology. Attacking her is a long, long way from attacking the machine or the fuel that’s driving it forward. In practice it only calls time on the options of individuals. It does nothing to strike at the heart of any promulgation of specific options nor the sources. As part of a comprehensive strategy, a ban could at least theoretically act as a step on a ladder or be significant in its symbolic representation. As a policy that is alone on an otherwise empty field of battle, however, it is in reality merely a case of police officers scanning beaches for too much clothing, and nothing more.

If we are meant to be rolling back a new variant of creeping cultural misogyny, an encroachment on civil rights through an expansion of extremism, where are the policies that that do have direct impact? What punishment, for example, awaits those who deny the women in their lives free choice? What are the penalties for harassment of girls and women? How strong is enforcement? In many cases these are so weak as to make religion-based coercion effectively legal.

It is fair to counter argue that the focus on the burkini is a focus on more than clothing, since in the West, ‘modesty’ dressing is the most visible, mainstream emblem of those branches of Islam that do not accept any equality of the sexes. But even if viewed as a straightforward, universal symbol of fundamentalism, extremism, militancy, or all three, a symbol is still all it is. Symbolism is all the burkini ban could ever successfully target. At a time when we are facing so many immediate threats we do not have the luxury of fighting proxies, we must take on the real thing. As long as we continue to misdirect our fire, the true agents and pathways of oppression emerge as unscathed as ever.