Friday 27 September 2013

Peshawar and Nairobi: the opposite of senseless

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar last Sunday, at least 80 Christian worshippers were killed in a double suicide attack on a church. It was reported to be the deadliest attack on Pakistan's Christians in the country's history.

The previous day, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, at least 67 people were killed in a mass attack on a shopping mall. The targets in the two cities: God and mammon. The attackers: Islamist fanatics whose ideology has no place for non-believers.

Two senseless and cowardly attacks, in the words of political leaders around the world. But those leaders are wrong: the attacks were neither senseless nor cowardly. I shall now attempt to explain why.

Take that word "cowardly" first. How on earth can you describe someone who embarks on a course of action that they know will end with their death as a coward? Cruel, vicious, merciless, I can think of a dozen adjectives to describe cold-blooded killers. But whatever else they were, in my book, to call them cowards is to misunderstand and mislead.

Senseless? I wish. Unfortunately, if your aim is to deepen divisions, to spread fear, and yes, to instil terror, the attacks in Peshawar and Nairobi do make perfect sense. So let's take the opposite approach to the one John Major took more than a decade ago when, in a reference to law-breakers, he said: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less."

Of course, condemnation of last weekend's attacks is the starting point. They were vile and unforgiveable. But if we are to have any hope of defeating those who were responsible, then surely to goodness, we need to make at least an attempt to understand what lies behind them as well as to condemn them.

Here's how I see it. First, disregard everything that was said by those who claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Taliban in Pakistan said the church attack was in response to US drone strikes which have killed innocent Pakistani civilians. In what way Peshawar's Christians can be held responsible for those strikes remains a mystery.

The al-Shabaab movement in Somalia said the shopping mall attack was in reponse to the Kenyan army's intervention in their country to defeat their insurgency. How Saturday afternoon shoppers in a glitzy mall can be held responsible for what the army is doing, again, remains an utter mystery.

So instead of wasting time on these self-serving lies, let's consider what the late Peter Ustinov wrote after the 9/11 attacks: "Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich." It's worth thinking about in the context of last weekend, because it fits uncomfortably well.

Poor, by the way, in this particular context, doesn't mean poor in the sense of being without food or shelter -- it means poor in military resources. The Taliban have no drones; the al-Shabaab have no tanks or planes. So they use what they have got: fighters prepared to die and to kill civilians without scruple.

The ideology of the jihadis has no place for dissent or difference. If you refuse to accept their vision of how things should be, your life is without value. The biggest threat to jihadism is the idea that we can live together regardless of our religious faith or ideological bent, that the life of each of us is of equal value. And jihadism flourishes best where the West is perceived to be using military might to subdue insurgencies with an Islamic hue. It's an easy enough equation, after all: "Your planes and drones kill us; our bombers kill you."

If I'm right, it follows that the best way to weaken the jihadis is to insist on not abandoning our own ideas about equality, justice and tolerance. So, perhaps understandably, but nonetheless regrettably, the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif got it exactly wrong when in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, he said: "We had proposed peace talks with the Taliban in good faith but . . . because of this attack, the government is unable to move forward with what it planned and envisaged."

What he should have said was: "We will not allow the killers to deflect us from our deeply-held belief that only by negotiating a solution to our differences can we hope to bring an end to violence on all sides and ensure that no more families have to grieve over the loss of their loved ones."

The trouble with abandoning even a nascent peace process after an atrocity is that it gives an automatic veto to the bombers. In South Africa in 1994, in the run-up to the elections that hammered a final nail into the coffin of apartheid, 30 people were killed during violent protests in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg. None of it derailed the elections.

Similarly in northern Ireland, where once the UK government and Sinn Fein had committed themselves to a peace process, they refused to allow bomb attacks or murders to deflect them from the path on which they had embarked. That, surely, is as it should be.

It is no coincidence that the Peshawar attack came just as some Taliban factions had agreed to start a talks process with the Pakistani government. Now that process has been abandoned even before it got off the ground, and that's why, from the point of view of the attackers, their murderous action was the opposite of senseless: it has had precisely the desired effect.

As for Nairobi, al-Shabaab wants the Kenyan government to conclude that remaining in Somalia is too costly, both in terms of political support and of civilian security, to continue. So the correct response from Nairobi would be to change nothing: don't pull out of Somalia, don't increase the military presence, just carry on as if there had been no attack.

And perhaps get a few senior ministers to visit ethnic Somali areas of Nairobi and Somali refugee camps with a simple message: "We will not allow this horrific attack to damage relations between our two peoples -- instead it will reinforce our determination to do everything we can to ensure that both you and we can live in peace and harmony."

I do not underestimate how hard it is for political leaders to react calmly in the face of mass killings of civilians. But if they are to have any hope of destroying the ideology from which these attacks stem, then a calm and measured response is exactly what is called for.

Friday 20 September 2013

You don't like the niqab? Get over it.

Give me one good reason why a woman shouldn't be allowed to cover her face in public if that's what she wants to do. You don't object to her covering her buttocks, do you, or her breasts? Do you find it offensive if a woman wears sunglasses? And anyway, what's it got to do with you?

Yes, I deliberately phrase the questions provocatively. I do so because I find the amount of cant that's been spoken and written on the subject of the "Muslim face veil" (note the first adjective, to which we shall return) frankly ridiculous.

Oh, and before you ask, yes, I do think this is an important issue, even though only a tiny, tiny number of women in Britain choose to wear the niqab, or face veil. It's important because it's about what kind of society Britain wants to be in the 21st century. There'll be other opportunities to return to Syria, Iran, Germany, and even the Lib Dems. This week, I want to write about women's faces.

Here goes. Reason one: "It's not acceptable for people to cover their faces in public so that they can't be recognised." Really? So should we ban men wearing hoodies or face-concealing crash helmets? Women wearing outsize sunglasses even in the pouring rain? Anyone wearing a face mask because they're scared of catching flu from someone on the bus? I think not.

Reason two: "It's a symbol of male oppression of women and often imposed on women by fathers and/or husbands as a means of control." Well, yes, sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't. Some women's fathers/husbands insist that they wear skirts below the knee, or long sleeves -- but is clothing choice really a matter for legislation? And if you argue that even when women choose to cover their faces of their own free will, it's only because they wish to avoid lascivious male attention -- well, isn't that why women cover their breasts?

Reason three: "It makes me feel uncomfortable because it's entirely alien to who we British are." Hmm. Who's "we" in that sentence, I wonder? We, the British Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill, where the women wear wigs and woollen stockings, and the men wear long frock coats, wide-brimmed hats and side-curls? We, the British Sikhs of Coventry or Leicester, who wear turbans? Or we, the British Catholic nuns who wear cowls and wimples? 

I'm old enough to remember the rows over whether Sikh bus conductors should be allowed to wear turbans instead of peaked caps, and whether Sikh motor-cyclists should be allowed to roar around the streets without crash helmets. I remember the debates over whether schoolgirls from Pakistani backgrounds should be allowed to wear trousers to school, or special swimming costumes for their swimming lessons. I thought we'd moved on, and that Britain had learned to accept that minorities have rights too.

Reason four: "It's important to be able to identify people, and you can't do that if you can't see their face." True, so in those circumstances -- in airports or police stations or court-rooms, for example -- where identities need to be checked, you can easily make arrangements to enable women with covered faces to reveal themselves in a private place. (We don't expect women travellers at airports to be body-checked by men, so if their wishes can be met, why not those of niqab-wearers?) 

As for teachers, doctors or nurses, or others whose jobs entail dealing with members of the public, if it's an issue, write it into their contract. The vast majority of Muslim women do not cover their faces, so I see no problem with religious discrimination legislation in saying: "You want to work as a teacher, or a doctor? Fine, no face veil." (By the way, even in ultra-strict Iran, contrary to mythology, women are not required to cover their faces.)

I find it intriguing that most of the people who sound off on this issue are men. Why do they feel so threatened by women who don't want their faces to be looked at? Why do they think it's any of their business? Personally, I'm not wildly keen on women with metal studs in their lips, or men whose low-hanging underwear reveals far more than I would ever wish to see -- but I wouldn't dream of banning items of clothing simply because I don't like them.

When a man says: "Women shouldn't be allowed to cover their faces in public", what I hear is: "I'm a man, and I have the right to tell you, a woman, how to dress." Sorry, not acceptable.

Ah yes, I nearly forgot. Muslim. It's that word again. The word that seems to be inextricably linked in so many people's minds to other words like extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism. So if the niqab is Muslim, then, in the blink of an eye, the women who wear it must be extremists, fundamentalists or terrorists.

No, actually. Most of them are simply women who, for reasons of their own, whether good or bad, have decided to cover their faces. Would I be happy if my daughter wore a niqab? No, I wouldn't -- but then what I want her to wear has rarely been a major factor in her thinking. Nor should it be.

Because what other people choose to wear is nothing to do with me, or with you. You don't like the niqab? Get over it.

Friday 13 September 2013

Why "don't know" is not a good look in a crisis

I used to argue that it would make a welcome change if -- just occasionally -- politicians answered a question with the words: "I don't know." I didn't expect the President of the United States to take me seriously.

Should the US launch a military strike against Syria? Obama: Don't know. Is Russia serious in its chemical weapons initiative? Don't know. What's President Assad up to? Not a clue.

There's a part of me that welcomes such refreshing candour. But to be honest, it's only a very small part of me. For the most part, I bury my head in my hands when the leader of the most powerful nation (yes, still) wears his indecision on his sleeve and displays his anguish for all to see.

I'm delighted that President Obama is a reluctant warrior. I celebrate his evident distaste for waging war. (Mind you, I'd celebrate even more if he were a little less trigger-happy when it comes to authorising drones strikes …)

But is anguish-on-display what we really need from our political leaders? In the words of the commentator Dana Milbank of the Washington Post: "The [Obama] administration’s frequent shifts convey the feeling that it is a spectator observing world affairs … it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters."

That is not a good look for an administration that hopes to be taken seriously. "Leading from behind" is all very well -- but it still entails at least a modicum of leadership. To me, the message from Washington sounds very much like: "Someone else decide. We're staying home."

As it happens, President Obama isn't the only anti-leadership leader on the global stage these days. Barack, meet Angela -- she's the most powerful politician in Europe, but oh, how she wishes she weren't. You know the feeling …

It's a funny thing, but for decades people have been complaining about these two powerful nations throwing their weight around, imposing their will on the less powerful, ruthlessly pursuing their narrow national interests without regard for the welfare of others. For a large chunk of the 20th century, Europe lived in fear of an over-mighty Germany. Much of the rest of the world (south-east Asia, central and south America) feared Uncle Sam.

And now? Cries from all sides: where's German leadership to save us from euro-catastrophe? Where's Washington when we need a world policeman to save us from tyrants intent on slaughtering their own people? The Germans are going to the polls in 10 days' time, and apparently vegetarianism is a bigger election issue than Syria.

A senior diplomat once told me that in order to get any agreement on effective international action, you always need at least one determined political leader prepared to go out in front and argue, cajole and twist arms. In Kosovo, it was Tony Blair. In Afghanistan and Iraq, George W Bush. The banking crash, Gordon Brown (yes, really). In Libya, Nicolas Sarkozy. In Syria -- no one.

And for good reason, of course: lessons have been learned. Previous interventions have not all been stunning successes (I hope you appreciate my oh-so-British understatement). In the light of the Afghanistan-Iraq-Libya experiences, it's only too likely that international military action in Syria will make things even worse than they already are. So three cheers for reluctant warriors.

But we reached some kind of nadir this week, didn't we, when the US secretary of state John Kerry was reduced to threatening an "unbelievably small" strike against Syria, if and when it came. It was like a school bully saying: "I'm going to hit you, but don't worry, it won't hurt."

As you'll have gathered, I'm very much in favour of reluctant warriors. And I'm instinctively suspicious of those who call for more "strong leaders". (The strongest leader on the global stage at the moment -- or at least the leader who goes to the greatest lengths to portray himself as strong -- is Vladimir Putin, and I'm not sure he's necessarily a force for good.)

Yet we still live in the shadow of the Halabja massacre of 1988, when Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurds, and the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Was it right for the rest of us to stand to one side and do nothing, even as up to 5,000 people in Halabja and an estimated 800,000 in Rwanda were slaughtered? Are there no horrors so great that there is a moral imperative to intervene?  As for the argument that we must look after our own interests first, well, ignoring the horrors of Taliban rule in Afghanistan led directly to 9/11 …

So I've decided that "don't know" is not a good response in times of grave international crisis. I would much prefer it if Mr Obama did his agonising behind closed doors, rather than provoke raucous laughter from the Presidential palace in Damascus.

And I would really, really like it if he made a serious effort to engage with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who may just be the best chance there is in the region for a new start. If Mr Obama wants to get back on the front foot, how about a dramatic invitation to Tehran: "Let's meet, face to face, any place, any time, no conditions …" Now that really could make a difference, unlike the Russian chemical weapons initiative which I fear will go precisely nowhere. (Even so, it's definitely worth reading President Putin's piece in yesterday's New York Times.)

A final thought from the Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash, writing in yesterday's Guardian: "To the many critics and downright enemies of the US in Europe and across the globe, I say only this: if you didn't like that old world in which the US regularly intervened, just see how you like the new one in which it does not."