In the UK in recent weeks, the abortion issue has flared up again, thanks to the call by Women’s Minister Maria Miller to lower the legal time-limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks after the start of pregnancy; the statement of the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that he favours a limit of 12 weeks; and the surprise article in the Huffington Post by Mehdi Hasan, former political editor of the flagship left-wing periodical New Statesman, arguing that being ‘pro-life’ does not prevent him from being left-wing.
As an atheist from a left-wing background, my ‘pro-choice’ loyalties were once clear. But as on so many other issues, greater learning and personal experience have forced me to reevaluate my position on this one as well. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has seen pictures or ultrasound scans of even 12-week-old fetuses can be quite so categorical that they are not little human beings, rather than just disposable ‘clumps of cells’. This does not invalidate the contemporary feminist call for women to have control over their reproduction and be spared the horrors of backstreet abortions. But it does require some reconciling of the rights of adult women vis-a-vis those of unborn babies. As the pro-life feminist writer Rachel MacNair has written, ‘There should not be a conflict between women and unborn children. The rights of both must be asserted against a society that is cruel to both.’
Unfortunately, while ‘pro-life’ groups and websites do frequently address the issue of women’s rights and interests – albeit from a standpoint that is sometimes a bit too right-wing or religious for my own taste – ‘pro-choice’ writers in liberal publications such as The Guardian remain brutally categorical in their refusal to recognise the humanity of unborn children. Yet there are reasons why hardline ‘pro-choice’ advocacy clashes with genuine liberal and, indeed, feminist values.
To begin with, abortion is a practice that is quite literally used to exterminate large numbers of female human beings, forming a central element in what is known as ‘gendercide’. In China, as many as 9 million abortions, possibly as many as 13 million, are carried out every year. These abortions disproportionately target baby girls. According to the website All Girls Allowed, which campaigns against China’s One Child Policy, there are 120 boys born in China today for every 100 girls. The One Child Policy, combined with the traditional preference for boys over girls, ensures the mass killing of baby girl fetuses through abortion, resulting in a vast gender imbalance in favour of men over women. According to the same source, in 2005 there were 32 million more men than women under 20 in China. Abortion is not the only reason for this imbalance; outright infanticide, too, is practised. Thus, in China’s Liaoning province, a newborn baby girl was discovered this summer in a plastic bag in a rubbish bin – her throat cut, but still alive. Sometimes the border between abortion and infanticide in China is a fine one: ‘In other cases, midwives have been reported to deliver “stillborn” girls by strangling the female infant with the umbilical cord as she is delivered.’
In terms of the legal time-limit for abortion, China is more ‘liberal’ than the UK, and abortions are legally allowed up to twenty-eight weeks after the start of pregnancy – and frequently performed later than this. This is not, it should be said, always on the basis of the ‘woman’s right to choose’ – woman are frequently forced to undergo involuntary late-term abortions, as was the case for Feng Jianmei, who was abducted earlier this year by family planning officials seeking to uphold the One Child Policy. Dragged bodily to a hospital, she was physically restrained while she received an injection to kill her seven-month-old fetus. Feng describes how she was held down while ‘I could feel the baby jumping around inside me, but then she went still’. The baby’s corpse was then left on the bed next to Feng, for her family to dispose of.
India, China’s fellow misogynistic giant, is developing a similar gender imbalance, as girls and women are killed through a combination of sex-selective abortion, infanticide and bride-murder – prompted largely by the expense of providing dowries for daughters, or by the failure of families to pay them. A bride whose family fails to pay her dowry may be tortured or murdered; even burned to death by her in-laws. According to women’s right’s activist Ruchira Gupta, ’It’s the obliteration of a whole class, race, of human beings. It’s half the population of India’. One woman, who was punished by her family for giving birth to girls instead of boys, and forced repeatedly to undergo abortions, describes her experience: ‘Kulwant still has vivid memories of the first abortion. “The baby was nearly five months old. She was beautiful. I miss her, and the others we killed,” she says, breaking down, wiping away her tears. Until her son was born, Kulwant’s daily life consisted of beatings and abuse from her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Once, she says, they even attempted to set her on fire. ”They were angry. They didn’t want girls in the family. They wanted boys so they could get fat dowries,” she says.’
Every year in India, as many as 11 million abortions are carried out and as many as 20,000 women die every year from complications arising from the procedure. Female fetuses are fed to dogs by doctors. On one recent occasion, children were found playing with a five-month-old female fetus they had found in a rubbish dump and mistaken for a doll. All of which makes very prescient the question once posed, in relation to abortion, by the veteran US suffragist Alice Paul (1885-1977), who had previously played a decisive role in securing the right to vote for American women in 1920: ‘How can one protect and help women by killing them as babies ?’ (quoted in Angela Kennedy, ed., Swimming against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion, Open Air, 1977, p. 23).
In the poorer and more rural parts of India, unwanted children are often dealt with without the restraint of pesky conservative time limits for abortion, through the practice of infanticide after birth. According to one account: ‘Largely it is women—the mothers themselves, midwives, mothers-in-law or paternal grandmothers—who preside over the murders, sometimes with the stoic indifference of pagan goddesses, at other times with the limp desperation of sacrificial victims. They talk about the intolerable shame of not having produced a son or the unbearable future of daughters and they push the rice grain into the baby’s windpipe, or shake it until its neck snaps, or drown it in a bucket of water.’ Liberals in the West would probably lament the tragedy of Indian women being forced to behave in this way, not celebrate their ability to do so as a sign of emancipation. But we would be hypocritical, for our own system for getting rid of unwanted babies is merely more moderate, not fundamentally different, and we have not liberated women from the huge economic and social pressures that lead them to engage in it.
Thus, here in the UK, we have not succeeded in making unwanted pregnancy less terrifying for many women. We have not removed the stigma or shame from unwanted pregnancy. We have not provided enforceable guarantees that women’s careers will not suffer from having children. We certainly have not provided working women with proper childcare provisions. In short, we have not pressed society to adapt to support pregnant women and mothers. Instead, the pressure is on women to stifle their reproductive powers and maternal instincts, and for unborn babies to be stifled altogether, more or less literally – nearly 200,000 abortions are performed in the UK each year. This is spoken of in terms of the ‘women’s right to choose’. It is a moot point just how much ‘choice’ a British woman struggling to support existing children on a limited income, with an unsupportive family and non-existent male partner, really has.
One of the consequences of portraying abortion in terms of a ‘woman’s right to choose’ is that it absolves fathers of any responsibility for unwanted children. Without legalised abortion, an unwanted child is the responsibility of the man who impregnated the woman, as much as of the woman herself. With legalised abortion, the man may feel that it was solely the woman’s ‘choice’ to proceed with the pregnancy, and feel no compulsion to support her motherhood. Or he may feel he is legally entitled to pressurise her into having an abortion. Catherine Spencer has written of her guilt and remorse in allowing pressure from her partner and fear of single motherhood to lead her to seek a termination: ‘I am a woman who had an abortion after intense pressure from my partner. In other words, there was an unborn child – or if that word seems too emotive, too shocking, a potential child – and the parents of that child, or potential child took a decision for it to die… As I write, the “understanding” and the rationalizations are back in place and I once more feel the compassion for myself that I have trained myself to feel. Yet somewhere within, beyond the reach of my rational mind, the sense of horror continues unabated and is apt to resurface.’ (Catherine Spencer, ‘Obstinate Questionings: An Experience of Abortion’, in Kennedy, Swimming against the Tide, pp. 96-97).
There is no straightforward correlation between the legal ‘right’ of women and girls to do things and their emancipation; we need only think of the ‘right’ to marry a man who is already married, or the ‘right’ to marry a much older man while still in one’s early teens – ‘rights’ that are available to women in some non-Western countries. Nor do we necessarily view ‘the right of women to control their own bodies’ as reflecting their emancipation. For example, the ‘right’ to have breast implants; the ‘right’ to starve oneself half to death in order to pursue a career as a model; the ‘right’ to sleep with men in exchange for money. The French porn star Lolo Ferrari controlled her own body by having such huge breast implants that they prevented her from breathing properly, which helped her career but possibly contributed to her death at the age of thirty-seven, as Germaine Greer has written. Generally speaking, the ‘right’ of women to undergo brutal, frequently traumatic and potentially harmful surgical procedures that are medically unnecessary is not seen as indicative of their emancipation.
Abortion is, therefore, something of an anomaly for liberals and feminists. Yet it was not always so: up until about the 1960s, feminist opinion predominantly saw abortion in negative terms, from Britain’s Mary Wollstonecroft and Sylvia Pankhurst to the US’s Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. In the words of the left-wing suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), ‘It is grievous indeed that the social collectivity should feel itself obliged to assist in so ugly an expedient as abortion in order to mitigate its crudest evils. The true mission of society is to provide the conditions, legal, moral, economic and obstetric, which will assure happy and successful motherhood.’
Feminist supporters of female reproductive freedom championed contraception as an alternative to abortion. In the words of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of Planned Parenthood in the US, ‘While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization… If the laws against imparting knowledge of scientific birth control were repealed, nearly all of the 1,000,000 or 2,000,000 women who undergo abortions in the United States each year would escape the agony of the surgeon’s instruments and the long trail of disease, suffering and death which so often follows… For contraceptive measures are important weapons in the fight against abortion.’ According to Marie Stopes (1880-1958), the British pioneer of contraception, ‘The desolate effects of abortion and attempted abortion can only be exterminated by a sound knowledge of the control of conception. In this my message coincides with that of all the Churches in condemning utterly the taking of even an embryonic life.’ (Marie Carmichael Stopes, Wise Parenthood: The treatise on birth control for married people – a practical sequel to Married Love, 8th ed., Putnam, London, 1922, p. 10). It is ironic that both Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes International are today major providers of abortion.
As indicated above, sex-selective abortions in India and China are used overwhelmingly to kill baby girls. Yet even in these brutally anti-woman, pro-abortion societies, sex-selective abortions are formally illegal. In the UK, which does not suffer such a gender imbalance, they are similarly not permitted. Somehow, the callousness with which Western liberal opinion treats unborn life does not quite extend to supporting the right to abort a baby just because it is a girl and the parents wanted a boy, though if one really believes that a fetus is just a clump of cells and that all that matters is the mother’s right to choose, it is unclear why not.
Yet if we do not deliberately target girls for extermination through abortion, there is another underprivileged group we most certainly do target: the disabled. Here in the UK, the overwhelming majority of unborn babies screened as having Down’s syndrome, spina bifida or cerebral palsy are aborted. British law discriminates against unborn disabled babies, whose lives can be legally terminated beyond the normal 24-week limit and all the way up to birth – even if their ‘abnormality’ is very minor. A decade ago, the Reverend Joanna Jepson, a woman born with a deformed jaw and whose brother has Down’s syndrome, sought justice for a 28-week-old fetus who was aborted because it had a cleft palate; a baby that could have been born, grown up, gone to university and had a career and a sex life, instead had its life ended, because it had a minor deformity that could have been easily corrected by surgery. In Jepson’s words: ‘This law needs to be tightened, it isn’t right that babies lose their lives for trivial reasons.’ Yet instead of improving our society to give due respect and freedom for disabled people, we usually kill them before they are born. This is the same Britain that indulged in an orgy of self-satisfaction this summer over our Paralympic Games.
Image: Mandeville probably would not have survived his mother’s pregnancy in the UK.
In sum, abortion is a tragic symptom of society’s failure to support mothers, babies, the disabled and the poor. Criminalisation is not the answer; as a general rule, women who seek abortions should not be judged, let alone put in a position where they feel compelled to break the law. A gradual solution may perhaps be sought through better education about sex, reproduction and ethics, and social improvements for pregnant women and mothers. But this will not happen so long as liberal opinion views abortion as reflecting women’s emancipation, rather than the incompleteness of their emancipation.
I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.
1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.
Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.
2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.
For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.
3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.
For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.
4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.
The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.
5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.
All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World - that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !
6. Independence for South Sudan.
What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.
7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.
8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.
At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.
9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.
10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.
Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.
Happy New Year !
The Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik appears very interested in the Balkans. A lot of space in his ponderous 1,518-page ‘manifesto’ is devoted to discussing Balkan themes. This is not limited merely to praising Radovan Karadzic (‘for his efforts to rid Serbia of Islam he will always be remembered as an honourable Crusader and a European war hero’), supporting the past Serb ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Albanians, condemning Kosovo’s independence and demanding that all Bosniaks and Muslim Albanians be deported from Europe (while the Muslim Turkish populations of Cyprus and western Anatolia are to be deported to central Anatolia). It involves also lengthy ruminations on hundreds of years of Ottoman and Turkish history, in which Breivik demonises all aspects of the Ottoman heritage.
Some commentators have argued that this psychopathic mass-murderer represents such an exceptional case that his actual beliefs are irrelevant to understanding his actions. According to Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, ‘The Norwegian tragedy is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so. A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics.’ As a rule, Jenkins is absolutely wrong about everything, and this is no exception. Breivik represents the exemplar of an extremely dangerous trend in Western and European politics, and his interest in the Balkans – or rather, in his own mythologised narrative of Balkan history – flows naturally from this.
Breivik’s actions are exceptional, but his views are not. His views on Islam and on immigration are in some important respects typical of the right-wing Islamophobic current, some of whose prominent members and groups he cites or sympathises with in his manifesto: Geert Wilders, Robert Spencer, Melanie Phillips, Srdja Trifkovic, Mark Steyn, the English Defence League (EDL) and others. He sees immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, coupled with liberal multiculturalism and political correctness, as a mortal threat to European or Western society. Such views are often justified by their holders as being ‘pro-Western’, whereby ‘the West’ is counterposed to ‘Islam’, as if the two were binary opposites. In reality, the very opposite is true: modern European civilisation was built upon foundations that were Islamic as well as Christian, Jewish, pagan and others. The Enlightenment gave rise to a Europe in which the sectarian religious animosities that characterised the pre-Enlightenment age could be transcended; modern Western liberal and secular values are founded upon the principle of religious toleration.
Far from being ‘pro-Western’; our contemporary right-wing Islamophobes, in seeking to rekindle the religious divide between Christians and Muslims that characterised pre-Enlightenment Europe, reject Western values in favour of pre-Western values. During their successful Vienna War of 1683-1699 against the Ottoman Empire, Austrian Habsburg forces slaughtered, plundered, expelled or forcibly converted to Christianity the Muslim population of the Hungarian and Croatian territories they reconquered, which were forcibly de-Islamised; the Austrians burned the Ottoman Bosnian city of Sarajevo to the ground. The subsequent Ottoman Bosnian victory over Habsburg forces in the Battle of Banja Luka of 1737 saved the Bosnian Muslims from their destruction as a people that an Austrian conquest of Bosnia would have involved. Yet when the Austrian Habsburgs did finally succeed in occupying Sarajevo and Bosnia in 1878, they protected the Muslim population and respected the Islamic religion. Europe, in the interval, had experienced the Enlightenment. It is the pre-Enlightenment Europe to which today’s right-wing Islamophobes look back nostalgically; something symbolised in the name of the anti-Islamic hate-blog, ‘Gates of Vienna’, named after the Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 and cited approvingly by Breivik. Hence Breivik’s own obsessive demonising of the Ottoman ‘other’ and its history, all the way back to the Middle Ages.
The right-wing Islamophobes are the mirror-image of the Islamists they claim to oppose. Nineteenth-century opponents of liberal secular values frequently became anti-Semites, seeing the Jews, as they did, as the beneficiaries of these values, to which the Jews owed their emancipation. Today’s Muslim opponents of the Enlightenment have inherited Christian anti-Semitism, whereas the Christian reactionaries have transferred their animosity to a different – Muslim – minority. Apologists blame individuals like Breivik and groups like the EDL and British National Party (BNP) on supposedly ‘objective’ problems of aggressive Islam and immigration that mainstream politicians are supposedly failing to tackle. Just as apologists for Islamism blame it on supposed ‘root causes’ to be found in US imperialism or the behaviour of Israel. Just as earlier apologists for anti-Semitism blamed anti-Semitism on the Jews. The Islamophobes point to Muslim support for Islamic extremism as their anti-Semitic predecessors once pointed to Jewish support for communism. As their Islamist counterparts point to Jewish support for Zionism. And so on.
Such chauvinistic ideologies are not caused by the minority or foreign groups that they target. Undeniably, popular anti-Semitism before World War II tended to be strongest in countries with large, visible Jewish populations, like Poland and Romania, just as popular Islamophobia today is often strongest in West European cities that have experienced large-scale Muslim immigration, but this does not mean that the victims of the bigotry are to blame. Muslim immigration does not automatically give rise to Islamophobia, any more than Zionism automatically gives rise to Muslim anti-Semitism, or ‘US imperialism’ gives rise to Islamist terrorism. Right-wing Islamophobia, Islamism, anti-immigrant racism and modern anti-Semitism are all, in their different ways, expressions of a more general reaction against, and rejection of, modernity and what it implies.
Interestingly, Breivik, who apparently never had a proper girlfriend and lived with his mother until he was thirty, shares Islamism’s extreme misogyny and gender insecurity. His manifesto rails against the ‘feminisation of European culture’ and the supposed emasculation of the contemporary European male, complaining that Muslim immigrants are systematically raping white European women, but that ‘As a Western man, I would be tempted to say that Western women have to some extent brought this upon themselves. They have been waging an ideological, psychological and economic war against European men for several generations now, believing that this would make you “free”… Western women have been subjected to systematic Marxist indoctrination meant to turn you into a weapon of mass destruction against your own civilisation, a strategy that has been remarkably successful.’ But of course, not all Islamophobes are straightforwardly conservative; some oppose Muslims and Islam on the grounds that the latter are sexist and homophobic. Such syntheses of liberalism and illiberalism are nothing new; European fascism and its sympathisers of the 1920s, 30s and 40s had their liberal roots and tendencies too, however paradoxical that might sound (readers are recommended to read Julian Jackson’s excellent France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944, that describes the synthesis of liberal, conservative Catholic and radical right-wing currents that found expression in the 1940s Vichy regime in France).
What our contemporary Islamophobes share – conservatives and ‘liberals’ alike – is conformism, xenophobia, fear of change, hostility to diversity, paranoia about minorities and a longing for the order and certainties of a lost, idealised ‘golden age’ that, in some cases, may not even be very long ago. In the Nordic countries, home of the Jante Law, where an apparently model liberalism frequently masks extreme conformism and insularity, where foreign guests and immigrants usually find it very difficult to fit in (in a way that they don’t in London or New York, for example), and where virulent anti-immigration parties such as the Danish People’s Party and Sweden Democrats have enjoyed success at the polls, this takes its own particular form. Far from needing to be shielded from greater diversity, my feeling is that the Nordic world would benefit from more of it; that even if Norway has no pressing economic reason to join the EU, immersion and participation in the common European project would benefit it culturally and spiritually. But for all that, the sickness that created Breivik is a European and global sickness, not just a Nordic sickness.
This brings us back to the Balkans, a region that resembles the Nordic world in the extent of its often stultifying insularity. For all that Serbia appeared to pursue its own sonderweg during the late 1980s and 1990s, at another level, the Serbian nationalist right and anti-democratic left were exemplars and pioneers of what became an all-European anti-immigrant and Islamophobic trend. Serbian nationalist and Communist hardliners railed against the restrictions supposedly placed on Serbia by membership of a multinational community – the Yugoslav federation. They railed against high Muslim and Albanian birth-rates that were resulting in the Serbs being ‘out-bred’, while lamenting the lower birth-rate among Serbs as symptomatic of national decline. They railed against the supposed mass immigration of ethnic Albanians from Albania into Kosovo; against the supposed Kosovo Albanian cultural ‘otherness’ and refusal to assimilate; against Kosovo Albanians allegedly raping Serb women while the authorities stood idly by. They lamented the supposed corruption and decline of their national culture while indulging in medievalist escapism. All these themes have now been taken up by nationalists in other European countries. For example, in Breivik’s words, ‘The Muslims in Bosnian Serbia; the so called Bosniaks and Albanians had waged deliberate demographic warfare (indirect genocide) against Serbs for decades. This type of warfare is one of the most destructive forms of Jihad and is quite similar to what we are experiencing now in Western Europe.’
Andrew Gilligan, writing in the Telegraph, has claimed that the danger posed by far-right (i.e. white, Christian) terrorists like Breivik is simply not on the same order of magnitude as that posed by al-Qaeda: ‘Over the last 10 years, nationalist terrorists, even counting Breivik, have killed about 200 Westerners; al-Qaeda has killed about 4,000… The white Right should not be ignored by the security authorities – but it would be dangerous to divert our attention from the real threat.’ But this is wrong: tens of thousands of Muslims were killed by white Christians in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya in the 1990s. Breivik has praised the killers, both Radovan Karadzic and Vladimir Putin; the numbers of their victims in Europe dwarf those of al Qaeda.
The danger is that Breivik is the harbinger of a trend. Extremism and chauvinism among the majority will always ultimately be more dangerous than extremism and chauvinism among minorities. Right-wing populists such as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may not themselves incite violence, and cannot be equated with a killer like Breivik. But the climate of intolerance they are promoting threatens to give rise to many more Breiviks. The Islamophobic, anti-immigration far-right is the no. 1 internal threat in Western Europe to European society and Western values today.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
Sanela Diana Jenkins is a highly successful businesswoman and philanthropist, and the founder of the Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her interviewer for The Observer, Carole Cadwalladr, has this to say about her: ‘She was born Sanela Catic to a humble Bosnian family, but there’s no doubt that Diana Jenkins is a classic romantic heroine: beautiful and bright, resourceful and determined, who rises above her background through sheer grit and force of will, and whose final apotheosis is achieved by a good marriage.’
Diana’s husband Roger Jenkins, one of the richest bankers in Britain, says ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. I can do anything now. I surrender to her better judgment on people and business.’ He maintained this opinion of her even after their separation was announced, saying that if they divorced, ‘Will she take half my money? Of course. And quite rightly so. I will happily give it to her.’ In Cadwalladr’s words, ‘although he was well off by most people’s standards, when she met him he wasn’t the insanely rich mega-banker that he’s become.’ According to The Daily Mail, ‘he credited his wife with charming the Qatari royal family into parting with £7.3billion last December. The Middle East investment deal rescued his employer Barclays at the height of the credit crunch.’ Residing in California, she mixes with the highest rank of the global elite, including celebrity friends such as George Clooney, Cindy Crawford and Elton John.
Jenkins is, in short, a self-made woman and success story by anyone’s standards. However, in the eyes of the London circles to which her husband belonged, there were three things wrong with her: 1) she was good-looking; 2) she was blonde; and 3) she was from Bosnia. The Daily Telegraph paraphrased her has saying that ‘society snobs drove me out of London’. In her own words: ‘They treated me like I was an Eastern European mail-order bride. I realised that, unfortunately, with social girls, if you have a big diamond ring they will talk to you, so I wore a diamond ring. Well, actually, when we could afford it, my lovely husband bought me a diamond ring. It hurt him to see how snobbily I was treated.’
A woman who is both young and beautiful and highly successful is likely to provoke a misogynistic reaction in many quarters, including among women (you only need to read the comments of Daily Mail readers or watch the Jeremy Kyle Show to see that men have no monopoly on misogyny). But for a certain type of English person the resentment will be much greater if the woman in question comes from a ‘lowly’ background, and being Bosnian will place her some way below the working classes and below most other white foreigners, without even the guilt over racism than might at least make the resentful ones a little embarrassed if she were black or brown.
I can confirm from personal experience that anti-Balkan racism is, indeed, a relatively acceptable form of prejudice in Britain. I recall one colleague at an institution where I once worked asking me to suggest a guest speaker for a seminar programme, and sneering when I suggested a Croatian name. One young man’s first comment, when I told him at a party that I was working on the history of the Balkans, was that I must clearly have a high tolerance for blood. A Serbian friend of mine recalled to me that when she worked as a waitress, a customer asked her where she came from, and when she said ‘Serbia’, he replied ‘I’ll get my gun out, then.’ A Bosnian friend of mine used to tell people at parties she was from Belgium, to avoid the dampening of the conversation that would frequently result from telling the truth.
It is testimony to the pervasiveness of anti-Balkan racism, in the UK and the wider English-speaking world, that when the American left-wing celebrity Michael Moore gave vent to this prejudice in his international bestseller Stupid White Men, it passed virtually without comment. Moore wrote:
‘This godforsaken corner of the world has been the source of much of our collective misery for the last century. Its residents’ inability to get along – with Serbs fighting Croats fighting Muslims fighting Albanians fighting Kosovars fighting Serbs – can be traced to the following single event: in 1914 a Serb anarchist by the name of Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand. This incident kicked off World War I. Which led to World War II. Over fifty million people died from both wars. I don’t know what it is about these people. I mean, I don’t go around killing Texans. I don’t go burning down whole villages in Florida. I’ve learned to live with it. Why can’t they?’
‘Then Tito died, and all hell broke loose. Croats started killing Serbs. Serbs killed Muslims in Bosnia. Serbs killed Albanians in Kosovo. Then the United States bombed Kosovo, to show them that killing was wrong. In the past few years there has been peace, then war, then peace again, and now war again. It never stops. These people are addicts.’
Moore’s advice to the former Yugoslavia was to ‘Admit that you are powerless over your addiction to violence, and that your lives have become unmanageable.’ Had he described African Americans as having an ‘addiction to violence’, it is difficult to imagine him getting away with it, but for the Balkan peoples, such language is apparently acceptable.
Nor is Moore unique in his prejudice. The New York Times concluded an editorial in 2005 with the opinion that ‘In the Balkans, the default mode is violence.’ Julie Burchill wrote in The Guardian – yes, The Guardian ! - back in 1999, ’Croatia’s not a country; it’s a bloody division of the German armed forces – scratch a Croat, find a Kraut.’ Nebojsa Malic of Antiwar.com described the Kosovo Albanians as ‘medieval barbarians’ – of course, Malic is from the Balkans himself, but he was published by an American website.
Many serious scholars have commented intelligently on the pervasiveness of anti-Balkan prejudice, including Maria Todorova and Tom Gallagher. Here, I would just like to add my own brief personal observations.
Anti-Balkan prejudice now means something specific for the former Yugoslav lands. Bulgarians and Romanians may be subject to anti-East-European prejudice in the UK similar to that experienced by Slovaks or Poles. Turks may be subject to anti-Muslim prejudice. I have no personal experience of how these groups fare in the US. But the prejudice directed against former-Yugoslavs is of a kind that transcends the borders of Western nations. It is related to the wars of the 1990s and to the stereotype of violence, primitivism and tribalism that that conflict rejuvenated; former Yugoslavs would not have experienced the same degree of prejudice before the 1990s. It is a prejudice for which journalists bear their share of the blame for repeating and publicising cliches, as do Balkan nationalists themselves for manufacturing negative myths about each other’s peoples – hence, the stereotypes of the Serbs as violent and nationalistic, of the Croats as pro-Nazi and of the Albanians as criminals.
However, the Bosnians in some ways come off the worst, and this is related to the perception of them as weak and pathetic; as being a people without a proper country or functioning state. Their suffering during the war of the 1990s, followed by their defeat in the war (albeit one snatched from the jaws of victory by US diplomacy), followed by the long, continuing and humiliating international supervision of their country, has cemented the stereotype of them as perpetual victims unworthy of respect; in some sense, equivalent to actual homeless people. I suspect that if Jenkins had come from Russia or Ukraine, she might still have been sneered at as a ‘mail-order bride’, but she would not have been despised as a refugee from a virtual country as well.
To end on a positive note: these stereotypes are widespread but they are not universally held. There are plenty of circles in multiethnic London that would not be snobbish about someone on account of their nationality; where someone with a background like Jenkins’s would be the norm rather than the exception. The snobs who drove Jenkins out of London may be representative of part of the London financial elite, but in cultural terms they represent a primitive, ethnically homogenous anachronism in our cosmopolitan city. They are worthy of the same sort of contempt as the average participants on the Jeremy Kyle Show. Primitivism and vulgarity span the class divide.
I love crime fiction, am very interested in the Nordic world and have a background in far-left politics, so I have rather naturally recently finished reading the now-legendary Millenium Trilogy by the tragically deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson. These books have been admirably reviewed many times, including by comrades such as Nick Cohen, Max Dunbar and Christopher Hitchens, so you probably know the basic facts about them already. Their heroes are the maverick investigative journalist Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist (Larsson’s alter ego) and the emotionally damaged computer wizard Lisbeth Salander, whose flawed but interesting character accounts for much of the books’ appeal.
Larsson had been a supporter of the Socialist Party, formerly the Communist Workers League – the Swedish section of the Trotskyist Fourth International - and an editor of its journal Fjärde internationalen. As several of his reviewers have pointed out, his passionate political activism informed his fiction. Interesting then, that the political flavour of the novels should be liberal or social democratic rather than radical socialist. The villains – rapists, paedophiles, sex traffickers and corrupt secret-policemen and businessmen - are ones liberals will have no trouble booing, while the heroes enjoy the support of many honourable members of the establishment.
Violent misogynists feature prominently in all three books. Swedish fascists – against whom Larsson spent a large part of his life crusading – feature prominently in the first book, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Another of the principal villains of this book is the capitalist Hans-Erik Wennerstroem, but he is evil because he is corrupt and involved in criminal activities; other capitalists and members of the bourgeoisie are sympathetically portrayed. In the second book, ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’, the principal villains are sex traffickers plus members of the establishment who use their services, while in the third, ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ nest’, they are rogue elements within the Swedish intelligence services.
In all three books, the emphasis is on corrupt elements within the existing order – such as businessmen and policemen who abuse sex-slaves, or secret policemen whose Cold Warrior fanaticism leads them to stray outside the law – rather than on any inherent evil on the part of the existing order itself. Meanwhile, these corrupt elements are more than balanced by the good elements that represent the norm. Indeed, whereas the first two novels are gripping thrillers, the third is a somewhat dull, plodding affair - in large part because there are so many noble, principled policemen and secret agents who join Blomkvist’s and Salander’s struggle against their corrupt colleagues that it never really seems like a fair fight. The villains are old, tired, outnumbered, incompetent, self-doubting and internally divided. The heroes, on the other hand, are not only brave, principled, intelligent and altogether brilliant, but seem to have on their side the cream of the Swedish security establishment and eventually even the Swedish prime-minister and defence minister themselves.
‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ is, in fact, very much in the Hollywood liberal mould: there are corrupt elements within the system, but they are unrepresentative of the system as a whole which is fundamentally good; once it learns of their activities, the good majority ultimately defeats the rogue elements, so the system polices itself. Of course the good policemen need the help of intrepid independent investigators, but this partnership has been a staple of crime fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So over-determined is the ultimate victory of good over evil; so much is the reader spared any genuine suspense, uncertainty as to the outcome or trauma on behalf of the heroes; that ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ achieves a truly Hollywood level of nauseating goody-goodiness.
Meanwhile, there is next to nothing in the Millenium books about the class struggle or the fight to emancipate the proletariat or the poor. I don’t mean this as a criticism – it is no doubt a reflection of the fact that such issues are simply not very important in egalitarian Sweden today. Larsson’s work is politically sympathetic because, despite his passion and his Trotskyist background, he is no dogmatist. Instead of bothering with irrelevant old Marxist shibboleths, he focuses on issues that really are of central importance for progressive politics in Western Europe today. Above all, on the issue of misogyny.
The most interesting feature of the books is the character of Salander, an innocent woman who manages to inspire pathological hostility in a whole string of nasty men. She does so because she manages to hit so many male chauvinist buttons. She is physically small and apparently weak and vulnerable, yet colourful and exotic; she is socially awkward and aloof, but refuses to be polite or deferential to those more senior than herself; she is far from being classically beautiful, but is weirdly and disturbingly sexually attractive; and, of course, she is sexually promiscuous and bisexual, but does not roll over for many of the men who desire her. Unsurprising, therefore, that so many men hate her; Larsson has brilliantly captured the way in which a certain type of woman jars and unsettles a certain type of man.
If the books are a bit saccharine in some other respects, their portrayal of the pathology of woman-hatred is genuinely disturbing. Larsson has written a study in misogyny that has reached an audience whose size most Trotskyist pamphleteers could only dream of – his books have sold 27 million copies, according to The Economist. He may have died prematurely at the age of only fifty, but if only a portion of his readers understand his message, his life as an activist will not have been in vain.
I posted the following comment yesterday at Harry’s Place:
As someone who has written posts in defence of HP on more than one occasion, and who stood up for you when you were driven off the internet by a libel threat, I don’t think I can be accused of political or personal hostility to you. But the more familiar I become with this blog, the more distasteful I find the atmosphere here and the more questionable I find your ethics.
For me, the turning point was having threats repeatedly posted against me by Mettaculture: he threatened me physically; threatened me with a libel suit; threatened to contact my employers. He also attacked me for the colour of my skin, and tried to intimidate me with graphic descriptions of anal sex, having previously tried to bully me into silence with references to my class background and foreign name. Not to mention all the vicious personal abuse (‘whore’, ‘douchebag’, etc.).
I’m not intimidated by this; Mettaculture’s kind is a dime a dozen, and I’ve had my share of such creatures attempting to intimidate me. But it does constitute harassment; it has nothing to do with ‘freedom of speech’. Not only does HP not condemn such behaviour, it encourages it, providing a forum in which every little anonymous internet psycho or stalker can engage in such activities. When I tried to defend myself by outing Mettaculture, I found that I was the one whom HP censored.
Horrified as I am by the fact that someone like Mettaculture can be tolerated here, I am even more horrified by the kids’ glove treatment that Ken ‘The Exile’ Bell receives. A man whose blog is a veritable misogynistic hate-fest is pampered by HP. Bell calls Oliver Kamm a ‘cockroach’, and when I complain about this, David T defends this as just one of Bell’s endearing little character foibles. David subsequently writes a whole post inviting people to make fun of Oliver’s name. Bell turns up and says the most disgusting things imaginable about Oliver’s mother – how he trained her to give blow-jobs and to swallow his semen. Bell’s behaviour is then defended by Wardytron – another HP blogger – again, as further evidence of his endearing eccentricity. Another great day for HP.
Then there’s Morgoth – a man who, on at least two occasions here at HP, called for the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians from the West Bank, without being rebuked, let alone banned. Morgoth calls for Conor Foley to be beaten up, and Conor’s wife is reduced to tears reading his comment. HP actually has the cheek to complain that Conor is unreasonable for being upset about this. Of course, your anger is never directed at any one of your revolting, anonymous little groupies, but only at the people who have the temerity to complain about their behaviour.
I even found myself sympathising with Richard ‘Lenin’ Seymour when he was repeatedly under attack here for being overweight. And sometimes for having a ‘funny’ accent as well, if I recall. I can’t stand Seymour, but I find it beyond belief that someone should be attacked on the basis of their physical appearance like that – no matter who they are. No doubt the people who did so all looked like Johnny Depp, but their pictures aren’t on the internet and they’re mostly anonymous, so we just don’t know, do we ?
Now Laurie Penny is under assault from a whole pack of attack-dogs for being a 23-year old middle-class woman. Her attempts to defend herself from the sexist insults are rejected on the grounds that sexist insults are simply what working-class people use to express themselves, something that she’s supposedly too middle-class to understand. Yeah, right ! ‘Moral relativism’ is the term that springs to mind.
Racism, misogyny, incitement to violence – all can be overlooked when a member of your sad little circle of groupies is the guilty party. But God forbid that anyone should hold you accountable for what appears in the comment boxes of your own website, or that anyone interfere with the right of freaks and psychos to defame and abuse whomever they want while cowering behind anonymity.
They make a desert, and they call it peace.
They make a cesspool, and they call it ‘freedom of speech’.
Here are examples of the sort of thing ‘Mettaculture’ has been directing at me:
‘We are all racist’s [sic] according to the pasty white boy. He know’s [sic] you see, being a spolit middle class narcissistic solipsistic pasty white brat.’
‘No I am really fucked off and am out of here. I am out of here for my Turkish lesson where I hope to learn the correct conjugations of fuck, fuck my ass, suck it etc. Then I go to dinner with a new beau, he’s Anatolian and very dark and speaks a funny language only if you are a moron or are scandelighted by saying it. When he is sliding his very dark dick into my ass at my recently learned Turkish encouragement, i shall think of your pasty smug face and your prim white ass and what it is evidently missing. Now clutch your pearls in horror why don’t you.’
Here is what Ken Bell wrote about Kamm’s mother:
‘It’s the way I am, Gimlet. A nice gentle bloke who explains things patiently. Many years ago – probably before you were born – there was this bird named Anthea who used to polish my knob. I learned patience with her, and believe you me I needed every ounce of it: teaching her that blow is just a figure of speech was not easy. Still we got there in the end and she learned to swallow every drop.’
Update: Flesh is Grass makes a number of intelligent points on this matter.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left