Saturday, 25 October 2014

Eternally seeking the perfect victim...

In the past few weeks, two cases have been in the news and these two cases shine a rather horrible light on our notions of victimhood. Monica Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton and the subsequent legal and political ramifications again made headlines when Lewinsky started a Twitter account and was, predictably, faced with assorted trolls. And in the UK, Ched Evans, a convicted rapist, has won a fast-tracked inquiry into his conviction - and regardless of the outcome of this, Twitter and the court of public opinion - which led to the inquiry being fast-tracked in the first place - will ensure the woman at the centre of the awful incident will still be living in the shadow of that night in a hotel room.

What is disturbing about both these cases is the rush to condemn the women largely because neither one fits the narrow, demure image of a victim that guarantees sympathy or, at the very least, stops a mob of keyboard warriors from behaving like anonymous, irrationally angry vultures.

In the case of Monica Lewinsky, it really didn't matter how she chose to live her life and conduct herself in public after the story broke, she was never going to win. Being open about what happened in the Oval Office all those years ago and trying to make the most of her accidental fame with money-making ventures such as a line of handbags, has led to inevitable slut-shaming and a desire to silence her. I had a bizarre Twitter exchange this week in which a conservative American woman was disappointed that she hasn't been more critical of Bill Clinton and, as such, she is a poor role model who is not serving other women well.

Really? Why does Monica Lewinsky have to be a role model for anyone? Why is it up to her to serve other women over an incident that she did not intend to become public? The woman I argued with on Twitter agreed that Lewinsky was indeed a victim but she was not behaving like the kind of victim she wanted her to be. As if Lewinsky owes it to Random Conservative Internet Woman to behave in a certain way.

If Linda Tripp had not betrayed Lewinsky on such an enormous scale, we may never have known about any of this.

If Lewinsky just wanted to confide in someone about her relationship with the President and move on without pressing harassment charges, that should have been her choice to make.

If Bill Clinton hadn't hung her out to dry with the infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" quote, an inevitable statement to make in an often puritanical society, it might have been a different story all round. But it is Lewinsky who has come out of this worse, lost so much more, and been fed to the wolves on a far more regular basis than Clinton ever will be.

If Lewinsky decided to slink away quietly after the voracious news cycle had moved on and Clinton completed his presidency relatively unscathed, that would be perfectly understandable but she would probably then have been accused of letting Clinton get away with it, of letting herself be silenced and so on. And, frankly, it'd be naive to think that even if she did exile herself in some rural backwater and open a five-and-dime, the scandal would still cast a long shadow over her life, such was the global notoriety she achieved. She still might not have settled down with a nice lad and led a quiet, anonymous existence - and who is to say that is even what she wants out of life?

Lewinsky was in an extraordinary situation, one that she could never have imagined when she started her White House internship, and there are any number of ways she could have reacted. If 100 different women were in that exact same situation, there would probably be 100 different responses.

As a victim, Lewinsky was only ever going to be acceptable if she was either silent and absent from public life or she was demure and contrite. Instead, she told government lawyers to go fuck themselves when she was questioned and threatened with 27 years in prison. Good for her and bad luck if that offends anyone.

In the Ched Evans rape case, again we have a victim who does not fit the mould of a victim that is acceptable to the hordes on the interwebs. It is astounding how quickly people have gone straight to the "she is clearly a slag" defence on behalf of Evans.

As it stands at the time of writing, Evans is a convicted rapist. A jury found that the victim was too drunk to consent and the fact that she consented to sex with one of his friends before Evans joined in was deemed to be irrelevant. Consent to sex with one man does not equal consent to sex with his mate.

So what if she was not a virgin when Evans let himself into the hotel room. So what that this is not a rape that fits the "man jumping out of an alleyway" image that many seem to associate with this awful crime. So what if Natasha Massey, his girlfriend, is standing by her man. Even if Evans' conviction is overturned, I have no idea why you'd stay with him - but that is Massey's choice, just as Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill, even though she is bright and qualified enough to hold high office on her own merits.

But, I repeat, as I write this, Ched Evans is still a convicted rapist. And his victim, who was only 19 at the time, is still trying to rebuild her life.

The morons on the internet who have named the victim and then named her new identity, forcing her to change her name and location yet again, are absolutely disgraceful excuses for human beings. Just as the events of 1998 will always be with Monica Lewinsky, the events of May 2011 will always be with this woman.

She deserves privacy and the right to get on with her life, regardless of the outcome of the inquiry into the conviction. She is not seeking to be a public figure and that choice should not be denied her just as Lewinsky should not have to be forced into exile. You can disagree with anything Lewinsky might have to say about the events of 16 years ago but if you seek to silence her, or any woman who might not fit the mould of demure contrition, you are part of the problem.

If Sheffield United want him to play for them, that is their choice. If people want to support a club and pay for tickets to watch Evans play, that is their choice too. But the club's managers or fans or the #JusticeForChed zealots cannot expect others to be silent. If Evans returns to top level football, nobody should be stunned if others use their right to free speech and peaceful protest to picket the Bramall Lane stadium. If people refuse to watch Ched Evans play and refuse to renew their season tickets on that basis, that is also a choice that must be respected.

The conservative woman on Twitter believes that Lewinsky's unwillingness to condemn Bill Clinton is a great disservice to all women. But the bigger disservice to women is to force them to conform to the prejudices of others, and to want them to only behave in a certain way when they are confronted with awful situations where there is no one correct way to react.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

IS and the Turkish conundrum

Is Turkey our friend or our foe in the battle against IS? Unsurprisingly, there is no simple answer to this question.

At the time of writing, IS fighters are still besieging the Syrian town of Kobane near the Turkish border. It is still unclear what level of military support the Turkish government is prepared to give the allied forces who have made a piffling start to an already uncertain campaign with airstrikes. We're at war now and boots on the ground are the inevitable next step.

But Turkey's position is a conundrum. While it is easy to criticise the lack of military action by Turkey thus far, the country has taken in more than one million refugees, in particular Kurds (albeit begrudgingly...). Given their noisy neighbours, Turkey's unfortunate geographic position made this situation inevitable but they are doing their best with this situation. Sadly, their best is not enough and international help will be required to ensure refugee camps in Turkey do not descend into disease-ridden disaster areas.

As well as 22 refugee camps, refugees escaping the horrors of IS are also living in temporary accommodation,  such as schools, mosques and parks. Turkey has only received 25% of the funding it requested as part of the 2014 Syria Regional Refugee Response Plan. Something has to give.

Turkey's reluctance to jump into bed with the US is the inevitable result of the country's delicate balancing act between secularism and Islamism. When the modern day Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, as president, it was created as a secular state. It was, and still is, a country where the majority of people are Muslim, either nominally or observant, but other religions are free to exist. You can see mosques, churches and synagogues in the same street in Istanbul, and constitutionally there is no state religion.

However, in recent years, the tide has been turning towards a state that favours conservative Islam over the official secularism and, as such, Turkey's leaders have been reluctant to offend neighbouring Muslim countries. Yet, at the same time, there has been an element of desperation for Turkey to join the EU. For those who would like to see Turkey join the EU, the bad news is that I cannot see that being feasible any time soon.

In the 11 years since I first visited Turkey, much has changed. When I first visited, the currency had recently changed from the Lire to the New Turkish Lire. A whole bunch of zeroes were knocked off the denominations so it stopped being one of those confusing currencies whereby western tourists go to ATMs and are unsure whether they are withdrawing enough cash for lunch or to buy a house. This helped give the currency credibility and some shops started accepting Euros as well - all good if a country wants to be a serious contender for EU membership.

During my first visit, our hire car was pulled over by corrupt police and Stuart, the friend who was driving at the time, was given a speeding fine even though he was not speeding. He was, by far, the most sensible driver of the four of us. The whole situation was bent, I was threatened by a police officer when he caught me trying to sneak a photograph of the situation, and because Turkey was on an anti-corruption drive at the time, we made a complaint when we returned home to Australia. It was dealt with quickly and efficiently and the officers responsible were suspended. This was also promising stuff for an EU aspirant.

But on the same trip, Lorraine, another of my travelling companions, and I went shopping in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Our outing was interrupted by a student protest - nothing unusual in that in many a major city - but what was disturbing was the posse of snipers on top of a tall building, rifles trained on the marchers. The locals took it in their stride but a peaceful protest overseen by snipers is not a hallmark of a country that has completely matured.

The last time I visited Turkey, it was 2009. My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were taking a long weekend break away from the restrictions of Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, and we enjoyed being able to eat and drink beer in public in broad daylight. We could hold hands in public, it was a nice respite from Ramadan in an officially Muslim country. And Turkey is still a fun place to visit but there are many reports that suggest that under the current government, the temperature has changed and it does not feel like the same secular state that rightly filled many Turks with immense pride.

But within the EU, Turkey's dark side has emerged with the occupation of Cyprus. This has gone on since 1974. About one-third of the country has been annexed by Turkey after a military invasion. It is absolutely astounding that this situation has not been reversed in 40 years. The photo at the top of this blog post is of me looking out to Famagusta, in the occupied part of Cyprus. It was once a popular holiday resort town of about 40,000 people. Like unoccupied Cyprus, Greek Cypriots formed a majority but Turkisk Cypriots lived alongside them.

Since 1974, Greek Cypriots were driven out of their homes, people went missing, journalists have been killed and Famagusta has been left to rot. Byzantine churches which should be protected for their historical significance are in ruins, the only new buildings are mosques but even they are largely empty. As I looked out to Famagusta from a cultural centre rooftop, I did not see another living soul through my binoculars. There were Turkish military checkpoints and buildings, a UN checkpoint that looked about as useful as a fishnet condom, and the rest of the buildings were the homes and businesses that have been left to decay.

Just as the UN High Commission on Refugees has been embarrassingly ineffective in helping Turkey manage an increasingly overwhelming displaced persons situation, the UN peacekeepers and negotiators have not really done much to ensure Turkey stops their absurd occupation of a sovereign nation. And it's not as if all of occupied northern Cyprus has become some sort of IS-endorsed Islamic wonderland - a lot of money is being made there via casinos. It is a tragic farce.

I understand Turkey feeling caught between a rock and a hard place with the looming threat of IS, an awful refugee situation and a growing anti-American element. But if they are at all serious about having any credibility as a major international power, they need to get the hell out of Cyprus. Their soldiers have far greater battles to fight closer to home and they are not just of the military variety.

Monday, 6 October 2014

We're at war with IS. So what now?

We are at war again. Gulf War Three. Because nothing much was really made better with Gulf Wars One and Two. But here we are again, starting with air strikes because they are more palatable to the public. Air strikes are very good at killing innocent people but don't worry your pretty little heads about that. After all, Bush and Obama have both been pretty prolific with their drone attacks over the last 13 years. This is nothing new. What are a few more planes between allies, eh? You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and all that.

But the reality is that there will be boots on the ground. We can share pictures on social media all we like of the Emirati woman who pilots a fighter jet, we can rejoice in the poetic justice of a woman dropping bombs on vile excuses for men whose attitude to women is stuck in the Dark Ages, we feel comfortable with air strikes as a sanitised form of warfare. It is just like a computer game, isn't it? The fighter pilots don't look into the eyes of the people they kill. But air strikes are just the start in the war on IS.

If you have an appetite for this war, you need an appetite for the realities of ground offensives, of deadly foot patrols, hand-to-hand combat, guerilla tactics, of soldiers playing the awful balancing act of gaining trust among terrified communities while not trusting those who seek to destroy and maim us. This is what we are signing up for when we join this war.

The war against IS will not be quick and it will not be pretty. Given that air strikes did not root out Saddam Hussein from a pitiful hole in the ground or see off Osama bin Laden in a house in Pakistan, this latest conflict is bound to be more than a few planes dropping bombs. It could be argued that killing Saddam and bin Laden was a mistake as we will never know what intelligence died with them, but it's too late to reverse those decisions now.

Do we trust that this time things will somehow be different and the allies will be able to eliminate IS leaders and completely disable this latest evil? I don't know and I don't think our leaders do either. With the Syrian situation muddying the waters, it will make the job of determining who to trust and who to eliminate even tougher.

But in the meantime, we need to be far more reasonable closer to home. If I was a Muslim who had no desire to kill people - and I would include every Muslim I know in that category, both observant and nominal - I would be sick and tired of the constant calls for "moderate Muslims to speak out against the violence." As a religion of 72 sects, no one Muslim can speak out for all Muslims any more than one Roman Catholic or one Presbyterian speaks for all Christians.

And, secondly, here in the UK more than 100 Muslim leaders issued a statement to the Independent newspaper calling on IS to release Alan Henning, who we now know has been beheaded, as well as condemning the previous executions and challenging the IS interpretation of jihad.

So if any newspaper, TV or radio programme wants to interview someone who can offer a moderate perspective from the Islamic community, you have a list of more than 100 to choose from. Knock yourselves out. Get your underpaid researcher to find their contact details. Surely one of them will be available for your time slot.

Do not instead trot out Anjem Choudary yet again. I am starting to think both Choudary and Nigel Farage have their own dressing rooms at the BBC.

Choudary's hateful views get a ridiculous, unbalanced level of airplay and he is a very effective radicaliser of young people, a fine recruiter for IS. This is because he is charismatic, articulate and smart. You may not agree with any of his awful opinions but he is not an idiot. He knows exactly what he is doing and he does it well. He makes extreme views sound reasonable to vulnerable minds. He remains calm, he smiles, he gives politician's answers to simple questions, he answers questions with more questions, he lets the interviewers become agitated. He appeals to disenfranchised young people who feel they have nothing to lose and, equally, he appeals to privileged young people seeking to rebel.

He exercises his right to free speech at public demonstrations all the time. If other Muslim leaders were allowed his level of exposure, we might have a sporting chance at a more balanced dialogue here. Anjem Choudary is a troll, a warped Islamic version of Ann Coulter. They are two sides of the same extremist coin and they are effectively silencing other voices.

And while this noise carries on, remember, we are still at war. This will be our reality for a long time yet. And if it comes with the soundtrack of Anjem Choudary's analysis, the end will really be nowhere in sight.

Photography by William Morris.