Isis threatens Palmyra, the ancient city that stands for both empire and resistance

Independent on Sunday, 17 May 2015

The art and architecture express something which speaks to us centuries later

I arrived in Palmyra on a cloudless morning after a drive through the desert from Damascus. It is an astonishing sight, the ruins of one of the great cities of antiquity rising against a background of low hills. Walking along the colonnaded main street, with temples and the foundations of shops to either side, it is possible to imagine the bustling life of this oasis city almost 2,000 years ago.

Last week, fighters from Islamic State (Isis) reached the gates of Palmyra, prompting fears that the city will be subjected to the kind of wanton destruction witnessed at archaeological sites in Iraq. Palmyra was occupied for a few months in 2013 by fighters who oppose the country’s dictator, President Assad, but they did not share the fanatical iconoclasm of Isis. Its fighters have already behaved with customary barbarity, seizing nearby villages and murdering more than two dozen civilians. At least 10 were beheaded.

The thought of Palmyra in the hands of these nihilistic thugs is too awful to contemplate. Cities are not just inanimate objects, fascinating though it is to see buildings that are thousands of years old. They are the work of human beings who used art and architecture to express something about themselves which speaks to us centuries later.

In this instance, Palmyra represents both the power of the Roman empire and resistance to it, incorporating Graeco-Roman and eastern culture in an extraordinary amalgam of styles. The emperor Hadrian visited in AD129 and declared Palmyra a free city but in the 3rd century its widowed queen, Zenobia, led a revolt against Roman rule. She was defeated by Caracalla and taken to Rome, where the emperor’s decision to parade a captive queen through the streets in gold chains caused disquiet in the Senate.

When I visited Palmyra two decades ago, it wasn’t a great tourist destination because of the Assad regime’s political isolation. I was able to walk round without meeting many other tourists but there was a surreal moment when a plane landed and Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, stepped out. We exchanged a few words and he was hurried around the site by American diplomats before his plane roared off into an expanse of blue.

I don’t think I knew at the time that the modern town of Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, was home to one of Assad’s worst prisons. A few years later, I met a Syrian poet who had been incarcerated there in conditions so horrific that people said “the person who enters is lost and the one who leaves is born”. The juxtaposition of a great cultural site and a torture centre didn’t worry the regime, which has never valued anything but its own survival. Before the current conflict, Syria was one of the most culturally rich countries in the world. It is tragic that so many people have been murdered or forced into exile, but Assad’s myriad crimes against his own people include his failure to protect their astonishing heritage.

Diary note

Friday 15 May 2105: I’m on Any Questions at 8pm this evening on BBC Radio 4, repeated on Saturday at 1.15pm. Also on panel: Ben Bradshaw MP, Sarah Wollaston MP and Tim Montgomerie.




The Guardian, 12 May 2015

So Prince Harry would like to be ‘normal’? He could start by getting a job

I have no idea where I stand in line to the throne. A friend once suggested I was 12,957th, but that seems rather high up the list for someone with my background, my Dad having been a council gardener. On the plus side, I think this means I am what Prince Harry calls a “normal” person.

In an interview he’s given from a remote island off New Zealand, Harry says he would like to work with some of these normal people, presumably to give him a break from the ones who have titles. Most expectant parents look forward to a boy or a girl, but he belongs to a family where news of a birth is greeted with the words, “It’s a princess!” Apparently Harry would also like to try his hand at earning a “wage” – although he didn’t specify whether he meant “minimum”. London is expensive and he might find it hard to keep up a flat in Kensington Palace on £6.50 an hour.

What amazes me is the unquestioning way “royal correspondents” respond to these inanities. Members of the royal family talk with faint regret about how hard it is for them to do ordinary things, as though they secretly long to be just like the rest of us.

In reality, Harry’s aunt, Princess Anne, recently used a royal helicopter to pick her up from an engagement in London so she wouldn’t miss the first race at Cheltenham. As I once pointed out about Princess Diana, there’s nothing to stop any of these people ditching the title and getting a job. Oh, and I heartily recommend a railcard.

It’s not helping, Sally

I feel sorry for Sally Bercow. I’ve only met her once and she seemed nice enough, though perhaps lacking in a protective layer that most of us take for granted. Being married to the Speaker of the House of Commons has brought her a kind of fame that she seems increasingly unable to cope with, speaking to the press when every instinct should tell her to stop. She’s currently on crutches, recovering from a badly broken leg, but that hasn’t deterred her from posing for pictures and talking about the state of her marriage.

The fact that she’s distraught after having an affair with her husband’s cousin, who has now returned to his wife, is all in the public domain. I can’t help wishing it wasn’t, not just for her sake but also because of the impact on her husband and children. Sometimes the people who most want to talk to the press are the least able to cope with the consequences, attracting scorn and derision when they are very evidently in need of help. Attention-seeking may be a way of dealing with pain, but it rarely works.

My own green shoots

All weekend, as I reeled from lack of sleep and disbelief at the election results, I had one small thing to comfort me. It’s actually not that small, about four metres by eight. I’m inordinately proud that I’ve managed to grow a lawn. That bare piece of earth outside the kitchen doors is now a lush green; I also have a fine crop of weeds, but I’m frankly amazed to see any grass at all.

When I was a child, my parents moved house a lot and Dad was always scarifying a patch of earth and scattering grass seed. I still regard buying turf as a shoddy compromise, so you can imagine my horror when I discovered that Peter Jones is selling artificial lawns by the metre. We live in dark times, and I keep telling myself it’s healthier to grow a lawn than to curse the Tories.

Human rights are at risk under our new Conservative Government

Independent on Sunday, 10 May 2015

Some classes of people living in the UK will no longer be able to use the legislation

So it’s goodbye to human rights as we know them. Now that David Cameron has an overall majority, he can go ahead with his pledge to scrap the loathed Human Rights Act. He might even, if reports are correct, rush through a Bill to get rid of it during his first 100 days.

The Tories will protest that they’re not opposed to human rights as such, invoking Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Tellingly, though, the strategy paper published last year by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is full of caveats. Headed “Human Rights in Context” – don’t you just hate those universal rights that apply to everybody, everywhere? – it declares the party’s intention to “put Britain first”.

The contradiction is obvious: if the UK is committed to universal human rights, they have to apply, for instance, when British troops are serving abroad. No army has completely managed to avoid soldiers behaving badly, and people who claim to have been tortured or beaten currently have the right to bring cases in the British courts. They won’t under the Tory proposals, which include a commitment to limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK, “so that British Armed Forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims”.

As well as foreigners, some classes of people living in the UK will no longer be able to use human rights legislation in a frankly annoying way. Prisoners, for instance – who cares about them? If they wanted to have children, they should have thought about it before getting banged up, instead of going to Strasbourg (not an English city, obviously) to demand the right to artificially inseminate their partners. As for prisoners wanting to vote – don’t get me started.

As far as the Conservatives are concerned, human rights are all right in their place, but they certainly don’t want to be told what to do by foreign judges. Rulings by the European Court of Human Rights will become “advisory”, and the use of human rights law will be limited to the “most serious cases”. Those involve the criminal law, the liberty of an individual or the right to property, while “trivial” cases will be struck out.

These are rights born out of slogans such as “an Englishman’s home is his castle”. They are limited in application, reflecting a libertarian philosophy which favours the powerful over the vulnerable. It will be music to the ears of the Daily Mail, which has run endless headlines along the lines of “I want to scrap the Human Rights Act but Clegg won’t let me, says the PM”.

No more whining about that. From Cameron’s point of view, an assault on “human rights” is an ideal way of signalling a break with five years of coalition. Think how it will be received at the Mail, which boasted yesterday that it had been named most influential newspaper of the election.

Almost a third of MPs are now women – a milestone has been reached

The Guardian, 8 May 2015

The gender makeup of parliament has been agonisingly slow to change, but today’s influx of female MPs may mark a tipping point

For some of us there wasn’t a lot to cheer about as the results of the general election flooded in during the early hours of this morning, but the number of women winning seats was striking. Almost 30% of newly elected MPs are female, compared with less than a quarter five years ago. On the Labour benches, 43% of MPs are women, and that means that the House of Commons will look very different.

This matters, not least because it sends a message to the next generation about the type of people who can get elected to parliament. The new intake includes Labour’s Naz Shah, who scored a memorable victory over George Galloway in Bradford West, and the SNP’s Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old student from Glasgow University. What it doesn’t have is a single female Lib Dem, making the party’s gender problem even more acute than it was before the election.

It’s hard to remember a time when one of the three main parties, as we may have to stop calling them after the success of the SNP, didn’t have a single female MP in its ranks. The Lib Dems’ plight is a reminder of a state of affairs that used to be common in politics, when men were much more likely to be selected for safe seats. Only seven Lib Dem MPs in the last parliament were women and several – including the minister for women and equalities, Jo Swinson – were defending slender majorities. Solihull’s Lib Dem candidate, Lorely Burt, was visibly upset when her wafer-thin majority of 175 disappeared in a Tory landslide.

Across the board, having a legislature that is more representative of the population as a whole is obviously to be welcomed. But anyone who thinks that being a woman is a guarantee of progressive politics need only consider the career of one of the most high-profile casualties of this week’s election. The demise of Esther McVey, the employment minister, in Wirral West caused rejoicing on social networking sites, where people rushed to speculate about her employment prospects as an ex-MP. McVey was previously minister for the disabled, and three years ago she blithely announced that more than 300,000 people would have their income cut or reduced due to a change in the benefits system.

McVey belongs to a tradition of rightwing women that stretches back to Margaret Thatcher and has been much debated by feminist commentators. I’ve always been suspicious of the argument that women who enter politics are automatically nicer than men; they can’t always be relied upon to help other members of their sex. Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Conservative benches when she became prime minister in 1979, and she appeared to revel in standing at the dispatch box before the massed ranks of Tory men.

When John Major succeeded Thatcher in the top job, there were so few female Conservative MPs with ministerial experience that he didn’t include a single woman in his first cabinet. In 1997 all-women shortlists meant a record intake of 101 female MPs on the Labour benches, but they were dismissed in the media as “Blair’s babes”. Progress sometimes seems agonisingly slow.

As David Cameron embarks on his second term as prime minister, we shouldn’t forget that he has a track record of patronising female MPs. It’s a shame that he won’t have to face Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, who didn’t contest a seat at Westminster. But perhaps the fact that almost a third of the house is female will finally persuade this most patriarchal of Tory politicians that women deserve to be treated as equals.


Charlie Hebdo’s PEN award is well deserved

Independent on Sunday, 3 May 2015

Those who oppose the award have fallen for a false narrative of universal Muslim victimhood

On the evening of 5 May, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will receive an award at a gala dinner in New York. On the face of it, the award is uncontroversial: eight members of the magazine’s staff died in a terrorist attack in January, along with a maintenance worker, a visitor and two police officers. The journalists paid a high price for defending free speech and are obvious candidates for this year’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award given by the American centre of PEN, the international writers’ organisation.

Not so, apparently. Almost 150 well-known writers, including the novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Carey, have written a letter protesting the award. They say they are sickened by the murders but claim the decision to honour the magazine is “neither clear nor inarguable”. They accuse Charlie Hebdo of mocking “a section of the French population that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimised” and causing “further humiliation and suffering” among France’s Muslims.

Seeing this, my mind flashed to The Satanic Verses. Back in 1989, I was dismayed by the number of people who said that the death sentence passed on Salman Rushdie was wrong, but he shouldn’t have offended Muslims. The historian Lord Dacre even declared that he wouldn’t shed a tear if some British Muslims “were to waylay [Rushdie] in a dark street” and teach him some manners. Defending free speech is easier in principle than in practice, it seems.

Curiously, these self-appointed defenders of Europe’s Muslim population are making exactly the same mistake as the people they think they’re opposing; like white racists, they regard “Muslims” as a homogenous group. They see them as uniformly powerless, ignoring the emergence of a Muslim middle class and the enormous power wielded by advocates of extreme forms of Islam. I don’t imagine the secular blogger Raif Badawi, who is still under sentence of 1,000 lashes, would have much time for the argument that the Wahhabi sect which runs Saudi Arabia is mild-mannered and ineffective.

The journalists gunned down at Charlie Hebdo – including a French-Algerian copy-editor, Mustapha Ourrad – understood this very well. Some Muslim men (they almost always are men) are very powerful indeed, whether they are the leaders of Boko Haram or the Muslim clerics who encourage impressionable young men to kill people. There are good reasons for being afraid of Islamic extremists, just as I would have gone in fear of the Inquisition if I had lived in 15th century Italy.

None of this fits with the narrative of universal victimhood which the critics of American PEN have fallen for. That narrative is crucial to the rhetoric of Islamophobia, which characterises anything that takes a less-than-glowing view of the religion as racism. This is rather like claiming that criticising evangelical Christians who bomb US abortion clinics is evidence of Christianophobia, but an alarming number of people have been taken in. The latest is the Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has apparently told Muslim News that he intends to outlaw Islamophobia if he becomes prime minister.

“We are going to make it an aggravated crime,” he declared, apparently unaware that a distinct offence of religiously aggravated hate crime already exists. When he promised a change in the law to make clear “our abhorrence of hate crime and Islamophobia”, I was even more aghast. Stirring up Islamophobic hatred is already a crime if certain tests are met, so what else does he intend to outlaw? It looks like a blatant piece of electioneering.

PEN America has taken a more principled stance. In its blog post “Rejecting the Assassin’s Veto”, it has reaffirmed the decision to honour Charlie Hebdo. It is the right move: authors and cartoonists have more to fear from religion than religion has to fear from us.

Joan Smith is a former chair of the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee


Women who waive their anonymity are changing our perspective on rape

Shame is a big reason why women don’t reveal their experiences of sexual assault. Now some remarkable young women are breaking that mould

The Guardian, Friday 1 May 2015

Women who have suffered a serious sexual assault sometimes feel as though they’ve been given a life sentence. The psychological effects can last for years, forcing victims to change their everyday routines and taking away their sense of autonomy. No matter how much we believe in the principle that women should be able to have a few drinks and walk home late at night, just like men, the cultural messages to the contrary are relentless.

That is why a letter written by a young woman who was brutally assaulted three weeks ago is so welcome, and so unexpected that it has made front-page news. Ione Wells, a 20-year-old student at Oxford University, was walking home from an underground station in north London when she was attacked near her family home. As the victim of a serious sexual assault, she was entitled to lifelong anonymity, but she decided to waive that right and publish an open letter to her alleged attacker in the student magazine, Cherwell.

“I cannot address this letter to you,” she begins, “because I do not know your name. I only know that you have been charged with serious sexual assault and prolonged attack of a violent nature. And I have one question.” What this courageous young woman wants to know is whether, while her unknown assailant was beating her head on the ground, tearing her bra and kicking her in the back and neck, he ever thought about the people in his life.

Instead of seeing him as the stereotypical lone predator, she understands that such men have a context. Even if they are able to forget about the fact that they have friends and relatives while they are committing their crimes, her own sense of belonging to a supportive community is undamaged: “I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the cafe under the railway.”

Instead of feeling isolated, as many victims do, Wells sees the attack on her as an attack on her community as well. It is an assault on their shared values, and she believes that her community will prevail because its values are better than the world her attacker inhabits. “You’ve carried out your attack,” she says, “but now I’m getting back on my tube.”

Wells is not the only young woman who has gone public in such a dramaticway. Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts student at Columbia University in New York, was so angry about the way in which the college handled her accusation of rape against a fellow student in 2013 that she began carrying a mattress around the campus in protest. In an interview with New York magazine, she said that the mattress “represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens”, turning it into a symbol of the way in which she claims she has been forced to put her private life in the public domain. On Tuesday, her alleged attacker announced that he is suing the college for allowing Sulkowicz to brand him a rapist.

What both these young women are doing, in very different ways, is insisting that sexual violence demands a response from wider communities. It is not something that victims should have to struggle with on their own, and it certainly isn’t something they should feel shame about.

It has to be said that this is very different from suggesting that every victim should follow their example. Having the choice of lifelong anonymity is an important factor in persuading women who have been attacked to report their experience. But the idea that victims should be able to draw strength from a community that shares their values, rather than blames them, is powerful. The notion that sexual predators exist in communities raises a supplementary question about why those close to them apparently don’t notice danger signs or fail to act. It addresses a matter that has caused a great deal of soul-searching since the exposure of Jimmy Savile.

Complaints against Savile were made during his lifetime, both informally and to the police, but the communities in which he held prominent positions repeatedly failed to recognise or act as a check on his behaviour. According to a report published this week by Surrey police, Savile abused at least 22 pupils and a visitor at Duncroft approved school in Staines over a five-year period in the 1970s. He was given “unrestricted and largely unsupervised” access to the girls’ school and committed at least 46 offences.

For decades, shame was one of the main reasons why more women didn’t reveal their experiences of sexual assault even to friends, let alone to police. Feminist authors and organisations have said for years that this is entirely wrong, pointing out that the responsibility for each and every act of sexual violence lies with the perpetrator. Now some remarkable young women are saying it too.

“You, my attacker, have not proved any weakness in me, or my actions, but only demonstrated the solidarity of humanity,” Ione Wells declares in her open letter. It reflects not just her resilience, but the emergence of networks of families and friends who have much more supportive attitudes towards victims of sexual violence.