Promises Promises

It’s in the air. You can feel it coming like the first rains of winter. Something almost inevitable, and yet when it happens the leaders of the EU will act as dumbfounded and as startled as ostriches that have just pulled their head from the sand, where most of them have buried them all summer. It seems not even the disastrous Brexit vote of no confidence in their institution can galvanise them into action. I am of course talking about the Migrant crisis – which ultimately triggered Brexit and sent such a wave of self centred nationalism around Europe that it now threatens the very foundations of the 60 year old treaty of Rome.

“But hold on” I hear you say. “The flow of economic migrant and refugees has been cut to a trickle – at least those landing in Greece, since the EU negotiated a deal with Turkey.” Yes it did… indeed it did. However, the terms of the deal may be the same but both parties to the deal have changed quite dramatically this past year. As well as Brexit a flurry of serious terrorist incidents throughout Europe have pushed opinions further towards the intolerance of far right nationalism. While in Turkey, after a failed coup attempt in July and the subsequent imposition of a State of Emergency the already polarized population have been pushed even further into an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Any ideas of a free media have all but been snuffed out with many government critical media outlets shut down and replaced with a hard core of government supporting TV and Newspapers now quick to label almost any form of dissent or disagreement with the ruling AKP party as either sympathy for the coup plotters or supporting terrorism.

Photo by Kuwait-Ra’ed Qutena

It hasn’t always been like this. Looking back to the heady days when the EU announced it would be opening various membership accession chapters with Turkey way back in December 2004, it is hard to believe how much things have changed. I remember back then there was a definite belief that Turkey would be a full member of the EU if not before the end of the decade certainly within 10 years at the latest. For myself having lived in the country for a while and understanding what they call the Turkish Mentality which ensured that most things, like business thinking, logic and cultural expectations are very different from those in Western Europe, I was perhaps less optimistic about those prospects. After all important core issues had to be addressed. Health and Safety – while existing in various laws always felt like it was optional. The culture of corruption was pretty much endemic and a stricter enforcement of other laws may have also prevented such things as the unchecked bribe & corruption fest that permeated much of the property boom and bust from 2006 onwards and resulted in a catastrophe for many foreign buyers, too many of whom ended up losing their life savings.

Today the Migrant Agreement is looking more and more like a train wreck in slow motion. Too many European leaders know already that giving Turks visa free travel this year is becoming less and less likely. But few will admit it in public in the hope that Turkey will continue to hold back the flood waters of desperate people, at least until the winter, when the cooler weather and even colder Aegean sea will deter many (but not all) migrants from sailing from Turkey to Greece. As too often is the case the attitude is do little and wait for something to come along or for someone else to come up with an idea. However, there is also a misguided belief that Turkey will still do anything asked of it and jump through any hoop offered to it just to get membership of the EU. That old belief founded on the willingness of a very different type of Turkish government to comply and join at all costs is now totally obsolete.

Eric Cartman moons in front of EU flag
Photo by David Cameron Paisley

Looking back ten years or so to a time when a free media still existed and there wasn’t the current toxic polarisation, where people seem to either adore or despise the ruling elite, the Turks had a definite appetite to become Europeans. But so much has changed since then, even from just a year ago when the 50% to 60% of citizens who do not share the values and vision of the evermore dictatorial government could at least find an unbiased opinion on one of the rapidly shrinking number of TV channels or newspapers still willing to criticise or question the governments policies. However, that has all changed so much in the past few months that many people have stopped watching TV news programs or reading newspapers all together and instead now get their news from the internet. But what if you are not on-line or don’t possess the education to question the bias of what you are told?

After returning from a trip to the UK last month I switched on my TV and scanned the channels. In my satellite system there is a block of about 15 channels together that are mainly news type channels. The President was speaking live somewhere so as usual I expected some of these channels to show his speech. Last year, when there were actually more news channels, perhaps 4 or 5 may have carried his words live. However as I flicked through I came across no less than 11 of those channels carrying his speech. Although half way through I did come to another politician speaking into a microphone and understood from a graphic that he was someone from the opposition CHP party. Although as he spoke, quite mysteriously there was no sound being transmitted by that channel. The surreal atmosphere continued later when a flurry of talking heads on most of those channel that carried the speech began dissecting what had been said with barely a single note of dissent.

It is no secret that many channels have now been removed or closed down on the orders of Judges. However, many of the vacant slots now seem to have been turned over to religious channels. For instance just beyond France24 news, where a couple of kids channels used to broadcast there is one live channel that shows little more than pilgrims circling the Ka’ba in Mecca and the next channel along seems to be a constant loop of sermons, in Arabic, from inside the grand mosque in Mecca.

Why have I said all this? Mainly to illustrate that what many European leaders know about the Turkish people or think they once knew has changed quite dramatically from just a few years ago. It is also as a warning to those who think they can renege on the deal struck with Turkey with no consequences. My own belief is that given a vote to join or not join the EU tomorrow the result might be a resounding No. Long before the Brexit vote people were openly questioning whether Turkey would gain any benefit from membership. Now the government leaning media machine asks little else, when doubts about Turks getting visa free travel are regularly raised. Of course many of those in power know that an ever more dictatorial rule is unlikely to lead to EU membership and that they would need to roll back many of their clampdowns on freedom and human rights to finally join. So while visa free travel (if ever delivered) would be welcome by many its failure to arrive could be used as a blunt tool by some to push the prospect of EU membership further away.

Boat of Refugees as displayed in Dismaland
Photo by Howard Stanbury

Ultimately, when the flames of nationalism are fanned in any country it is usually at the expense of the rule of law. The only winners of any great leap backwards away from the democratic freedoms enjoyed in most of Europe are often the ruling elite who are too often tempted to use it as an excuse to further strengthen their iron grip on power. However the only sure winner if Turkey’s deal with the EU unravels will of course be Vladimir Putin, whose ever more murderous partnership with the Assad regime in Syria ensures that the deluge of Syrian refugees and other migrants crossing to Greece will continue to destabilise Europe for some time to come. Furthermore the collapse of the agreement may also make Putin’s ultimate dream come true if it proves to be the death knell of the European Union and triggers a return for all of us to the volatile and dark nationalistic politics of the early 20th Century.


Burkini Weather

Last week French police officers patrolling the beaches along the Côte d’Azur towards Nice, where handed an extra task: to look out for burkinis – swimwear that covers the body and head, which is preferred by orthodox Muslim women and other women wanting to avoid exposure to too much sun, but is now banned by a growing number of towns.

Burkini Group
Photo by Charles Roffey

The weekend before some tourists taking photographs of women in burkinis were attacked by men of Arabic origin. Cars were burned, eight people were badly injured and five men were arrested on charges of armed assault and face trial next month. After Nice, Cannes followed suit in banning burkinis, then Villeneuve-Loubet, then six more towns. So far four women have been cautioned, liable to fines of €38 each. Cannes police said other women approached by officers had left the beach or changed into bikinis. As someone living in a predominantly Muslim country I find this last part very hard to believe. A woman who is covered in public is highly unlikely to respond to a threat of a €38 fine by taking off her all encompassing burkini before slipping into an Itsy bitsi teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini.

Some police officers admit to an element of what they see as absurdity in adding the new category of “religious offences” to their usual roster of “promiscuity offences” and “public order offences”. But the mood is hardening especially in Nice – scene of the 14 July massacre when a 19-tonne truck was deliberately driven into crowds killing 85 people. France passed a law in 2004 banning religious symbols and clothing, like crosses, Jewish kippas, and headscarves, in public schools. However, all this did was increase the demand for private Muslim schools, pushing even more Muslims out of the mainstream instead of integrating them. A similar law banning the burqa in public spaces was passed in 2010. One quite rightly wonders what would happen if the police came upon a group of Hasidic Jews sitting at a beach side cafe dressed in their characteristic black suits and hats. Also how would they deal with a party of Sikhs all wearing their distinctive turbans or for that matter a Hindu woman in full sari and headscarf having a paddle with her kids? All of these dress codes are rooted in religion and as such should also be banned if the letter of the law is being followed as it is now with a tiny minority of Muslim woman, who have little choice but to wear a burkini if they want to swim.

If you are a regular reader you will already know that I am suspicious of any organised religion, whose overt or covert intolerance of any belief system, other than their own, I regard as little more than sectarian racism. However, beyond the rhetoric and the seemingly endless quest for more followers and finance to push each other’s blinkered agendas, there are many innocents who have little choice. Growing up in a liberal society I was able to make a conscious choice as to whether to pursue or reject the religious path laid out for me by my parents. However, there are many places in the world where this is simply not possible without facing profound consequences. Pressure from the state or perhaps some dictatorship you are born into or because of the egregious penalties, which may be inflicted by your own families are usually enough of a deterrent. Indeed, the nominal penalty for apostasy – the leaving of one’s religion – within some extreme Muslim societies is the threat of, and in some instances actual execution.

Burkinis on Beach
Photo by Charles Roffey

In most cases these burkini clad women have little choice in the matter. Add to this the mismatch of dress regulations handed down by male clerics as a result of one interpretation or other of the Koran and a woman’s room for choice in clothing is all but taken away from her. While many woman may be expected to wear a headscarf at the very least and dress Modestly by not exposing anymore flesh other than her face hands and feet no such restrictions are applied to their husbands, sons or brothers. It is now quite common in my quiet corner of Turkey to come across women wearing Burkin’s who, when they are not in the water are perhaps sitting next to their husbands, who are wearing Speedo’s so skimpy and tight they would make any German man, always champions of the flimsiest swim wear – no matter how old or fat they are – , green with envy. I first wrote about this starkly inequitable spectacle about 3 years ago in my piece Barbie in a Headscarf.

It is perhaps not my place to express any strong opinion on the position of woman in Muslim male dominated societies. However, I would have hoped that the people who make up the rules and regulations about what is and is not appropriate on these French town’s beaches at least understand that the wearing of a burkini is not a provocation but rather the only way some women will ever enjoy the delight of swimming in a warm sea. My own, personal thoughts are that these garments can be unsafe if not downright dangerous if the wearer goes too far out or the conditions become choppy – for rarely have I seen a woman not struggling with the metres of fabric used to make one simply to stay afloat. Still that is their choice to make and not the right of some town’s petty bureaucracy to ban it as a knee jerk response to events elsewhere. It doesn’t have to come down to one religion against another – which is how it comes across from most media outlets, and is exactly the message the religious extremists, who claimed the atrocities in France, want to use to boost their own sophisticated internet recruitment. The shame is that there was always a simple solution but somehow it just got lost in the political hyperbole.

Burkini and surfboard
Photo by Omar Sasha

Designated safe areas for swimming in heavy swimwear for people of any religious or *none religious persuasion. St Tropez and the Côte d’Azur were once at the forefront of personal freedom of expression with the first official topless bathing and then later by allowing public nudist beaches. So how difficult would it have been to have simply designated a very small area of beach as a safe area to swim for burkini clad women? Perhaps underlining the ‘health and safety’ element of the designation by thoughtfully providing a female life guard just in case a lady got into distress. This way the issue may have got little more than a brief mention on some local news program before being quickly forgotten. Instead the ongoing impression from the worlds media coverage, as the ban works its way along the coast like a contagion, is that it is little more than politically motivated Islamophobia.

* Why the ban has actually made the sale of burkinis go up particularly for woman who simply want to avoid the harmful effects of the sun.