Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 Dec. 2002 - 1 Jan. 2003
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Democracy first

The anti-war campaign is as much about democracy as about stopping the war. Harald Schumann, an outspoken German advocate of democracy spoke to Gamal Nkrumah

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Demonstrators outside the Embassy of Qatar in Cairo on Saturday protesting Qatari support for a possible US strike against Iraq
German journalist Harald Schumann created something of a spectacle at the International Campaign against Aggression on Iraq (ICAA) conference recently held in Cairo when after hearing an Iraqi official defend the human rights record in Iraq and boasting of the government's commitment to democracy, he stormed out of the session. Schumann says that a condition for his attendance at the event was that it not be used as a podium by the Iraqi government. "I was promised that no speaker would be connected with the Iraqi regime. In no way do I want to be associated with the government in Baghdad. I am here in Cairo to defend the Iraqi people," Schumann told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Schumann's angry outburst highlighted the presence of adherents of various ideological and political strands at the ICAA conference. The comments and the debate his action generated also served to push a wedge between those mainly Arab participants who were fundamentally uncritical of the Iraqi government and those Arab and non-Arab participants who wished to focus on the lack of democratisation in much of the Arab world.

Schumann is political editor of the prestigious German daily Der Speigel. He has written extensively about globalisation and the anti-globalisation movement, and has recently published a bestseller entitled, What the Globalisation Critics Want (April 2002), which has not been translated into English. He also authored the widely acclaimed The Globalisation Trap which has been translated into English and Arabic.

Schumann said that many of the speakers at the conference did not offer an honest analysis of the situation. He conceded that the main purpose of the conference was to stop the impending aggression against Iraq, but that it was naïve and intellectually dishonest to simplify the argument and reduce discussion to denouncing the United States as evil.

"I think the struggle against US hegemony begins at home. We have to push our own governments -- whether in Germany, France, Sweden, Japan or Korea -- to not co-operate with the US government or contribute in any way to the military build-up against Iraq," Schumann said. He stressed that the prevailing international sentiment is anti- war. "I'm not entirely sure the US will go to war without a UN mandate. The Russians have absolutely no interest in a reduction to international oil prices, being a major oil exporter that is increasingly dependent on crude oil exports for hard currency earnings," Schumann explained. Added to that factor, he argued, an all out assault on Iraq would be internationally unacceptable. In that respect, he suggested that it would be very difficult for the US to convince the United Nations to give it another mandate to attack Iraq. He also thinks that politically it will be extremely difficult for the US to act unilaterally without a strong UN mandate. "It will create a precedent. The Bush administration will open up a Pandora's box if it goes ahead and launches a full- scale attack on Iraq without a UN mandate," he said.

Schumann believes that the only way to advance the campaign against US aggression in Iraq is to win over the US media, and he sincerely believes that this can be done. Responding to the observation that many in the Arab world believe that the US media is biased against Arab and Muslim countries because it is controlled by powerful Zionist interests, Schumann says, "Not true". He is no conspiracy theorist and strongly believes that the US is genuinely democratic. "Whatever one thinks about the US political establishment one cannot but admit that the US is a true democracy. They love democracy in America. The US was the first truly democratic state. That is the reason it is so strong today," Schumann told the Weekly.

In sharp contrast, the undemocratic nature of the vast majority of Arab countries makes them weak in the international arena, he suggested. "The Arab anti-war protest movement is articulated by shadowy and undemocratic regimes," Schumann said.

Schumann reserved his strongest criticism for the Iraqi regime, but he also had strong words for the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries. "There is much hypocrisy in the Arab world," he said, lamenting the lack of protest in Arab countries against Arab states that offer military facilities to the US military such as Qatar and Kuwait. "Why the public silence?" he demanded.

Schumann has no time for those who wallow in self-pity. "Self-victimisation is not constructive in any way. For the Arab protest movement to be credible it must be open and self-critical. The Arab world must realise that the lack of democratic tradition is the main reason behind the lack of Arab credibility in international affairs. Most Germans don't know what exactly the Arab cause is," he added.

Schumann pointed out that in Germany it is very difficult to criticise Israel. "You can lose your job for daring to criticise Israel openly. Anti-Semitism is a serious offence that the Germans do not take lightly," he explained. Moreover, Schumann said that the sensitivities about Israel and anti-Semitism are even more pronounced today than they were a decade or two ago. Germans, Schumann said, are on the whole sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; most understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they know who the victim is. However, they do distinguish between sympathy with the Palestinians' predicament and a strong sense of obligation towards Israel based essentially on the memory of the atrocities committed against Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

Germany's turbulent past is also key to understanding another more general political sentiment; namely, a national abhorrence for war. "On a popular level, there is strong anti-war sentiment. Germans are opposed to war -- any war. There is a strong sense of national collective consciousness against war."

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