How the West might be won
Peace groups in Britain are in ascendancy as the international anti-war movement flexes its muscle. But Nyier Abdou asks whether they have enough influence to change the course of history
For British radicals -- the Leftists, the political agitators -- these are exciting times. Dramatically drawn back into the spotlight as the vanguard of a burgeoning anti-war movement, these are the politicos so often identified as "the usual suspects" -- the few crazies who want to bring down the government at whatever cost. Attached to an increasingly popular cause, however, they are a formidable adversary for the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and they do not seem so crazy -- or so few.
At the heart of the anti-war movement emanating from Britain is the socialist Left. But mounting additions of anti-war sympathisers from across the political and social spectrum are padding out that image. The remarkable outcome is that there has been a shift towards a scrutiny of the issues being played out in the public domain. It's a battle of the dogmas -- might makes right versus people power; unilateralism versus internationalism; pragmatism versus ideology.
The London-based Stop the War Coalition gets top billing when it comes to recent anti-war activities, particularly the enormous demonstrations staged throughout Britain on 15 February. But the freshman group works in tandem with two other well-established peace groups: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). MAB Spokesman Anas Al-Tikriti stresses that each organisation has played its own vital role, but admits that the Stop the War contingent has offered a touch of glitz. Noting that it was the Stop the War team who brought prominent figures like American activist Jesse Jackson and pop diva Ms Dynamite on board for the 15 February protest, Al-Tikriti told Al- Ahram Weekly that producing "so many names" was "vital" and gave the movement "an image that it's not the usual suspects anymore -- the Marxists, the Communists".
An organising group that brings together CND, MAB and Stop the War has met regularly since the beginning of January and the three groups cooperate closely on all activities. A lot of the work that the MAB did in preparation for the 15 February demonstrations, besides lending additional legitimacy to the movement, was behind-the-scenes stuff -- the nuts and bolts of organisation. It may not be flashy, but where would Ms Dynamite strut her stuff without the stage on which the Hyde Park rally was held?
The MAB, founded in 1997, aims to raise awareness about Muslim issues and works to integrate Muslim society into British politics while maintaining a sense of Islamic community and values. "I think the role of the MAB was linking the 'Stop the War' call to an ideology -- something that lies at the heart of people around the country," says Al- Tikriti. For the Muslim community, this meant being roused from a deep slumber of political apathy. British Muslims, says Al-Tikriti, have been "living on the fringes of society", having nothing to do with politics or social issues.
"You can sit in the mosque all day," Al-Tikriti said, "but life is going on outside." The MAB has sought to chip away at this inwardness -- what Al- Tikriti calls "bringing Islam to life, and life to Islam". On the point of war in Iraq, "you'll find Iraqi's on both sides of the fence", but he counts it as an achievement to have brought "the ideology and passion to the argument".
At the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Vice- Chair Kate Hudson lauds the surprisingly small staff at Stop the War as "very energetic and dynamic", but notes that groups like CND and MAB are unable to funnel all their resources "absolutely and completely" into the anti-war project. Asked if she thought that mass demonstrations were actually capable of stopping war in Iraq, Hudson says she thinks it's a "possibility". Millions on the streets across the globe may not be the sole factor in changing the course of war, Hudson says, but "brave governments" like Germany and France have staked out "a very political stand".
"I think that they are representing the vast majority of the population of Europe," says Hudson, adding that the "mass display of public opinion" on 15 February offers support and strength to their position. Al-Tikriti agrees, saying that if Blair is convinced that the issue could cost him his job, he will think twice. "If Mr Blair decided not to go ahead with the Americans on this, America won't do it alone," says Al-Tikriti. "America's biggest supporter is Britain -- not even the American people. There is a real dependency on Britain." With polls in Britain showing the majority against the war, Al- Tikriti says that the leadership must stop and think about "why it has to bend over backwards and convince people to go to war -- there's something funny about it."
For almost half a century, CND has predominantly been concerned with bringing about the abolition of British nuclear weapons, although it also works against nuclear proliferation and all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in general. "Of course, currently, we're very much focussing on the danger of war against Iraq," says Hudson. "We're very concerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in that conflict. We think there's a very real danger of that, given that both our government and the US government have a nuclear first-use policy -- which of course they didn't used to have, but they have that now".
On the issue of WMD, Hudson stresses the importance of consistency: "full and impartial application" of the law. Naturally, she says, CND is for the disarmament of Iraq -- "if it happens to have [WMD], and there is no evidence that it does." In the same way, she adds, Britain should itself be stripped of its nuclear weapons, as should all nuclear weapon states. "One shouldn't have double standards, you know. All things should be complied with by all countries, and it shouldn't really depend on how powerful or how favoured the country is... We don't think it's okay for one country to have nuclear weapons and for the others not to. No one should have them, and that should be applied rigorously." Confronted with the cold logic that this is unlikely to happen, Hudson is stalwart. "It does [seem unlikely], but, nevertheless, we've been campaigning since 1958 to bring that about, and we're going to carry on doing that."
For CND, the anti-war movement has served to breathe new life into the cause of nuclear disarmament. Hudson says that as the war drive has picked up speed, there's been increased awareness about weapons of mass destruction. But it's an uphill battle. As a good example, Hudson says that when their teams go out and campaign about Britain's nuclear-powered Trident submarine system, which are on patrol 24 hours a day, "the vast majority of people don't know what Trident is." And yet the basic facts are astounding. Each submarine carries 48 independently-targeted nuclear warheads -- each seven times more powerful than the first atomic bomb. The programme costs Britain £1.5 billion per year.
"I think that during the Cold War, there was a heightened awareness of nuclear issues," suggests Hudson. "But after 1991, although the weapons remain, people said, 'Ah, the Cold War's over. We don't need to worry about that.' And somehow they thought that it wasn't an issue anymore -- that we don't need CND anymore... The challenge for us has been: how can we get everyone to know about it?"
With the focus on weapons in Iraq and US-UK military operations, both during the 1991 Gulf War and plans for a new war, CND's long history of raising awareness about disarmament has been called into play. As for the prospect of the US and UK going it alone in Iraq, Hudson is adamant. "We believe everything should be done in the framework of international law -- international humanitarian law," she says. "That body of law may not be perfect, but it's what we have, and to act outside that is on the road to disaster.
"You can't run the world by individual states deciding that they think they will get rid of someone -- particularly when they put him in place in the first place, and then armed him to fight Iran, which everyone knows. But the main thing is that it is not acceptable -- it's not legal under international law -- to bring about regime change, externally, by going to war against a country." The Iraqi people, she notes, have suffered under sanctions and they will suffer through another war. "What's the point of killing people in order to allow them to live in democracy?" she asks. "It seems a sort of very inconsistent argument, really. Not a credible argument, really."
In the anti-war movement, issues like justice and human rights -- which MAB's Al-Tikriti notes are "at the fore of any faith" -- come together behind a cause. "For us, as Muslims, we have to cooperate with those who work for the betterment of humanity," says Al-Tikriti. Highlighting conflicts such as Chechnya and Rwanda, he warns that these are "man-made disasters" but no lessons were learned from these conflicts, he suggests. The aftermath of the attacks on 11 September has wrought an era of uncertainty and paranoia and many people are convinced that war in Iraq is likely to generate more instability. And yet, US policy on Palestine and the escalating tension in India and Pakistan are "creating a dangerous world to live in.
"Look at the world before 11 September and look at our world now," says Al-Tikriti. "Which is safer?"