Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No reason to rest

One year on from the fall of Baghdad into the hands of US-led occupation forces, anti-war sentiment in the West remains strong, organised and active, reports Serene Assir

Click to view caption
Clockwise from left: London rose against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003, but the protests went unheeded and the illegal invasion was launched. On 9 April last year Saddam Hussein's regime fell, an event that was marked by the toppling of the former leader's statue on Firdous Square in Baghdad. Today, there is no sign of the peace or "liberation" that the occupation forces speak of. This week, Iraqi Shia supporters of cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr demonstrated in Najaf as the Iraqi death toll rises and the occupation grows more oppressive

Unprecedented in scale and energy, worldwide opposition to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq by United States and British-led forces has over the past year given rise to mass demonstrations, international movements and hundreds of organisations demanding an end to bloodshed and plunder. Several of the so-called democratic regimes of the West have been faced with this most vocal and organised global movement, and the internationalisation of political and human rights discourse.

In an increasingly globalised world, this popular reaction attests to a heightened understanding of power politics among citizens of First World states, and a desire by many to address the problem of the growing divide between the world's rich and poor as well as a desire to actively participate in policy formation -- something which, at this stage, the concentration of power in the White House will not permit.

The clearest manifestation of dissent has come in the form of widespread demonstrations. Both in the run-up to and during the war, millions took to the streets to express outrage at their governments' greater or lesser involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and their solidarity with the Iraqi people. Some of the protests readily made history. On 15 February 2003 -- a day that witnessed hundreds of simultaneous protests across the world -- two million marched in London, one million in Madrid and one million in Berlin. On 20 March last year, when Anglo-American coalition forces launched the invasion, cities across Europe and the US spontaneously erupted in protest. This year, 12 months on, in 700 cities throughout the world protests signalled an ongoing rejection of the rhyme and reason behind the attack, with 100,000 demonstrating in New York alone.

The reach of these demonstrations extends beyond the expression of solidarity and the search for an end to the occupation. Human rights in the West are understood to be at stake if the question of Iraq is not resolved and in accordance with international law. "People in Europe see the anti-war movement like the civil rights movement in the US," Spokesperson for the UK branch of the Stop the War Coalition Ghada Razuki told Al-Ahram Weekly. The occupation of Iraq, as part of US President George W Bush's "war on terror", is felt by the majority of participants in the anti- war movement to constitute a dangerous infliction by neo- colonial regimes on the rights of expression and participation in politics of their own people. Where is national, never mind global, democracy, they ask?

In reaction to the ever greater institutionalisation of a pro- US line in mainstream media, culture and politics, a plethora of alternative positions and activities have been developed in an attempt to expose the lies fed to the populations of Western countries as justification for war, as well as the effects of the coalition's "war on terror" at home and abroad. From Iraq Body Count -- a Web site whose creators log the number of civilian deaths in Iraq from the start of the invasion; a number the US State Department has consistently refused to name -- to Electronic Iraq -- a Web site offering independent analysis and reports from the ground as an alternative to the information offered by "embedded" journalists -- the ideas generated by Europeans and Americans to counter control over thought and information indicate a profound comprehension of the alliance between the media giants and governments perpetrating war.

The movement has also taken upon itself the enormous task of revealing and denouncing crimes carried out by Western governments. The war on Iraq may have triggered this development, but it is by no means the only issue now in question. Along with the emergence of a number of US organisations whose goal is to bring back the troops, emphasising the illegality of the occupation, numberless groups have emerged to expose issues of economic imperialism, immigration rights and abuses, and the radical curtailment, through domestic legislation like the Patriot Act in the US or the Anti-Terrorism Act in the UK, of enshrined and hard-won democratic guarantees.

Such unified action has given rise to the demand for new levels of participation in politics. In Spain, the rightist government of President José Maria Aznar collapsed in just three days under the pressure of a population that was outraged by lies generated about the 11 March bombings in Madrid; an attack that was understood, to a great extent, to be consequence of the government's alliance with the US over Iraq. The new regime of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has promised the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq by the end of June should the United Nations not replace the US and take charge on the ground, constituting what the anti-war movement perceives to be a solid victory.

Behind the day-to-day developments of the movement, the creation of a new "rhetoric" is "extremely important", French academic-activist, writer and delegate in the European Parliament Sami Nair told the Weekly. "It is extremely important to emphasise the illegitimacy of the new Iraqi regime, and to stress the complicity of some traitors to their country. What we need to do is to pressure our governments into respecting the rights of the Iraqi people," he added.

The anti-war movement -- which perhaps better ought to be thought of as a global rights movement -- has been empowered by its leadership's eloquence. Writers, journalists, artists, actors, politicians and seasoned activists have emerged as the heads of this political phenomenon, and a strong counter- discourse has emerged to lay bare as hypocrisy the discourse of "liberation", "democracy" and "human rights" propagated by the US-led occupation regimes, Nair added.

In Britain, this discourse has become so powerful and the anti-war movement so mobilised that, over the past few months, following the expulsion of one of the movement's most prominent spokesmen, George Galloway MP, from the Labour Party, a new political party -- Respect: The Unity Coalition -- was established. The slogan of "Regime change begins at home", so often used in demonstrations, has become the heart of this party's policy. "In Britain the anti-war movement seeks to turn the European elections [to be held on 10 June this year] into a referendum on Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, war and occupation," Galloway told the Weekly. "Only when we have kicked down the doors of an unresponsive political system by following up the marching with voting will we shake the political system to force a change."

An important dimension of the movement is the fact that though it may be divided over other issues it is intrinsically unified over the question of Iraq. Most poignant has been the high level of participation by Muslims living in the West. Press officer for the Muslim Association of Britain, Yasmin Ataullah, told the Weekly that opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq has heavily counted on, and mobilised, ethnic and religious minorities. Usually excluded from mainstream politics by virtue of their virtual ghettoisation in most Western cities, this time around minorities have seen their political identity gain credence. "As Muslims, we feel sadness and anger at the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Iraq ... Such anger, combined with fears for future peace, security and stability, has galvanised British Muslims into taking action to ensure that our voices are heard."

Seen from within, the outreach of the movement has been significant in that it has mobilised the West out of the post- Cold War lull of relative apolitical neutrality, becoming in addition a force in its own right -- providing access to information on the reality of occupation, publicly denouncing crimes of war and demanding the end of an era dominated by the violence and greed of the world's only superpower. The movement has spelt out the need for individuals to take power into their own hands, and to work towards the creation of a more participatory system in which the needs of variegated communities within societies can be met.

Nonetheless, much remains to be won. The fact of the matter is, despite massive protests and popular anti-war sentiment, Operation Invade and Take Over Iraq largely succeeded. Indeed, stepping up from the ground and taking in the broadest panorama, the governments of Washington and London arguably have emerged wealthier and more powerful, their hegemony militarily more secure, following their imperial venture.

When asked about whether he felt the anti-war movement in itself constitutes a substantial obstacle to the occupation of Iraq, the American anti-establishment novelist Gore Vidal bluntly told the Weekly : "No." His pessimism is a far cry from the mood so often expressed by activists, but possibly reflects an attempt to come to terms with the darkness of the times we live in. When asked what conditions he feels are necessary in order to bring about substantial change in the current world order, Vidal responds: "This question has been asked since 1947. You ask me a question like 'what is death?'" About the possibility of the international situation changing on the shorter term, he says: "The US government is in a very strange mood, one that only understands the use of preemptive force. With this administration nothing much can happen."

The telephone interview comes to an abrupt end when we turn to discuss US politics, as "this is not something we can talk about over the phone". On the one hand, so much for free speech. On the other, have we yet underestimated the scale of the citadels of imperial power? Vidal would have reason to know.

If the masterminds behind the seizure of power and resources have understood that current administrations can be replaced with their systems of power intact, then the anti- war movement must reinvent the traditional parameters of the politics of protest. The movement has understood that it is corporate giants that control US-policy formation, not Bush and Blair. "The US has privatised Iraqi oil, and now owns both the oil and the sovereignty of the people of Iraq," Nair said.

The anti-war movement would do well to remember, as Vidal underlined, even in refusing to address it, that as far as true change is concerned, "everything begins at home". The beauty of the movement lies in its unity over fundamental ethics and its spontaneity. But with enemies so powerful, and true democracy, even in the West, a distant dream, there is little reason to celebrate just yet.

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