Emergent fronts of the global anti-war movement
It has been widely observed that the US-led global alliance against terrorism is a motley assemblage, bound together by expedience rather than principle. Some would say the same about the global anti-war alliance now being constructed to oppose it. Diversity is certainly the hallmark of this emergent movement, but it is both bound together and in some instances profoundly divided over principles. Since the US attack on Afghanistan commenced on 7 October, there have been large-scale protests in most major European cities, notably 50,000 in Berlin and 50,000 on 13 October in London. None of these, however, achieved the resonance, intensity or publicity of the anti-American protests organized by Islamists in Indonesia, Palestine, Kashmir and Pakistan. The US–British bombardment of Afghanistan has been a gift for jihadi elements, but their mortal enemies, the secular Left, have been far from silent.
In Lahore in the last week of September, ﬁve hundred women took to the streets chanting ʻNo to terrorism, no to war! No to Taliban, no to Bush!ʼ We didnʼt see this image on our television screens; probably because it would undermine the current simplistic equations. ʻWe in Pakistan have been the victims of this terrorism for the last ﬁfteen years and will continue to be in the near futureʼ, writes an NGO activist and veteran of the campaign against Ziaʼs military dictatorship. ʻHowever, I do not think that this war is the solution. There is genuinely a strong voice in Pakistan on peace.
Although we are caught between the devil and the deep sea, as any public debate, if not conducted seriously, brackets you immediately with the pro-Taliban forces. But it does not mean that one should not speak. We condemn the terrorism of the Taliban, the US and its allies, especially Britain.ʼ
Nowhere outside the USA and Afghanistan has the impact of 11 September proved more dramatic than in Pakistan. In what seemed the blink of an eye, the alliance between the military and right-wing Islamist organizations – an alliance initially fostered by the US government, and which over the past two decades has poisoned every aspect of public life in Pakistan – was snapped. Musharrafʼs military dictatorship chose the carrot over the stick, and the Pakistani elite seem convinced that the embrace of the USA will strengthen their hand, politically and economically. The jihadi in Pakistan have long enjoyed the advantage of street muscle, and they have sought to deploy it in the anti-US demonstrations. Some elements used these protests as cover for attacks on secular NGOs and aid agencies, with police and military units looking on, impassive. Asked if he recognized any ethical difference between these attacks and the US bombing of Red Cross shelters in Afghanistan, Irfan Mufti, an activist in the Citizensʼ Peace Committee, which has brought together trade unions, human rights campaigners, womenʼs organizations and NGOs, answered ﬂatly, ʻNoʼ. In doing so, Mufti speaks for what a number of commentators consider to be Pakistanʼs silent majority: the millions deeply suspicious of both the Talibanʼs version of Islamic rule and the US military action. On 6 November, ﬁve thousand attended a rally against both war and fundamentalism in Rawalpindi. According to the daily newspaper Dawn (7 November), placards read ʻWar is not an answer to violenceʼ, ʻJustice, not revengeʼ, ʻWe condemn bigotry and revenge in all aspectsʼ. In a statement, the participants said ʻthe US-led military response to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington has plunged the world into a cycle of violence with no deﬁnite end in sight.ʼ
Similar secular peace demonstrations emphasizing opposition to US military action, support for human rights and an internal solution for Afghanistan have now been held in all the major cities, including Quetta, which for some days after 7 October witnessed street battles between jihadi-mobilized youth and military units. The crisis has penetrated into distant southern Punjab, to a church in the semi-desert city of Bahawalpur, where sixteen were gunned down. No one doubts these murders were the work of one of the sectarian jihadi groups that, before Ziaʼs time and the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, were unknown in this Suﬁ-inﬂuenced region. Now, like Bush and Blair, they carry their clash of civilizations into civilian life, including places of worship.
And it is left to the secular peace activists to remind the world that the poverty-stricken Christian community in Pakistan is the subject not only of jihadi terror but also of state persecution, forced to vote in a separate electorate, and hounded under blasphemy laws.
Across the border in India, their counterparts will add that under the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP-led government, violent attacks on Christians and other minorities have proliferated. In the USA and Britain, the fact that a Hindu fundamentalism – as authoritarian and menacing as any of its counterparts in other religions – actually commands state power in the second most populous nation on earth is rarely acknowledged. But in India its hand has been felt ever more heavily since 11 September. The BJP and the Indian elite in general have been among the most ardent champions of the US-led war on terrorism. But, frustratingly for them, they have not yet received the payback they believe they are due, because the USA needs Pakistan more at the moment. In the meanwhile, the BJP and its allies are using the crisis to pursue their strategic offensive against Islamic terrorism at home and abroad, and to boost their drive to Hinduize (and militarize) Indian society. The government has banned radical Islamic student groups and arrested their leaders. It is now trying to push through a new Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, giving police even more arbitrary powers to harass and detain anyone deemed supportive of terrorism.
Since the nuclear tests of 1998 – now, like the Pakistani blasts, given a belated seal of approval by the USA – a diverse citizensʼ movement against nuclear weapons has been taking shape in India. Along with the traditional Left parties, that movement is now mobilizing against the US–British military action, holding vigils, meetings and marches across the country. For the Left and the peace movement in India, opposing the war is an unavoidable part of a long-term struggle against communalism and aggressive nationalism. The writer Praful Bidwai describes it as ʻa rainbow coalition that encompasses artists and scholars, students and researchers, writers and trade unionists, school teachers and theatre people, human rights activists and feministsʼ.
Bidwai stresses that, in addition to objecting to the injustice of the US-led military action, the Indian activists have other related concerns. ʻFirst, the connection between the Afghanistan war and the war “within” being waged by the Hindutva forces to communalize societyʼ. Bidwai cites the recent incursion by Hindu extremists into the demolished mosque in Ayodhya and their desecration of the Taj Mahal, as well as the intensiﬁcation of the war in Kashmir, as ʻall part of this dangerous agenda, related to the BJPʼs cynical electoral calculus.ʼ Second, Bidwai argues that ʻ11 September exposed the colossal stupidity of relying upon massive military force alone for security. South Asiaʼs unique nuclear hostility makes it the worldʼs most dangerous region.
India and Pakistan, locked in a half-century-long HotʼnʼCold war, have plenty of these horror weapons, but few safeguards against their accidental or unauthorized use.ʼ
Such awesome global realities rarely intrude on public discussion in the USA, where the terrain poses daunting challenges for anti-war activists. Since 7 October there have been actions for peace in at least ﬁfty towns and cities: not only New York,
San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, but also Salt Lake City, Sioux Falls and Albuquerque. There have been teach-ins at college campuses across the country.
Opinion polls have begun to register a small swing away from military action. Nonetheless, the atmosphere remains hostile. This should surprise no one. The experience of 11 September was without precedent for people in the USA. Something like an act of war was committed against thousands of civilians in the continental USA, a landmass that had previously seemed immune to attack. To add to the frustration and confusion, this act of war did not quite conform to any of the scenarios conventionally associated with war, not least in the absence of a discernible national enemy. What is worse, thanks to a corporate-sponsored media and political elite, the US people have been denied the tools necessary to make sense of what has happened to them: objective information about the role their country plays in the world and a democratic arena in which dissident voices can be heard. Nonetheless, even among those Americans familiar with their governmentʼs long-standing hypocrisy on terrorism, large numbers have looked to military retaliation to secure ʻjusticeʼ for the victims of 11 September.
Christopher Hitchensʼs polemics against his former allies have been short on logic and riddled with a fundamentalist zeal for extirpating evil, but there is no doubt that he speaks for many on the US liberal-Left.
The facile acceptance of both Afghan civilian casualties and US imperial prerogatives by erstwhile radicals has bewildered (and infuriated) anti-war activists, though some see it as part of a larger pattern. Between the end of the powerful anti-apartheid and Nicaragua solidarity movements of the 1980s and the emergence of a new generation of radicals in Seattle, foreign policy interests were conﬁned to minute minorities.
In particular, criticism of US policies in the Middle East – Palestine and Iraq, above all – remained marginalized. This is not just about the inﬂuence of the Israel lobby.
If its cause were not in accord with the strategic interests of the US corporate elite, it would have counted for much less. The responses to the ʻwar against terrorismʼ testify not only to the legitimation of Islamophobia, but more importantly to the pervasive inﬂuence of American exceptionalism. Sometimes this takes the form of an insistence on the unique and sacrosanct achievement of US democracy, for all its ﬂaws, and the rights and responsibilities presumed to go with this achievement. In other quarters it assumes the guise of a tactical argument: nothing must be said or done that excludes progressives from what appears to be the national consensus that ʻsomething must be doneʼ. Most depressingly, it also takes the form of a ﬂagrant double standard towards human life outside the countryʼs borders.
Despite the disdain of liberal pundits and the indifference of the mass media, US anti-war activists have sustained initiatives in most locales, though unity and co-ordination have proved elusive. Across Europe, the anti-globalization movement has ﬂowed swiftly into the anti-war movement. In the USA, there is greater hesitation. In addition, following 11 September, US labour unions – key components of the anti-globalization campaign since Seattle – have backed off from any protest that might remotely be construed as anti-American. For the most part, US union leaders are making a point of standing shoulder to shoulder with the US government. Undeterred, a small group of union activists – including health workers, teachers, taxi drivers, legal aid attorneys and public servants – have formed New York City Labour Against the War. Describing themselves as the trade unions of ʻGround Zero New Yorkʼ, several hundred New York trade unionists have signed a statement declaring ʻIt is wrong to punish any nation or people for the crimes of individuals – peace requires global social and economic justice.ʼ They also emphasize opposition to racism, attacks on civil liberties and resistance to the job cuts and austerity measures being imposed by employers. Similar labour groups have been formed in Washington and San Francisco. Between 11 September and 1 November more than half a million jobs were lost in the USA. At the same time,
Bush and Congress handed some $200 billion – ﬁve times the annual operating budget of New York City – to the rich and the giant corporations. The grip of jingoism is powerful among the US working class, but so is scepticism about the US government.
There is a creeping suspicion that working people are being asked to pay a disproportionate price for the war, and among black Americans opposition to the military attacks runs at twice the average rate. The longer the war drags on, the harder it will be for the media to maintain the illusion that it has anything to do with securing justice for the victims of 11 September. And as that realization grows, so will the momentum of the US anti-war movement.
A number of political arguments cut across the national boundaries of all the anti-war movements. Even within the secular Left, there are serious differences regarding international law and the role of the UN, the nature of Islamic or other forms of fundamentalism, and the degree of acceptance, if any, of US global prerogatives. These differences – and the fact that they are shared intentionally – are not necessarily bad news for a movement seeking to respond to a multi-faceted global crisis.