The multitude’s quest for peace

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ON February 15, peace activists in 60 countries and 400 cities of the world joined hands to demonstrate against the impending war on Iraq. Nearly ten million people are estimated to have responded to their call and turned up at the rallies that were organized. Once again it was plain that the phenomenon of the shrinking of international borders and the globalization of the peace movement has come to stay.

This process has been facilitated by the freer movement of capital and, to some extent, the mobility of people. It has been further reinforced by communication technology. Also a major contributing factor has been the thrust towards democratic and open societies which encourage public participation in all sectors of life.

But there were some significant points to be noted about what happened last Saturday. The rallies were bigger in Europe and North America — London’s demonstration attracted the largest number of people (said to be two million). Although the main brunt of war, if it comes, will be on Third World countries and devastate their economies and societies, their response was relatively muted and not as massive as that in Europe and America. This would appear to be strange, especially when the people of Asia seem to be pretty aware of the fate that awaits them if Iraq is attacked.

Take the case of Pakistan, where public opinion has been quite vocal against an American attack on Iraq and where the media has been very vocal in its criticism of President George W, Bush’s policy which is now widely believed to be directed at promoting the oil interests of some powerful individuals in the administration. Moreover, American bombardment of Afghanistan in the post-9/11 weeks provoked a strong backlash against any further attacks on any country in the region.

Yet the religious parties whose rallies made headlines in the foreign electronic media in the aftermath of the savage American bombing of Afghanistan and who have adopted a clear stand against the American war on Iraq chose not to join the international peace rallies on Saturday. The political parties, which seem to have exhausted their stamina after their wheeling and dealing in the wake of the October 10 elections and the forthcoming Senate polls, were also conspicuous by their absence from the scene. Only the ever active women’s groups and progressive writers and intellectuals joined hands to register their protest along with the peace activists all over the world. Saturday’s rallies in Pakistan were quite impressive by local standards.

The moot question is, will these demonstrations have an impact and deter Mr Bush, enjoying the full backing of his key supporter in Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, from going ahead with his planned military action against Iraq? From the statements emanating from Washington and London it appears that the Bush administration’s resolve to take on Iraq and bring about a regime change has not been weakened by this worldwide show of dissent. But some modification in its stance is discernible. This may initially involve postponing military action for some time and giving the arms inspectors more time to hunt for prohibited weapons and materials.

Some observers feel that Mr Bush will not be deterred by the peace rallies because he believes that he can get away with its recourse to force against delinquent Iraq and emerge unscathed as he did in Afghanistan. This could prove to be a grave miscalculation. The attack on Afghanistan came within a month of 9/11 when America as well as Europe was still in a state of shock and fear. Hence it was easy to convince the people that punitive action against Afghanistan was the only way of rooting out the evil of terrorism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. That is not the case with Iraq today and Mr Colin Powell’s repeated assertion that the need is to disarm Iraq — by pulverizing it if need be — because of the danger it poses has not found ready acceptance. Hence the compulsion for the American and British governments to be more circumspect, especially when their popularity ratings are falling.

At a time when the common goal of the international peace movement and the people of Pakistan is to oppose war on Iraq, it is important that we should join hands with the peace activists worldwide. The marches on Saturday were not a sporadic phenomenon. They had been planned after the peace rally in London in October drew a massive crowd. The idea caught on after the Porto Allegro meeting of the Social Action Forum in January. The activists will meet in London next month to plan their future course of action.

It needs hardly to be emphasized that the people in the Third World, who are most vulnerable to war and its after-effects should be in the forefront of a peace movement. It is true that this kind of activism does not come easily to the impoverished classes which are weighed down by their struggle for survival on a day-to-day basis. To find out, ask a woman who spends four hours everyday to fetch water for her family, and she will tell you how hard the struggle for bare existence is for large sections in poor countries. But political parties and religious groups do manage to mobilize the people when they want to. The NGOs and CBOs which are networking with one another and interacting with the people at the grassroots level should be setting up the structures without which mobilization is not possible. Political parties need to understand that they will have to broaden their sights and link up with shared causes all across the globe.

While this is important for many reasons, the foremost priority is of course peace. It is not surprising that governments and big businesses do not always share the aspirations of the people. While the majority of men and women want to live in peace so that they can pursue goals like development, self-uplift and emancipation, governments have a vested interest in the acquisition of armaments, control over territory and resources and the manipulation of power. All these make conflict and war often inevitable.

Hence the need for pacifists all over the world to join hands. One has something to learn from the 3,000 Arabs and Jews in Tel Aviv who marched together on Saturday and the peace activists in India and Pakistan, who lighted candles at the Wagah border. Will their governments ever get their message — peace in Palestine and peace in Kashmir?

Will these demonstrations make any difference? The answer should be seen in the wider perspective of the system of international relations as it is emerging today. Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the cold war ended followed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the bipolar international system has changed. A new world order based on the predominance of the United States, the sole superpower today, is taking shape.

This also spells the end of the balance of power which injected a degree of stability into the state system in post-Napoleonic Europe since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The new world system is in effect coming to be based on the hegemony of one state whose powers go beyond national boundaries, thanks to the globalization spearheaded by the multinationals. This is the new “Empire” forecast by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book of the same name (2000).

According to these two academics, imperial power can no longer resolve the conflict of social forces. Previously it was the state which would contain these conflicts. Now you have on the one side the “Empire”, which has no territorial centre of power or territorial boundaries, and the masses of the exploited and subjugated on the other, called the “multitude”. One can regard the growing peace movement as a manifestation of the will and power of the so-called “multitude”.

In this struggle which in due course will acquire global dimensions, it would be unwise of the Muslim world to isolate itself from the rest of the “multitude”. By not joining the peace rallies on February 15, the religious parties in Pakistan in effect are attempting to distance themselves from the mainstream. If this process continues this will not only create divisions in the “multitude” but will in the long run weaken the Muslim world which already lacks homogeneity and solidarity and therefore strength.