Importance of protest

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

March 19, was the second anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Although several rallies and demonstrations were held in Europe protesting against the war and calling for the withdrawal of American troops from the war ravaged country, the voices were relatively muted.

In Pakistan it was hardly remembered that it was on this day two year ago when terror rained down on Baghdad. Apart from a handful of demonstrators, who described themselves as the citizens of Pakistan and observed a token show of protest before the Karachi Press Club by holding placards with anti-American slogans inscribed on them, the day went largely unnoticed.

The marchers in England were most vocal but nothing compared to the anti-war campaigners of 2002 and 2003 when they had gone all out to preempt the war which had appeared to be imminent at that time. But now that the war is over and the world appears to have adjusted to the devastation unleashed on Iraq, most of the peace campaigners have moved on.

If the activists in England showed more interest in the anniversary of the invasion than their colleagues on the European continent, it was because the Britons are gearing up for the general elections expected to take place in May. The voters face a dilemma. Public opinion polls show that the Labour Party is way ahead of the Tories and should sweep the polls. But there are many Labour supporters who don’t want Tony Blair to lead the country. They are angry at what they term his role as “President Bush’s poodle”. They want him to pull out British troops from Iraq and would spare no opportunity to embarrass him.

What was surprising was the indifference which marked the people’s attitude in Pakistan. After all the war proved to be as deadly as it had been feared at the time. According to an estimate by Lancet, the prestigious medical journal in Britain, 100,000 civilians were killed in Iraq. These were not just casualties. Behind each death was the grief, sorrow and trauma of the families for whom the world had ended.

The looting of the national treasures and legacies from the museums and libraries also left the Iraqi society battered and the post-war reconstruction — politically, socially and economically — is proving to be a big challenge.

Worse still, it has now been confirmed that the war plans were built on a pack of lies. No traces were found of the weapons of mass destruction which President Saddam Hussein was supposed to have stocked up. The liberation that the Iraqis had been promised is still a pipedream and the blessings of democracy that Mr Bush was so keen about endowing to the people of Iraq has hardly brought any comfort to the people. If anything, after the war of March-April 2003 violence has ripped Iraq and it is difficult to believe how and when it will ever end.

How could we then have forgotten the miseries of the Iraqis? The fact is that as a nation we cannot mobilize ourselves easily — on a voluntary basis — for any cause. The only occasion when one can expect a few hundred people to show up to register their protest is when their emotions are truly roused. The religious parties manage to gather bigger crowds because they excel in the art of mobilization which they practise on a regular basis to keep the party active.

In the case of Iraq, which is a highly emotional issue, it seems that a state of war fatigue has set in. The public’s feelings for the Iraqis have been numbed and now there are other issues — of greater immediacy — to feel concerned about.

Political parties are the main source of mobilization in any society. It is mainly their function to inform and educate the masses and bring them together to show their strength. The political parties in Pakistan, even in the heyday of democracy, have failed to perform these functions effectively. Under a military ruler even though the system has all the trappings of democracy, many of the political parties are in disarray with their leaders in exile or self-exile.

The most organized ones — the MMA and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement — prefer to focus on issues that will fetch them political advantages. The turbulence in Balochistan, the president’s uniform and other similar issues today provide them with the pretext of disturbing peace and capturing the limelight.

They fail to convince the public that they really stand for democracy and freedom. The Muttahida is part of the government and when it attacks the government its contradictions are difficult to explain. As for the MMA, people still remember its crucial role in getting the 17th Amendment adopted by the National Assembly.

Iraq does not fit into the scheme of things of the parties in Pakistan at the moment. Since President Musharraf decided to keep out of the Iraqi quagmire, American pressure notwithstanding, it is strange that the opposition parties find no reason to sympathize with the Iraqis. It would not provide them with the ammunition they need to attack the president. They are more interested in their political self-interest and do not take a global perspective of vital issues.

Although this causes dismay, it is still important to protest against the invasion of Iraq. The global peace movement appears to have made no impact on American policy in Iraq. But the earlier voices of protest were heard in the corridors of power. In Pakistan, had it not been for the protests in support of the Iraqis, our troops would have landed in Iraq.

And now when the US seems to be gunning for Iran on grounds of nuclear proliferation, Washington has so far shown more constraint than it had in 2003 when it was preparing to attack Iraq. Protest is important not just for Iraq where the situation continues to be alarming. It is also important to pre-empt an attack on Iran.