Sunday 6 April 2008

Anti-War Movement - Five Years On

Five Years On: what has the anti-war movement achieved?

A recent programme on 18 March on the Iranian news channel Press TV involving two comrades - Cilius from NMP and Nick from RAN - was an interesting start to a debate that needs to be reclaimed by activists before it falls into the hands of the academics and journalists. What has 'Britain's Biggest Mass Movement' (the title of the Stop the War Coalition's 2007 book) managed to achieve? Could it have done more and what lessons can we learn from what it did wrong?

The chair of the television debate, Andrew Gilligan, is a journalist and therefore likes to simplify and personalise everything. This may explain why arguments focused on the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and the make up of its executive committee. StWC on its own is not the anti-war movement but it has been, of course, the leading organisation for the movement's public protests since the invasion of Iraq and the demonstration on 15 February 2003 remains Britain's largest by a long way. However, whilst the size of the march in London undoubtedly worried the government at the time, it did not stop the invasion. This, claim the movement's critics, is the sign of its failure. However, it would be naive to think that simply turning out on one freezing cold Saturday in February would make the government suddenly change its mind, especially when Blair had staked everything on staying close to the US presidency and its neo-conservative agenda.

Still, if street protests are a tactic rather than an end in itself, it is unfortunate that StWC's strategy since 2003 seems to amount to little more than 'keeping on marching', one that has seen increasingly diminishing returns. The fifth anniversary demonstration was the smallest yet, although the rhetoric from StWC's key speakers continues to emphasise that marches will be the way forward in the future. It is important to remember that at the numerical peak of street protest in 2003, the majority of public opinion was in favour of the invasion, but unfortunately, there seems to be little analysis from StWC about why these protests have grown smaller and smaller at a time when the public has become more and more against the war.

Apart from questioning the apparently dubious value of doing the same thing over and over again, it might therefore be worth asking about a number of other issues that could help to guide the way the anti-war movement decides to act in the future. Covering these in any detail would require a blog posting the length of a book (a book that I hope someone will write one day). But the most obvious question is why Muslim Asian communities no longer mobilize for anti-war protests?

In many ways, the mass involvement of Muslim Asian communities in the demonstrations against war in Afghanistan and Iraq are just as significant as the multitude that formed the largest street protest in Britain’s history. After all, it would have been entirely understandable if, as rising levels of Islamophobia before September 2001 spiralled after the attacks on the United States, communities that felt under siege turned inwards. Writing in the International Socialism Journal in autumn 2003, Salma Yaqoob, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition in Birmingham, said that young Muslim Asians made a decision after September 11 that “isolation and withdrawal from wider political institutions is a dead end”. She argues that the anti-war movement “showed how unity and solidarity offers a more positive avenue for Muslims to engage with these wider institutions.”

Whilst this may be true, it does not fully explain why young Muslim Asians in particular decided to engage with the anti-war movement and become politically active alongside peace campaigners and the traditional Left when they had not done so before. It may be that the pace of events and the chaotic nature of the Stop the War Coalition in its early stages meant that the emerging anti-war movement was particularly open to the involvement of a very broad spectrum of opinion. More importantly, the anti-war movement seemed to provide more than just a focus for opposition to military action, but rather against the ‘injustice’ in a broader sense of the ‘War on Terror’ both at home and abroad. This enabled a range of issues, from racism, anti-terror legislation and the hypocrisy of enforcing UN resolutions on Iraq but not on Israel, to bring together a range of otherwise very different opinions, not just amongst Muslim Asians but amongst everyone who marched.

In turn, this meant that unlike the Rushdie Affair in 1989 or the first Gulf War in 1991, Muslim Asians were not only part of a very wide-ranging ‘moral community’, one that distrusted Blair, doubted the motives for war in Iraq and feared the effects of US imperialism. They were also part of an alliance engaging in the most fundamental expression of citizenship – the right of public dissent – that was a sharp rebuke to the government’s narrow definition of what ‘Britishness’ represents.

A Mass Movement with Few Roots

Since the movement’s peak, however, it has been Asian Muslims who have been markedly absent from each successive demonstration, leaving the latest march a sad return to the 57 varieties of left-wing fringe group that was normal before February 2003. Could this be because the Stop the War Coalition became less broad in its spectrum of opinion with the tightening of central control by its leadership? It does seem that the increasing hold over StWC by its dominant organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, has had a number of consequences. The most notable has been the abandonment of efforts to develop local Stop the War groups. Currently, StWC's website lists 110 local groups, the majority of whom are little more than an e-mail address, controlled by a local SWP member, for a 'group' that is reactivated only when there is a demo to promote. As a result, we now have a 'mass movement' that has few local roots.

The Choice of Conservative Allies

It also seems that the narrowing of opinion within StWC has led to its gradual withdrawal from broader ‘injustice’ issues and the breaking up of the ‘moral community’ against the war. Certainly there seems that, lacking a broad-based local network, StWC has seemed content to simply add the name of a Muslim organisation to the list of sponsors of a demonstration and feel that this is sufficient – even if some of these temporary alliances involve groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain, who are effectively the UK branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore part of the Islamic Right.

With little effort to maintain a broad-based coalition and faced with often hysterical criticism of its choice of partners from the pro-war Left, the StWC leadership have responded by simply reaffirming its commitment to ‘standing with Muslim communities’ but has been unable to translate this into anything practical. Others, for example, have taken up opposition to anti-terror legislation and even when new issues emerged that have attracted genuine public disquiet, such as the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006 that only 22% of Britons believed was proportionate, StWC showed considerable nervousness about providing a political critique of some of the actions of its allies. It said nothing about the prominence of the “We Are All Hizbollah” banners on the demonstration it sponsored in London in August 2006 and its most prominent spokesperson, George Galloway, went further in naively (and stupidly, in my view) proclaiming, “I glorify the Hizbollah national resistance movement, and I glorify the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.”

The Problem with George

One of the fundamental questions that must be asked is whether it was wise to hand the most public face of the anti-war movement to George Galloway. 'Gorgeous George' has always chosen to be a divisive figure, as his pro-Hizbollah and, more recently, pro-Iranian government statements have shown. However, the main consequence of making him the de facto 'leader' of the movement against war was the siphoning off of considerable focus and energy into the establishment of the Respect party, whose principle task (if we are honest) was the re-election of George Galloway.

There are long arguments to be had about Respect as a political project, but if it was really the best way of providing, in Salma Yaqoob's words, "a more positive avenue for Muslims to engage", then it also involved handing the mantle of leadership back to an older, more conservative generation. In Newham, for example, younger activists who had organised a massive march in protest against the local MP and government minister Stephen Timms when he broke his promise and voted for war without a second UN resolution, were conspicuously absent from the party's election platforms, which were dominated by religious leaders. This conveyed the unfortunate impression that Muslim Asians, probably the most diverse minority population in Britain, were expected to obediently vote for Respect because of their faith and the instruction of their community ‘leadership’, rather than because of the politics of the party, at a time when the anti-war movement had if anything increased the diversity of opinion within Muslim Asian communities.

Can the Anti-War Movement Do More?

So anyway, these are a few observations. As I said earlier, there is a book that could be written about the lessons that should be learnt from the development of the anti-war movement in Britain.

I am sure of one thing, though. February 2003 seems like a long way away, but the war rumbles on. Can pounding the streets of London, in demonstrations that are ignored by even committed activists, be the only reaction we have left?

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.