Zenith and nadir of February 15

On Saturday, February 15, wherever the sun shone, it was an extraordinary sight: anti-war protesters had filled the streets. In New Zealand, where the sun rises before it does anywhere else in the world, thousands gathered in cities across the country. Over the Auckland harbour, a plane trailed a banner reading “No War—-Peace Now,” at the America’s Cup sailing competition. In Japan, the land of the rising sun, more than 5,000 people protested in front of the US embassy against the American plan to invade Iraq. In Australia hundreds of thousands of people protested against the United States and their own government. Peace rallies were organised in South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Lebanon, and Syria. In the biting cold of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Brussels, and Ukraine people came out on streets protesting against the United States. Crowds were estimated at 10,000 in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, 5,000 in Capetown and 4,000 in Johannesburg in South Africa. Berlin, Amsterdam, and London saw some of the largest peace rallies in modern times.

But more important than that: In the Bosnian city of Mostar, Muslims and Croats united for an anti-war protest—-the first such cross-community action in seven years in a place where ethnic divisions here remain tense despite the 1995 Bosnian peace agreement. In the divided Cyprus, about 500 Greeks and Turks braved heavy rain for a march which briefly blocked the end of a runway at a British air base.

All the countries mentioned above are different from one another in many ways: language, culture, history, race, outlook, to say the least. And yet they were united in denouncing war and demanding peace. Why? The answer is: Democracy. Syria’s and Malaysia’s political systems are far from perfect and favour the parties in power; but elections are held in both countries that do give voice to opposition. That’s perhaps the reason that in these countries the anti-war protests were organised by the governments.

The significance of the anti-war protests all over the democratic world is that people can freely express their displeasure with their own rulers if they feel the latter are transgressing the mandate that the former’s vote has given them. It was quite a sight in Glasgow on 15 February where Tony Blair was presenting his pro-war case, and many in the audience were upholding no-war placards. The government of the United States is hell-bent on invading Iraq; but millions of Americans have been protesting against their own government.

But 15 February had its darker side too. The sun, by and large, did not shine on the Muslim world. The autarchs of the Central Asia, the monarchs of the Arab world, and the “democrats” of Pakistan and Egypt expressed their support for peace efforts in Iraq, but at the same time were quick to endorse their support to the US-led war against terror, which explicitly means invading Iraq. The rulers—-in fact the abusers of power—-of the Islamic world are busy undermining the very foundations of their societies by suppressing dissent. George Bush and Tony Blair, whatever they are, dare not suppress dissent, thanks to the democratic system in their countries.  On the contrary, the Muslim countries are more or less graveyards of human rights. For example, in the “democratic” Egypt alone there are sixty thousand political prisoners who have never been put through a legal trial. In the pseudo-democracies of the Central Asia, the opponents of governments disappear for good. Imagine the Islamic countries where not even a shred of democratic pretence exists. . . 

In the history of the world peace February 15 will be remembered the day when democracy—-the political system of the infidel, as the Muslim fanatics claim—-triumphed by transcending over the barriers of race, religion, geography, language, and many more. Even if sometimes democracy puts the wrong people in power, non-democratic systems—-like the ones in almost all the Islamic countries—-produce the worst abusers and violators of human rights and dignity. Everyone knows that invading Iraq is George Bush’s ultimate dream. And yet, thanks to democracy, he has not been able to take a single ultra vires step to stop the anti-warriors in his own country. Hence, while the Bush Administration was churning out one larcenous plea after another, peace activists all over the Unites States and beyond were getting ready to challenge him on 15 February. And while the people of the democratic countries of the world were planning to hold peace rallies, the feudal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was threatening the pilgrims in Mukkha and Madina to effectively blow them up if they raised a single anti-war squeak. The tone of the Saudi government was enough to remind the pilgrims of the 402 Iranian pilgrims that were cut down by the Saudi police for raising anti-US slogans. The Saudi government also told the pilgrims to get out of the country immediately after performing the haj. Or else. One would not be surprised if anti-war protests are organised even in Israel.

Abbas Zaidi writes for The Nation, Lahore. His writings have appeared, amongst others, in Exquisite Corpse, The Salisbury Review, and Southern Oceanic Review.