This is the third in a four-part series on the anti-war movement of 2003 and the role of labour. The previous article looked at the historic protests of February 15, 2003, which kept Canada out of Iraq, and this article begins to look at the lessons.
The mass anti-war movement in 2003 stopped the Canadian government from going to war in Iraq, and challenged the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. The lessons that it generated would serve activists well in the years ahead, and not only on Afghanistan, but on other anti-war and anti-occupation fronts: Palestine, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and others.
Ideas in struggle
The first lesson is that people’s ideas change in struggle. This is true for any issue, and should inform how activists organize all their activity. Being involved in the process of struggle itself, especially if someone’s ideas are contradictory or not fully developed, has the transformative effect of helping clarify how people understand and interpret the world around them and what they can do to change it. People learn by doing, and so should be able to get involved right away without being expected to have certain types of values, education, or experience beforehand.
People also develop more confidence by doing, especially when they see the effects of their actions, even on a small scale. In the early days of the movement, the more difficult argument was not about convincing people that attacking Iraq was a bad idea; it was trying to get them to do something about it and showing them that their actions could make a difference. For others, the idea of even trying to stop the US from going to war felt like an impossible and overwhelming task, especially if they had no idea about where to begin. Making it easy for people to get involved in anti-war activity from the very beginning helped activists win this argument, especially among workers and the organized labour movement.
But doing this isn’t always an easy task. At the beginning of the movement, it wasn’t enough to identify Iraq as the key issue of the day, although that was a struggle in and of itself. It was also necessary to identify how to talk about Iraq, including which demands to raise, where to direct them, and how they would be received by various different audiences. In terms of the issue, a sentiment began to emerge among the wider public, as the US ramped up its rhetoric against Iraq, that could grow into a mass anti-war sentiment, if activists engaged and cultivated it. That sentiment also had the potential to initiate conversations about a range of other related issues for which a mass audience did not yet exist, or that required a more sophisticated level of political discussion.
For example, the question of Afghanistan, in many ways, was a more important one for activists in Canada because the Canadian government had already committed itself to the mission, long before Iraq became an issue, and there was an urgent need to build a movement to demand the withdrawal of Canadian troops. But the confusion about the nature of Canada’s role in Afghanistan, widespread in the public, made it difficult to arouse opposition. By contrast, Iraq was a more strategic question. The growing opposition to another war in Iraq, the second in 12 years, represented a much greater potential to organize. The decision to focus on Iraq, therefore, was not about ignoring Afghanistan, or choosing one issue over the other; it was about focusing on one as a means to address the other. Once the movement had built an audience on the question of Iraq, it became much easier, in the process, to expose all the ways in which Canada was complicit, including its participation in the occupation of Afghanistan.
The way this worked in practice was to organize and mobilize on the basis of opposition to the war in Iraq. For example, the principal demand and basis of unity of a demonstration would simply be, “Don’t attack Iraq!” But organizers would then use the occasion of the demonstration, and the mass audience it generated, to connect Iraq to other issues: for example, by asking a speaker to explain how Canada’s role in Afghanistan frees up US resources to invade Iraq; by leading chants that draw links between issues (“Drop fees, not bombs!” or “From Iraq to Palestine, occupation is a crime!”); or by inviting other campaigns to distribute their materials to the assembled demonstrators (a petition that calls for “childcare, not warfare”).
In terms of how to talk about Iraq, activists were careful to raise slogans that united the largest group of people possible and for the simple reason that, in order to have any hope of stopping an imperialist war, the movement required truly mass actions. The clearer and more focused the demands, the better. That meant raising slogans that respected an international division of labour among all movements. The task of movements in Canada is to raise demands against the Canadian state: “Don’t attack Iraq!” or, in the case of Afghanistan, “Bring the troops home now!”
Similarly, activists tried to avoid slogans such as “Down with Saddam!”—not because they supported him or ignored his atrocities against his own people, but because they believed that keeping Canada (and other states) out of Iraq increased the possibility that Iraqis themselves would be able to determine their own destiny. It is not the task of movements in Canada to raise demands that should be left to those who are in the best position to determine them. For example, only the people of Iraq, and not US imperialism or anti-war movements in the West, should decide who should lead Iraqis or what kind of government they should support.
The second lesson is that anti-oppression must be at the heart of the movement. In the case of the Iraq War, the most widespread forms of oppression were Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, although all forms of racism flourished in the wake of 9/11 and as the US and its allies made the case for war. This lesson might seem obvious now, and in light of the history of other anti-war movements in which activists had to resist racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic scapegoating: from World War Two to the Vietnam War to the first Gulf War, there are plenty of examples of targeted attacks against particular communities that served to generate support for war and to create divisions among the forces best positioned to oppose it.
Although there was a general understanding of this phenomenon in the early stages of anti-war organizing, especially in the days after 9/11 when the racist rhetoric directed at Muslims was at its peak, there were new debates about the ways in which this form of racism expressed itself and how activists should oppose it. The term “Islamophobia” itself was neither widely used nor understood outside the Muslim community and some sections of the left; indeed, it remained a contested term among some constituencies for many years (and still does for some today).
As a result of this lack of clarity, divisions emerged among activists about whether some issues deserved a response from anti-war coalitions: the banning of the hijab in public schools in France, the desecration of the Qur’an in Guantánamo Bay, the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and so on. In some cases, especially when coalitions were too divided to respond in an official way, separate solidarity actions were organized outside the coalitions, but including many of its members who were keen to be part of any initiative to defend communities under attack. Many rank-and-file trade unionists joined these responses, and helped raise the issue inside their own unions.
Again, the involvement of labour activists in anti-racist responses such as these was critical, as it helped bring together Muslim and non-Muslim trade unionists into common activity to oppose racism and to defend civil liberties. It also helped demonstrate to communities under attack that the labour movement, which includes members of every background and faith, can be an ally in equity issues beyond the workplace. This had the effect of encouraging other civil society organizations, including many faith groups, to rally in defence of the civil and religious rights of Muslims—as an identifiable group and as individuals. It also drew the attention of non-Muslim activists to the ongoing anti-racist and civil liberties work that had long been underway within the Muslim community itself, but that had not always received the solidarity it deserved.
Some of the most important responses to high-profile incidents of Islamophobic and racist attacks, especially those perpetrated by the Canadian state, were organized by small groups of determined and principled activists who took up the issue despite the pressure of public opinion against them. These included the defence campaigns for Maher Arar and Omar Khadr, as well as Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki, and Muayyed Nureddin, all of whom experienced torture at the hands of foreign powers because of Canada’s complicity in racial profiling, extraordinary rendition, deportation to torture, and military tribunals.
Other responses, such as the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, Project Threadbare, and the Presumption of Innocence Project, also took up unpopular issues, but tirelessly organized against public opinion, eventually transforming it, in the course of defending the basic civil and religious liberties and human rights of targeted Muslim men and boys and of the broader community.
Although the labour movement as a whole was not directly involved in these campaigns when they first got started and, in some cases, was late in providing meaningful support, a number of key trade union activists helped play a role in raising their profile in local after local, eventually bringing the issue to a mass audience inside labour. By the time the rest of the movement came on board, including provincial federations and national unions, their support helped accelerate the shift in public opinion that eventually forced the government to account for its actions. Without the pressure that organized labour eventually brought to these campaigns, they would not have succeeded when they did in winning most of their demands and achieving some form of justice for the men and boys who had been targeted.
One initiative that helped popularize the term “Islamophobia” outside the Muslim community was the “Task Force on the Needs of Muslim Students,” led by the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario in 2006-07. The Task Force held 17 on-campus hearings at colleges and universities in Ontario over a seven-month period, culminating in a report that documented the various ways that students experience Islamophobia, from overt bigotry or racism in the classroom, to a lack of prayer space or food choices on campus, to the scheduling of exams during religious holidays, among many other examples. Critically, the Ontario Federation of Labour participated in the Task Force, and helped generalize its results to the wider labour movement afterwards.
As it became more and more clear what Islamophobia really is and how it manifests itself in daily life, the anti-war movement soon realized that it too had much to learn about the ways that its own practices inadvertently replicated the exact same forms of oppression in aimed to oppose. For example, it was a common practice on the left to meet after organizing meetings in smoke-filled (at the time) bars where the political discussion would continue over beers. A lot of informal decisions would be agreed to in these spaces, although they weren’t fully accessible or welcoming spaces for all members of the coalition. Organizers had to rethink where and how discussions were conducted in order to include all the coalition’s members.
Another example of the impact of Islamophobia on organizing practices was a debate that took place in a Toronto coalition over who should speak at an anti-war demonstration. A local iman who was a widely regarded leader in the Muslim community had been suggested as a speaker, but some activists thought the invitation should be conditional on whether the imam supported equal marriage (a national debate in 2004) or abortion rights. Other activists, who themselves were pro-equal marriage and pro-choice, rightly pointed out that the Muslim speaker was being held to a higher expectation to participate in the demonstration than any of the other invited speakers, which included a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi (no one asked whether they supported these positions). The discussion forced the coalition to ask itself why it assumed the things it did about some speakers and not about others, and whether those attitudes had affected other organizing practices.
Labour activists, especially Muslim trade unionists, who had experience organizing on equity issues in their own unions brought a lot of insight and confidence to the anti-war movement as it grappled with how to identify and confront Islamophobia and other forms of racism. Similarly, those same labour activists were able to bring the debates and responses that were emerging among anti-war activists back into the labour movement, which helped transform, in turn, how unions approach equity.
These experiences helped the movement deepen its commitment to equity, and to understand the reasons such a commitment is so important. In and of itself, racism in all its forms should be opposed for obvious moral and political reasons. But there is also a strategic imperative for the movement to do everything it can to prevent any divisions that would weaken it or distract it from its key task of opposing the war. A divided movement is a weakened movement. As the number of racist attacks increased, whether directed at individual Muslims or the community at large (or at any other group), the consequences became increasingly obvious: fear, confusion, division, and demobilization. As some activists described it, “Islamophobia is the Achilles’ heel of the anti-war movement”—the fault-line that pro-war forces deliberately and most frequently exploited to limit the movement’s impact.
For these reasons, the anti-war movement couldn’t afford to abstain from responding to attacks on the civil and religious liberties and human rights of Muslims, Arabs, or any other group. Its commitment to anti-racism had to be measured in every aspect of its politics and organizing, and not simply in the slogans it raised.
The third lesson is that internationalism must guide our movements. This is the belief that all struggles should be based on a commitment to international solidarity among all workers, regardless of their status or nation of origin. This lesson was particularly important in English Canada, where a left nationalist current has, for decades, distorted large sections of the labour and social movements.
In labour, this current is visible in anti-American critiques of international unions that are based in the US but that also have locals in Canada and Quebec. These critiques, while often expressing legitimate grievances, suggest that the key division in the international union is one between workers in Canada and workers in the US, instead of one between rank-and-file workers on both sides of the border and the full-time bureaucracy of elected leaders and unelected staff.
In the social movements, this current is visible in the left nationalist myths that depict Canada as a peace-loving state with a proud tradition of international peacekeeping, in contrast to the violent history of American imperialism. This view obscures Canada’s own violent history of imperialism, especially its treatment of Indigenous people for the last 400 years, its practice of slavery and anti-Black racism, and its role in the national oppression of Quebec (not to mention its targeting and repression of countless other groups), and undermines the potential for deepening solidarity between anti-war activists in Canada and the US.
This current was also visible in the early days of the anti-war movement in English Canada (and is still visible 20 years later), when some constituencies opposed the war on purely anti-American terms, and in a way that minimized Canada’s active role in supporting the invasion before it began. Such support, they argued, was a departure from Canada’s traditional role as “peacekeeper” and should, therefore, be opposed on that basis. This particular understanding of Canada’s defence and foreign policy practices led some activists to contrast Iraq as “the bad war” to Afghanistan as “the good war” and, as a consequence, to create more difficult conditions to raise the demand to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan.
The commitment to internationalism, by contrast, helped insulate the emerging movement from the distorting effects of left nationalist perspectives. Anti-war activists in Canada and Quebec aimed their demand—“With or without the UN, don’t attack Iraq!”—primarily at the Canadian state, which is where it would have the most effect. This also put a spotlight on the history and interests of Canadian imperialism, including its role in Afghanistan. The movement’s eventual and necessary shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, which got underway in 2004, would have been much more difficult had anti-war activists built their opposition to the Iraq War on the myth of Canadian peacekeeping. In addition, a commitment to internationalism allowed activists to make links to struggles beyond Iraq and Afghanistan—such as Palestine, for example—and to generate support for the movements that were developing on these fronts.
The next and final article in this series looks at the anti-war movement’s lessons around mass action and labour strategy.
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