Assault On Liberty

We are not even at war yet and the most important freedom in a democracy, freedom of speech, is already under assault.

Sunera Thobani, a private citizen, a university professor and the former leader of the Canadian National Action Committee on the Status of Women is suffering the most ferocious attack in Parliament, and in the media for something she said. The media in Canada rarely covers the activities of women’s groups, yet Thobani’s speech made the front page of several newspapers and was covered on the national news.

She was speaking to 500 activists who work in the prison system, the anti-violence movement and with poor women, Thobani expressed anger against U.S. foreign policy. She explained that if we want to understand the terrible events of September 11, we have to understand the raging anger against the U.S. in the Middle East.

Thobani, who is an immigrant of South Asian descent, is a dramatic and passionate speaker. She was speaking to an enthusiastic audience most of whom was glad to hear an alternative point of view so she used passionate language.

“U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood,” she said. You may not like the formulation but the truth of the statement is unassailable. In Iraq alone, 500,000 children under five have died according to UNICEF since the Gulf War due to ongoing bombing and sanctions. There is a long list of bloody coups, civil wars and repressive dictators in Latin America and the Middle East over the last decades paid for by the United States to protect what they saw as American interest.

She also suggested that women’s rights would be further ahead without the domination of the United States around the world. Here there may be room for argument but there is no question that the strength of fundamentalists in the Middle East is directly due to U.S. support in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The U.S. props us autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, where women don’t even have the right to drive

What she said has been shamelessly distorted by the right-wing media who seems to see an opportunity here to batter the women’s movement as well as to create war hysteria. More than one mainstream columnist used the occasion to attack the leadership of the women’s movement for insisting that advocacy is just as important as service in agencies working with marginalized women.

The contrast between the reaction of the audience at one of the most successful women’s conferences held in quite a while and the media and politicians gives us a glimpse of the possibility of the danger further isolation of an already seriously weakened women’s movement in the context of war.

Thobani is not the only one saying these things. Just last week, I heard British novelist Tariq Ali speak in Toronto. He was saying many of the same things. You can read similar arguments in alternative media in North America and in the European mainstream press every day.

So why the ferocious attack against Thobani? While others may be saying the same thing, no-one has said it with as much passion, at least not in public. I have heard the same anger in meetings coming from people who have suffered at the hands of U.S. foreign policy, Palestinians, and survivors of the U.S. backed coup in Chile, for example.

The ferocity of the attack on Thobani is not the only problem. Both British.Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and the Globe and Mail’s editorial cartoonist suggest that her views put Thobani, who lives in B.C. in the camp of the Taliban. This smacks of a new kind of McCarthyism.

In his war speech, President George W. Bush said “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Ms Thobani and many who share her critique of American foreign policy are with neither.

A few days after Thobani’s speech, the World Women’s March put out a statement against war that the media ignored. A broad coalition including unions, peace groups, and anti-globalization groups issued a statement for global justice and peace and it too was ignored. At a grass roots level, there is a growing anti-war movement that has already taken to the streets in several cities. More actions are planned for October 20.

Public opinion in Canada is much more divided than in the United States. There is little question that the attacks on Thobani are meant to put a chill on a growing anti-war movement.

Thobani has always enraged the chattering classes for her refusal to play the submissive role they expect from immigrant women of colour. There she stood railing against the U.S. in defiance of the agreed upon rules of debate set by the ruling elite, dressed in the traditional dress of her people. I know a lot of people of Arabic or South Asian descent who feel the same way she does but they are afraid to say it. Now we know why.

Leave a comment