What has happened to the movement against the war that exploded in 2003, mobilizing millions of people in the entire West, to the point that the New York Times called it "the second superpower"?
The fact is that it never was, in the true and proper sense of the word, a movement — only a day of paroxysm, a spontaneous and desperate attempt of citizens of all political persuasions to stop the war.
It was conceived, if you will, as a preventive blow against a war that people instinctively knew was based on a heap of lies. The day when the war really began, antiwar mobilizations began to die. Citizens, demoralized by their own failure, could no longer find the strength to take to the streets in great numbers.
Nevertheless, on the fifth anniversary of this cruel and immoral occupation, data from Iraq are dramatic: more than a million civilians dead, and at least as many injured; three million refugees taking shelter in neighboring countries; total destruction of social infrastructures of the country, and its de facto Balkanization.
In the face of all that, the response of North American and European citizens is silence. Why? There is no solidarity with the Iraqis. They are Arabs, largely Muslims, and the wave of Islamophobia that has swept the West has brought with it the dehumanization of those who were murdered.
The same thing happened when eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century European colonialism conquered the Maghreb. The atrocities committed by Italians in Libya and the public hanging of the rebel leader Sheikh Mukhtar did not provoke the least emotion in Italy. It took a long time before the French protested against the Algeria war. The examples are many. The "civilizing mission fever," now as then, has demobilized the Western public opinion. Then, there is the fact that the groups resisting the occupation of Iraq tend to be religious (although the religious are not the only ones): and the movements of workers and progressives in general in Western Europe, increasingly in crisis, are indifferent to their destiny — just as they are indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians.
All that is also a reflection of what is happening in the West itself. Although in the last several years there has been scarce any mobilization against the war to speak of, a majority of the North American and European citizens are still in favor of the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq: however, their voices are not being heard by the political establishment. There is a growing crisis of political representation in the West. Democracy is becoming hollow. In the US electoral campaign, both the Democratic candidates publicly say they are in favor of a withdrawal from Iraq, but privately they reassure the military that they do not seriously intend to withdraw despite being forced to say so because people are discontent.
In the end, the fact that there is no draft in the US means that most Americans are not directly affected by the war. Military families opposed to the war constitute the only important pressure group. As a substitute for the draft, the US has recruited mercenaries from all over the world: there are 50,000 Ugandans, thousands of Central Americans, South Africans, and others who are paid the market price to fight in Iraq. Who cares if they die? It’s a risk that they assume, in exchange for wages and US citizenship. A grim picture, which should make Westerners think.
Tariq Ali, a member of the New Left Review editorial committee, is the author of Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (Verso 2006) among numerous other books and articles. His new book, The Duel: Pakistan in the Flight Path of American Power, will be published later this year. This essay, in Italian, was first published in Il Manifesto on 20 March 2008, available at Essere Comunisti. This English text is a translation from the Italian text by Yoshie Furuhashi, and both version are posted on MRZine.