The peace movement: debating alliances

Meredith Tax responds to Rebecca Johnson and Pam Bailey: a movement must ensure that its short term tactical aims and alliances do not contradict its long term strategy.

Meredith Tax
12 November 2012

A month ago I wrote a critique of a Code Pink delegation to Waziristan with Pakistani politician Imran Khan.  My words were strong and, while some found them objectionable, they have stimulated a rich debate about alliances, drones, and solidarity by Pam Bailey, Rebecca Johnson, Afiya Zia and others. Rebecca Johnson says that “various defenders of the patriarchy and militarism seized on Tax's criticisms as an opportunity to uphold drone warfare and dismiss Code Pink’s peace and justice activism across the board,” but I have not been able to find evidence of this online.  In any case, surely open debate about strategy is so essential it is worth some risk.

I was criticized for not having posed my questions to Code Pink before I wrote.  Since I listen to criticism, before writing this I sent Medea Benjamin a number of questions, which she answered freely and fully.

My main issue with the campaign was Code Pink’s decision to partner with Imran Khan, whom Pakistani liberals consider a front for the military and who has made many statements praising the Afghan Taliban.  Medea Benjamin said that they had originally planned to send their own delegation, but were working on the anti-drone campaign with Reprieve and Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents drone victims, and both suggested Code Pink join Khan’s delegation as a way of getting into Waziristan.  She and other members of the delegation consider the trip a success because it led to many articles on drones that otherwise would not have been written. 

Despite our friendly correspondence and the fact that the delegation achieved its purpose of getting more press for drones, I still question the wisdom of joining Khan’s delegation.  Why?  Because a movement needs to ensure that its short term tactical aims do not contradict its long term strategy. The following remarks are meant to apply to the peace movement as a whole, not particularly to Code Pink.

In the late sixties, when I got involved in the antiwar movement, it was axiomatic that tactics have to flow from strategy, and strategy has to be based on an analysis of the world situation.  Unfortunately, the strategy of some in the peace movement is still based on the world as it was in 1968, when two rival economic and social systems vied for hegemony over the Global South.  At that time, Third World liberation movements, fighting to get out from under Europe and the US, got support from the socialist countries and tended to have leftwing politics.  It was natural that Western leftists would identify with these movements.

But that world died in 1989.  Now many populist and nationalist movements in both the North and Global South are based on rightwing versions of identity politics inspired by poisonously misogynistic religious fundamentalism—think of the Christian Right in the US, the Orthodox Right in Russia and Serbia, and the Muslim Right in large parts of the world.  We live at a time of confusing and rapidly shifting alignments, similar in some ways to the 1930s, when fascist movements were rising and the Western powers alternately opposed them and colluded with them.  Today, fundamentalist movements are rising and their relationships are complicated.  One day they attack each other and the next day they cooperate at the UN.  With one hand they fight the US and the World Bank, and with the other, take money from both.

These movements of the religious right are enormously oppressive and dangerous, most of all to people in the areas they control.  Leftwing support for them is madness, for leftists are the first people they will kill if they gain power—one need look no further than Iran to know that.  Yet today on the left, in the peace movement, and in human rights organizations, people who would never support groups on the Christian or Jewish Right embrace groups on the Muslim Right in the name of anti-imperialist solidarity.  The 2010 controversy sparked by Gita Sahgal over Amnesty International’s partnership with Cageprisoners was about exactly this problem of alliances.

During this controversy, three South Asian feminist activists started a petition which stressed that avoiding dubious alliances is a matter of principle: “Many of us who work to defend human rights in the context of conflict and terrorism know the importance of maintaining a clear and visible distance from potential partners and allies when there is any doubt about their commitment to human rights.”  The Centre for Secular Space was formed partly to support this principle.

This principle should also be applied in a global campaign against drones. I agree with the object of this campaign and with the concerns expressed about US militarism.  The issue is particularly important to American citizens, since our country has violated so many human rights norms in the course of the “war on terror.” What I disagree with is developing a campaign against drones in alliance with Imran Khan.

Khan, who has been fundraising for his political party in California, is good at working the media—a recent article in the Daily Beast called him “similar to Barak Obama in 2008.” Actually, he’s more similar to Ron Paul; both combine an antiwar message with rightwing politics. Trudy Cooper, a member of the Code Pink delegation, has posted several defensive comments saying Khan is the next best thing to Santa Claus and, if I don’t know this, I must have done lousy research, using only the “surface media.” But anyone who actually wants to know Khan’s view can find them out easily—just google “Imran Khan extremism” (over a million entries), or “Imran Khan Islamism” (over 7 million entries).

You will find Pankaj Mishra saying that “Khan refused in 2006 to support reforms to the so-called Hudood Ordinance, which exposes rape victims to charges of adultery unless they can produce four males who witnessed their violation.”  You will find the Indian paper, The Mail, saying  “Imran Khan has justified his association with Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, the key conspirator for the Mumbai attack, saying it was his duty to engage everyone, ‘however extreme they be’". You will find that Khan's party, PTT, is part of an electoral alliance with Jamaat e Islami, a transnational group some of whose leading members are currently on trial for war crimes in Bangladesh.   You can also read about Khan's speech outside the hospital where Malala lay after being shot, in which he defended the Afghan Taliban, saying they were fighting a holy war against the West and were justified by Islamic law.

Whatever short term benefits in terms of press might accrue, I think it makes no sense for pacifists from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who were part of the delegation to Waziristan, to ally with a frontman for the Pakistani military, or for members of Code Pink, who oppose violence against women, to partner with a man who supports the Afghan Taliban even as it actively promotes violence against women.   

I also raised questions in my first article about whether Code Pink had consulted with Pakistani women’s groups prior to going on Kahn’s delegation.  I asked because I assumed they wouldn’t have gone if Pakistani feminists had advised against it; Rebecca Johnson makes the same assumption in her article.  Our assumption was incorrect.  Medea Benjamin has sent me copies of some of the advice she received, which said, “If you can do this trip/project without being too identified with him [Khan] or his party, it would be much better,” and “Feminists in Pakistan do not like him or his party. Nevertheless, we are glad you are coming.”  Other advisors, especially those working against drones, came in on the other side.  As Medea Benjamin said in her comment on Johnson’s article, “We weighed the different comments we heard, and did what we thought was right.” 

In the end, of course, one must always decide for onself.  The question is how.  Rebecca Johnson’s suggests, citing Women in Black, that one should consult with “women on the ground” but not necessarily do what they advise because they may have conflicting opinions or be influenced by “countervailing political factors.”  I am not sure how far one can extrapolate from Women in Black, a diverse network of small women’s groups who demonstrate regularly for peace but disagree on a number of fundamental questions.  I also am uneasy about an implied hierarchy between local and global, as if global activists inevitably have more of an overview than “women on the ground.”  Certainly, if I were going to plan a programme in Pakistan, I would listen very carefully indeed to people from Shirkat Gah, whose perspective is as sophisticated and transnational as that of any Western peace group, and to the 30 year old feminist, anti-militarist and anti-fundamentalist Women's Action Forum.

Code Pink is beginning long-term work in Pakistan so they probably will do that.  When I asked Medea Benjamin if she had done further research on Khan since this controversy, she said, “It has not made me research more about Imran Khan, as we are not looking for an ongoing relationship with a Pakistan political party. But the stories we heard about the Taliban, the shooting of Malala and this discussion have made me want to do more to support some of the groups we met that are supporting women in areas where the Taliban operate.”

Pam Bailey’s article on citizen diplomacy, which mentions this plan to do long term work in Pakistan,  centers on her solidarity work in Gaza. Bailey makes a distinction between taking leadership, which she feels she can do against US actions in support of the Israeli occupation, and simply being “present in solidarity” during conflicts between Palestinian youth and the Hamas government.  Likewise, she says, it was proper for Code Pink to issue a press release in support of Malala but it would not have been right for them to “take the lead.”

Are these really the only two alternatives?  Nobody, least of all me, wants Americans to try to take the lead in either Gaza or Pakistan.  But making connections between issues does not involve taking over.  What bothers me about Bailey’s approach is­ that such issues are all related.  How can one segregate the topics one can address as an American from those one can address as a woman or democrat or human rights defender? The strength of Hamas in Gaza, and its ability to impose a Taliban-like policy of Islamization on the people there, is related to the brutality of Operation Cast Lead and the Israeli occupation; the corruption, collaboration and ineffectiveness of the PLA; and the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. We need to look at the connections, not only between the US and Israel, but between the US and the Brotherhood, between militarism and the sequestration of women, and a thousand other things.  We cannot separate the US role from everything else because the US has its fingers in so many pies.

What I am hoping for is greater complication, depth, and sophistication in the approach of the peace movement.  A hunkering-down strategy like the one Pam Bailey proposes in Gaza could lead to that.  A strategy focused on getting press is less likely to do so.  This brings us back to the question of alliances.

I am more familiar with Code Pink’s work in the US than I am with their work in other countries.  In the US, they have focused on disruption and performance; as Pam Bailey says, “We infiltrate closed meetings, we show up at hearings with banners and wearing pink feather boas, and we travel where others will not tread". This is a media strategy; its objective is to get the press to pay attention to antiwar issues and US violations of human rights. In a media strategy, alliances are not too important; they can be short-term and based on agreement on single issues. The point is to use the media to excite enough public indignation to force the government to stop using drones and end the war.

Such media campaigns can be useful for short term aims and Code Pink is very good at them.  But we also need a long term strategy and, in this age of globalization, it must deal not only with neoliberal militarism but with movements of religious fundamentalists all over the world.  I believe the long term strategy of Western feminists and human rights defenders must be to fight all such regressive forces by building strong, radical alliances across borders, based on the demands of people in the countries at war.  In this strategy, choosing the right allies is key, because progressives will have a different agenda from the religious right.  Especially in countries at war, where the US is involved, it is critical to know and support the broad spectrum of demands of liberals, secularists, democrats, labor organizers, human rights and sexual rights defenders, and feminists, and to partner with these forces, rather than with politicians aligned with fundamentalist groups and the military.


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