Militant moderation - rethinking 'peace'

Ann Pettitt
9 October 2001

Recently I was looking at a faded photograph of some women standing beside a grubby poster which said, “We like you Yanks – we don’t like your bombs.” The place was Greenham Common, of course, twenty years ago. We weren’t anti-American, we just didn’t fancy the idea of immolation in a nuclear war confined to a “European theatre”.

But the movement which questioned the validity of nuclear weapons soon became popularly known as the ‘peace’ movement, an apparent broadening of aims to include the use of all force anywhere for any reason. This seemed to me a dangerously over-simplified view based on a refusal to recognise that any starting point for action is the world as it is, not the world of ideas. It weakened the movement for nuclear disarmament by cutting it off from the common-sense perceptions of the majority of the British public – that while nuclear weapons may not make us safer, we still do need armed forces.

It was a convenient standpoint, because there was no need to think or make discriminations about armed intervention by NATO or Britain: if it was men with guns, or planes and bombs, the peace movement was against it from the Falklands to Kosovo. Dealing out the simple doctrine that violence will always breed violence, it ignored the awkward problems of injustice, and invited us to stand by while entire peoples were massacred – which we did in Rwanda. A political position which assumes that we have no right to ‘meddle’ in the affairs of others ignores one of the biggest lessons of history: far from having intervened wrongly in Europe in 1939, we should have intervened sooner.

All people of conscience and commitment to humanitarian values have experienced a tremendous ethical dilemma since the atrocities of 11 September. This has been reflected in the arguments for and against military action in Afghanistan, which have been equally powerful, logical, and grounded, for the most part, in clear, intelligent analysis of the situation and its dangers.

People like myself, who are not ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-’ any race, nation, or religion – because we are neither stupid nor ignorant – are caught in a dilemma as to where our support should lie: with our own government, now so clearly committed not only to pursuit of Bin Laden but also to the downfall of the Taliban; or with those voices which, on practical as well as principled grounds, oppose the use of force in this situation.

Resolution or nightmare?

I will attempt a summary: we assume that Tony Blair is right about the proof of Bin Laden’s role in the terrorist attacks. What ‘proof’ is needed anyway for a person who advocates openly the slaughter of all non-Muslims, beginning with Americans? We assume the Al-Qa’ida network and training camps will, if allowed to remain, carry out further atrocities from those same bases – possibly on us too. We assume the news reports about the Taliban to be true: that it is odiously repressive of the Afghani people and particularly of the women. If so, getting rid of it should be welcomed by many in Afghanistan.

And if, as one commentator in openDemocracy has suggested, we may liken the inhabitants of Afghanistan to those of a concentration camp, then we have a moral imperative to act on their behalf, for we have power and they haven’t. Taking action will give a clear message to further would-be terrorists: that both Western and Muslim states will act together in a targeted, effective, way to pre-empt further attacks. It is a clear case of governments acting responsibly in defence of targeted populations.

Or, on the other hand – what is this ‘proof’ which we have to take on trust, and which apparently might not stand up in court? As soon as innocent Afghanis are killed, the slide towards polarization of attitudes will begin. The truth is that we have no idea of the likely scale of reaction in the Muslim world, but to put it mildly, the consequences if governments already shaky and propped up by America fall to Islamist groups, could be severe.

The grievances which fuel widespread, popular anti-Americanism have legitimacy, particularly with regard to America’s support for Israel. A cycle of atrocity and repression is unleashed. Once underway, and fuelled by powerful emotions of grief, anger and demands for vengeance, it becomes unstoppable.

The killing of Bin Laden appears to be merely a short-term effort to appease American feelings (despite the pleas of many of the actual bereaved that vengeance or summary justice is not what they want). Worse still, it is counter-productive, as numerous further Bin Ladens appear, armed with pen-knives, bottles of disease and suicidal intent. We have no idea who they are or when they will strike – because their potential numbers are huge – so we simply can’t stop them.

Bogged down in a war of attrition in Afghanistan and the Middle East, our own freedoms disappearing beneath patriotic imperatives, our societies torn apart by suspicion and racist-engendered conflict, we stumble along behind that old git, Nostradamus, into full-scale war, using every horrific device ever made. There are no winners, not even the animal kingdom – except perhaps the survivors of nuclear fallout, cockroaches.

‘Peace’ is as nasty as ‘war’

This ghastly but plausible prediction rests upon two assumptions: that public opinion in the West will allow it to happen, and that increasing numbers of Muslims will be happy to allow Islam to be identified as a religion of terrorist atrocity. Surely we can expect something better of our fellow human beings?

Of Muslim society, we have much to learn in the coming period. But the first assumption many of us made about America – that a swift, catastrophic and futile reaction would take place – was quite wrong. As Anthony Barnett and Susan Richards have pointed out here on openDemocracy, America has not so far played her expected part in the apocalyptist’s scenario. The days of unintelligent pronouncements about ‘crusades’ and cowboy boasts appear to be behind us. It is an irony not lost on many Americans that hugely expensive heavy weaponry is of little use against a generalised unpopularity, breeding small, highly organised groups, possibly acting autonomously, intent on creating mayhem in the pursuit of a hatred-inspired, death-loving creed. The need, not for superficial adjustments, but for a seismic change in America’s relations with the rest of the world, is becoming clearer.

Although much of this awareness in America is dismissed as mea culpa liberal hand-wringing, for a society dangerously cocooned in isolation to see itself as others see it is no bad thing. This could lead us out of our present nightmare into a genuinely new era of co-operation. At last America could stop confusing the common good with Communism.

There are many winners, beginning with Afghani women, if escalation is averted, if the infrastructure of Islamist terrorism is damaged, Israel is obliged to accept the validity of a Palestinian state, and a secular, democratic state or confederation is set up in Afghanistan. Military action may play a part in this, but it is already quite obvious that it may not even be the most major part. Saying “this is war, and we’re against it” doesn’t help much.

We should listen to what a group of exiled Afghani women, the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women are saying: all the warring groups of various bandits are funded from outside. Cut off their funding and supplies. All of them (including the Northern Alliance) have policies of extreme repression, of women in particular. In this situation, we can’t be all-or-nothing about force – it may be useful at some point, but on its own it will only be counter-productive.

One thing I do know: the days of scattering sunflower stickers around are over. The creed which would seek the subjugation and disappearance from public life of half the human race (my half) is every bit as evil and wrong as the Nazism which my father, a profoundly anti-militaristic man, volunteered to fight – because he believed there was no other way to defeat it. ‘Peace’ is not nice any more, it is every bit as nasty as ‘war’. And it is no longer our choice.

Running towards reality

What can we do? Lots. We can make sure, with our constant nagging and awkward squad questions, that the rhetoric about aid for refugees and minimising civilian casualties becomes an ongoing reality. The moral high ground may prove a practical obstacle, but its strategic importance outweighs such considerations. We can assume human goodness and intelligence is there, and discover it by talking and listening to American and Muslim strangers.

Dialogue is a weapon against ignorance. With renewed insistence, we can raise again the question of multilateral, policed and enforced, nuclear, chemical and biological disarmament. We can support our Afghani sisters, who say “Disarm all the warlords”. Though how you do that without having your own men-with-guns, I don’t know.

We can also dump our old prejudices – if we expect others to do likewise – and be prepared for a surprise attack by the forces of moderation, tolerance and good sense, coming from where we least expect it.

We have to defeat militant Islamic fundamentalism. And in the long run, the only force which can do that is militant moderation.

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