The protests woke us up to Western policy in the Middle East

Protests ten years ago helped generate a better understanding of the Arab world, and the West’s destabilising influence.

On February 15, 2003, millions of people from around the world protested against the invasion of Iraq [AFP]

It’s tough to talk about silver linings to an avoidable invasion that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and created terrible suffering that continues to this day. There are no “positive learning experiences” to be prised from such a horrifying war, or the ensuing destruction of a country and its people. But the same cannot so easily be said of the anti-war protests that mark their tenth anniversary this weekend. On February 15, 2003 up to 30 million people across 800 global cities marched against the Iraq invasion. Much of the media analysis of this mass protest has been of failure, because it didn’t stop the war.

But that’s only a slice of the story.

The rest is right there in the figures – those mobilisations were the largest in history, and such a significant event has inevitably had an impact. It wasn’t just the usual protest types pounding the streets, but a much wider spectrum of society, many of whom were demonstrating for the first time and have been politicised as a result. Significantly in the United Kingdom, the protests signalled the first time that Muslim groups united with other campaigners in a broad, social justice coalition against the war. “We realised that on many of these issues we are not the only voice within society,” says Farooq Murad, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). “There are many people who may not agree with our beliefs and cultural background, but with whom we can strike common chord on issues of social justice. The alliances that were built at the time are remaining.” Prior to this, such organisations were seen more as dealing with what others on the march might have perceived as “niche” issues such as Kashmir, or the Palestinian cause. But as a consequence of that day, the anti-war movement has made organisations such as MCB more visible, while at the same time creating more and stronger protest groups.

Fault Lines
Iraq: After the Americans

And if the protests made people feel powerless – because they were ignored – the experience also made them less gullible about governments. The lies that the British public was sold to support this terrible war were, one by one, exposed and confirmed.

And that all forced open a bigger question: if the British government so blatantly lied over the reasons for going to war in Iraq, what else wasn’t true? “Britain as a whole became more aware, not just about Iraq but the region,” says Sharif Nashashibi, Middle East analyst and founder of Arab Media Watch. “People began to think, ‘Okay, we really are involved in the Middle East, but why are we involved and how?’ That didn’t exist before it was forced upon us by a prime minister [Tony Blair] who was so eager to intervene in Iraq.” By this analysis, Blair’s catastrophic meddling in Iraq has created more public scrutiny over British foreign policy. It’s precisely for this reason that a British government would have a hard time dragging the country into another war in the region. And, arguably, it’s because of Iraq that there is more public awareness over Britain’s role in supporting the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006, or its assault on Gaza in late 2008. Of course the test now is to extend the scrutiny to other allies in the Middle East – Britain’s support for the Bahraini government, for instance, despite its harsh crackdown of a popular uprising, or relations with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, there exists a more visible cynicism, a greater capacity to deconstruct the fear-mongering pushed by politicians and media over the supposed war on terror. You could probably, for instance, draw a line from the Iraq war protests to the sarcastic dismissal of attempts by Britain’s far-right English Defence League to stir Islamophobia online. When party leader Tommy Robinson used his Twitter account to bemoan “Creeping Sharia”, he sparked an avalanche of humorous put-downs that played on the hashtag (“Muslamic bloke walked past on tiptoes #creepingsharia” is a good example).

And there’s another powerful consequence of those demonstrations: a link-up with people protesting on streets across the Middle East, who received a picture of popular Western opposition to a war in Iraq.

“The Arab world saw huge, public anger, disquiet and scepticism over Iraq,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “That’s important, because it would have been far worse, for perceptions of Britain, if it appeared that the entire nation was gung ho and rallying round the troops.” Doyle adds that populations in the Middle East, back then all ruled by dictatorships, can more readily grasp the difference between state and public option. “There is a clear understanding in the Arab world that this war was agenda-driven by Bush and Blair,” says Doyle.

It is protesters’ insistent disconnection between a country’s government and people, the persistent pole-vaulting over divisive rhetoric, that must be the vital legacy of the Iraq war demonstrations. People have consistently proved better than leaders at forging genuine, respectful alliances. And it is when people see each other clearly, across cultures and without the polluting interference of governments, that strong, global social movements can gain momentum and stop deadly invasions taking place again.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab lands.

You can follow Rachel Shabi on Twitter @rachshabi