Marching Against Wars Based on Lies
G.R.D. King, Special to Arab News  

LONDON, 24November 2003 - The crowds were vast, civil and serious. Overhead the police helicopters clattered, and thousands of police in yellow day-glo jackets flanked the barriers, confining the route followed by the tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters.

The march gathered at the University of London, where the day before there had been a vigorous display of opposition to a speech by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a practice run to the main march on Thursday, Nov.20 . It all felt very1960 s, non-violent, good-natured and serious. This coalition of races and religions had come together in calm but intense opposition to the Iraq war of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. That so many thousands were prepared to come from all over Britain to show the intensity of their opposition to the welcome accorded the president, is something that no British government should ignore.

The massed banners of "Stop Bush" predominated, scattered with hand-written messages of protest and placards from Leicestershire, Bristol, Scotland, Wales and many other places besides. But there were also great numbers of Palestinian flags and banners calling for the freedom of Palestine - recognition by the marchers of the deepest cause of the present Middle Eastern shambles.

The marchers were old and young, Americans, Europeans, Africans and Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews and nothing in particular. There were people who had voted Blair in and who would never soil their votes in his support again; there were Tories, Liberals, Communists, Trotskyists, Islamists and supporters of no party. Middle-aged women, old men, babies pushed in prams, an Orthodox Jew in a black homburg hat, Muslims with beards and without, girls in hijab - all were there. The numbers of the young, said in Britain to be uninterested in politics, were overwhelming, and a cause for worry for any government that the country's alienated youth feels strongly enough to mobilize on the streets for the second time in a year to reject what Bush and Blair have done, and to show Bush how much he is loathed.

As we marched, George Bush, whose presence in Britain had raised such collective ire, was invisible - carefully defended from seeing this public display of rejection of the Bush wars and those wars that the marchers fear may yet come.

It was not like the marches of old, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches or the anti-Apartheid demos to free Mandela. There were no particular chants, no well-known protest songs that all could resort to in the blanker stretches of the march's course. Instead, the custom is now the harsh shriek of whistles, but perhaps their piercing blow to the ears is fitting to the cause, though older protesters sometimes winced at this new weapon of resistance. From the starting point in Malet Street by the university, past the British Museum, around Russell Square they marched, down the blandness of Southampton Row to the Aldwych and across Waterloo Bridge. Then along the southern side of the Thames to cross back over Westminster Bridge in sight of Parliament and then to gather in Trafalgar Square to hear the speeches of rejection, to see the bronze painted papier machéstatue of George Bush pulled down - an apt material for a president who was so doubtfully elected.

In Trafalgar Square, the lightweight Bush toppled far more easily than ever Saddam's statue had done, keeling down more complete than had Saddam's in that much re-televised moment of Bush's staged triumph in Baghdad. Bush missed all of this in his security cocoon, the bubble of leadership, protected by the dense shields upon shields of police, armed and unarmed guards, his own praetorians flown in from the States with his chefs to defend him against poison, the heavy armed Apache helicopters.

In such isolating security, how fearful Bush and Blair must be of the rainbow coalition, this grave and pensive march of some 200 ,000, the same people who had said in the winter, "No war in my name" before the Iraq war started, and who again now said "No", having watched the growing chaos of the Middle East, the exponential growth of terrorism that Bush claimed to be taming by his wars, the contorting lies that delivered Iraq to its present discontent.

How fearful Bush and those around him must be that they cannot look upon, let alone face, the people proven right: That Iraq was no route to ending terrorism. And as the protesters marched, the grim failure of the Bush-Blair axis to protect anyone against terrorism was rubbed in by the harshest of incidents, by the bleak horror of the Evening Standard headlines reporting the bloodletting in Istanbul as the British Consulate and HSBC were bombed.

As the march descended from the Aldwych down the slight river bank slope to cross the River Thames, there suddenly opened out a vista, the wide bridge dense with the moving procession and one suddenly appreciated the scale of this mass of slowly moving opposition to the visiting president and his policies. These people were marching for life, for tolerance, for the dialogue of cultures, not the policy of tanks and air strikes, what Bush had maladroitly termed his "Crusade against terror."

When the papier maché Bush statue had fallen on its face in Trafalgar Square, I turned from a conversation with a professor of mathematics I had just met - it was an educated demonstration - and a flag brushed my head. I looked up and saw the flag of Palestine, an apt symbolic ending to the day. The massed girls in black hijab, all fasting for Ramadan, marching with those accusing flags, the red, green and black tricolor of the Holy Land, all of them recognizing better than ever Bush has done that the root cause of the alienation, of our deep and present dangers is the injustice that is daily and relentlessly dealt to the Palestinians. Those flags, so numerous, so liberally scattered among the marchers, George W. Bush ought surely to have seen them. They might have brought him some understanding of cause and effect.

- G.R.D. King is Reader in Islamic Art and Archaeology, SOAS, University of London.