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The power of protest

In July last year, eight columnists of The New York Times made confessions about what they had been wrong about. This was apparently an editorial assignment. Anyhow, I found one ‘mea culpa’ very meaningful and had a lot to think about.

This was Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist of Turkish descent, who professed that she was wrong about the power of protest. Her reference seemed perfect. She talked about the Global Day of Protest that was observed on February 15, 2003 against the impending invasion of Iraq by the United States.

She was herself there in the protest held in New York, one of scores of venues across the world. It was impossible to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of that protest. They rightly projected it as the largest protest in human history and I need not go into how many millions had gathered in which major cities.

But President George W. Bush still went ahead with the invasion and military operations began on March 20 of that year. An unprecedented tsunami of public opinion could not stop the destruction of a country on the basis of poor evidence and bad advice.

It is obvious why I have invoked Zeynep Tufekci’s column she had titled: ‘I was wrong about why protests work’ at this time when the entire world is watching with horror the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza after that Hamas attack inside Israel on October 7. Is it really true that public protests do not work? Or have things changed during the past two decades in terms of how people can influence the decisions of those who have the power to wage wars?

I realize that the Iraq war of 20 years ago may not be very relevant when we try to make sense of what is happening on the ground in Gaza and in the lobbies of the United Nations and also on the streets of the cities where protests have been held, including in favour of Israel.

We have also to acknowledge that, while the passions that have been kindled by the present conflict are immensely more powerful, there is a distinct division in the opinions at both the popular and the governmental levels. It is evident that while confronting their moral dilemmas, progressive and sensitive individuals everywhere are expressing their distress in many ways. There is perhaps also a shift in the sympathies of many who may previously have been neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for the significance of the global public opinion’s opposition to the Iraq war in the present perspective, it may not be correct to say that it had no power. It did make a difference. That the protesters were on a higher moral ground was established without any doubt when the war promptly turned out to be a disaster and the American goals were not achieved.

I saw this comment somewhere that Israel is behaving in the same manner after the Hamas attack as America had responded to 9/11. After all, what kind of victory will Israel win even if it razes Gaza to the ground and kills many more thousands of little children and women and old people? For that matter, what has America to show for the wars it fought after 9/11? Imagine how, for instance, George Bush would have reacted if someone were to tell him that in the 2020s, the Taliban would be ruling Afghanistan.

What I am trying to say is that it does matter when people find moral courage to come out to defend what they believe is right. This is what is happening now. And it will ultimately have its impact. Those who are on the right side of history are not always readily vindicated. It is the drift that matters. In case of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, look at the visible surge in opinions against it, including from within the proclaimed supporters of the Jewish state.

Look at how simply Nicholas Kristof has put it: “We must not kill Gazan children to try to protect Israel’s children”. The Western media is constrained to report that Israel’s air strikes in Gaza are some of the most intense in this century. Earlier this week, Israel said it had so far struck more than 7,000 targets in Gaza.

It is because of what is seen on mainstream and social media, projecting unbearable sights of wide-scale death and suffering, that some kind of an intellectual and philosophical opposition to Israel’s policies and actions is bound to rise among progressive elements everywhere. One measure of this are protests against the war that are taking place in countries that officially support Israel.

The situation that is developing is extremely grim. I was shaken to see this headline on the BBC World’s website: ‘Humanity blasted and broken: Gaza through a medic’s eyes’. And it carried this warning: “This article contains distressing content”.

Obviously, like America in the aftermath of 9/11, Israel does not have a realistic understanding of the situation. It does have a sense of power and the unqualified support of the most powerful country in the world. But there is history to contend with – and the history of Israel and of Palestine has implications for all of us, everywhere. There is little room for neutrality, and you have to choose a side.

Almost the entire world is neither Jewish nor Palestinian. But almost the entire world is morally and emotionally involved in this war and in this humanitarian crisis. It has deep reverberations of a long and painful history. As one critic of Israel’s actions in Gaza said, history did not begin on October 7, 2023. What will its judgment be? This will depend on what happens in the coming few days.

Meanwhile, of course, there are many other distractions. A lot has happened this week in Pakistan’s politics, with the focus on Nawaz Sharif. There’s cricket, too. But I find it hard to turn away from Gaza – and also to look at it with equanimity.

Ghazi Salahuddin, "The power of protest," The News. 2023-10-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Hamas attack , Humanitarian , Atrocities , Nicholas Kristof , Israel , Gaza , BBC