The controversy resulting from Europe's insulting cartoons merely confirms what Muslims have always known: that there is deep animosity for Islam and Muslims within the Western establishment. It was to reflect on this and other matters that the conference “Peace and Justice in the Age of Imperialism” was organised on the occasion of the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The conference on February 18, jointly sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War and the Canadian Peace Alliance, drew speakers from a variety of backgrounds united for a common purpose: to oppose US imperialism and the increasingly bellicose threats against Islamic Iran. Speakers repeatedly drew attention to US crimes against other peoples and the havoc caused to their societies by US military adventures that ultimately do not spare even Americans. The US experiences in Vietnam and Iraq are proof of the potential disasters awaiting the US if it ventures into other lands.
The US's beating the drums of war over Iran's peaceful nuclear programme confirms yet again that, far from learning any lessons from history, the cowboys in Washington are pushing the world into even worse disasters. Acting more like outlaws than rulers, the cabal of neocons in control in Washington has made it clear that their agenda is perpetual war to seize control of the world's energy resources, as well as satiate their lust for power. That the children of ordinary Americans should become cannon-fodder for their grandiose but ultimately futile plans is part of their mode of operations. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people, including many Americans, have realised the true nature of such enterprises and are speaking out against them.
Speakers at the conference were acutely aware of this and repeatedly highlighted US and Western crimes. The three concepts—peace, justice and imperialism—were also analysed, challenging the narrow self-serving focus of western media and governments. Setting the conference theme, ICIT director Zafar Bangash called for a much broader understanding of imperialism to include the imperialism of language, culture, values and concepts. He pointed out the fact that the conference was being conducted in English although the overwhelming majority of attendees were not of English origin was one example of this phenomenon. Even more significant is the value-system that is being imposed on other peoples.
The devastating impact of imperialism on other societies, however, has not gone unnoticed. At the political level, imperialism and its twin, colonialism, have had profoundly adverse effects on all the societies that have fallen prey to them. He also challenged the notion that Muslim countries or any others in the ‘Third World' are truly independent. Direct colonialism may have ended, but there is still indirect imperialism. Any country that attempts to break out of this stranglehold pays a heavy price; not everyone is able to withstand such pressure. In contemporary times, only Cuba and Iran have withstood, to varying degrees, this Western onslaught; other attempts—Guatemala (1954), Egypt (1956), Vietnam (1963), Chile (1973) and Nicaragua (1979-1989)—have succumbed to Western, mainly American, pressure and been forced, by coups and other coercive techniques, back into the oppressive system that serves American/Western interests.
Along with these themes, a number of special areas were discussed: the West's rapacious lifestyle and over-consumption of resources, vast disparities between rich and poor, Islamic Iran's constant struggle to maintain and preserve its independence in the face of increasing threats from the West and the US, the grim situation facing the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, and the clouds of war looming over much of the Muslim world, especially Iran and Syria. Professor Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, provided a glimpse into persistent global disparities, despite the fact that enough food is produced to feed everyone and still have some to spare. Disparities in income, employment opportunities, and access to health services and education were also discussed in his brief but informative talk.
Dr Fazel Larijani, cultural attache at the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Ottawa, tackled the issue of Islamic Iran's quest for justice. It was a timely reminder of how the Islamic Republic has faced— and continues to face today— many threats to its very existence since the Islamic Revolution 27 years ago. He also pointed out that, since the Revolution and despite the eight-year imposed war, Iran has never suspended its constitution, nor annulled any election. The people of Iran have always been present at the political front to choose their own representatives, something distinctly lacking in the surrounding countries. He also addressed the issue of the recent election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and how all Iran's people took part in the process of electing him. He said that there is renewed vigour and self-confidence in the Islamic Republic since the election.
Imam Mohammed al-Asi, fellow of the ICIT, who never fails to captivate his audience with incisive analysis, a keen grasp of history illuminated with references to the Qur'an, and eloquent delivery, was in his usual form. Although the constraint of time prevented him from going into much detail about his subject, he took the rulers in Washington to task and demanded that they be put in the dock with Saddam Husain because they are all partners in crime. Whatever Saddam is accused of doing, they are at least as responsible for such crimes, he said; these crimes were committed at a time when Washington was backing Saddam. He started his presentation by locating it in the Qur'anic command about justice. He also asked the non-Muslim participants, of whom there were quite a few, to appreciate that all religions enjoin justice and that they must interact with each other on the basis of fairness, justice and mutual respect. He made an interesting observation: that the adherents of all religions are waiting for the Messiah; each group has its own understanding of him, but whenever he appears he will decide who is right and who is wrong. In the meantime, it is important for adherents of different faiths to maintain justice in their dealings with each other, he said.
Sid Lacombe of the Canadian Peace Alliance and James Clark of the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War addressed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. Afghanistan may not be as much in the news as is Iraq, but it is in a state of war and Canada's participation relieves American soldiers to be deployed in Iraq. He also pointed out that the reason why Canadian troops were in Afghanistan was not for their traditional peacekeeping role, but to wage war. In fact, this is the first time since the Korean War (1950) that Canadian forces have become involved in combat missions against another country. Sid Lacombe revealed that Jean Chretien, Canada's former prime minister, is now working as a lobbyist on behalf of Canadian companies to sign lucrative oil and gas deals in the Caspian Sea region to transport these fuels southward through Afghanistan.
James Clark, one of the chief organisers of anti-war rallies in Canada, analysed the US's war in Iraq and how its plan has gone awry. Had the Americans succeeded in Iraq, they would be attacking Iran and perhaps Syria by now. It is the valiant Iraqi resistance that has stopped the US juggernaut in its tracks, but he warned that the US's humiliation in Iraq should not lead to complacency on our part. He drew a parallel with the US's experience in Vietnam, where, although its troops were thoroughly demoralized by repeated defeats, American officials were plotting to bomb Cambodia. An estimated two million people were murdered in Cambodia, not to mention the increase in drug-production that made Southeast Asia notorious, a role now taken over by Afghanistan, again thanks to American intervention. James Clark also reminded the audience about the anti-war rally planned for March 18, at which the slogan will be “Hands off Iran”.
The evening's last speaker was Barbara Abu Zahra of the International Women's Peace Service. She has visited Palestine many times to lend support to the Palestinians and to opposezionist crimes against them. Several such peace activists, among them Rachel Corrie, have been killed. Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Ghazzah on March 16, 2003. Barbara Abu Zahra narrated the harrowing experiences of Palestinian men, women and children at the hands of Israeli occupation forces, as well as those of armed settlers, who are adept at stealing Palestinians' lands. She illustrated her talk with a slide presentation, bringing the reality of the Palestinians' suffering that much closer.
The animated discussions, the vast subject matter and the great interest shown by conference-participants led to demands that more time be allocated to such programmes in the future. It is a measure of the maturity of the Muslim community, as well as its interaction with the larger non-Muslim community, that such interest now exists widely. Muslims certainly face challenges at many levels, and a better understanding of their problems is long overdue. Although achieving greater conceptual clarity will take some time, the fact that Muslims are showing such interest and increasing awareness gives cause for cautious optimism.
The organisers are certainly aware of the great expectations they have aroused and it will be well worthwhile to pay more attention to them. Awareness of the problems facing people is the first step along the way to resolving these issues. A good beginning has been made; much more certainly needs to be done.