Faith & Reason: George Bush, the street protestors and the missing link

The motives of those who demonstrated this week varied. But the fact that many joined the Ramadan fast of Muslims on the march was significant
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The Independent Online

By taking to the streets of central London, the 100,000 anti-war protestors this week became the missing link between Buckingham Palace and Baghdad. The pomp and flummery that received George Bush was a world away from the devastation and instability that now reigns in Iraq. It was this contradiction that the British people could not stomach, least of all the nation's two million-strong Muslim community.

It is, of course, presumptuous to make suppositions about the motives of those who took to the streets. The diversity of political opinion is so vast that one would be at a loss to try and define public opposition in any coherent way. Some demonstrators were clearly manifesting a naked anti-Americanism. Others were veterans of previous anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism demonstrations. Yet others, like Lindis Percy, the woman who scaled the gates of the palace with her inverted Stars and Stripes flag, were stalwart peace campaigners who object to military force in all its manifestations.

But many were undoubtedly moved to object to President Bush's presence from motives of humanitarianism after a war which inflicted significant suffering on innocent people - and which they feel was launched not as a last resort but before all other alternatives had been exhausted. This sense of compassion was manifested in the way that many non-Muslims at the rally chose to observe a day-long fast as a mark of solidarity with the Muslims there for whom the protest against Mr Bush's visit coincided with the last days of Ramadan. By abstaining from food and drink, they too were able to partake in the Islamic custom of empathising with the hungry and needy.

What is clear is that many people who would not ordinarily see eye to eye on very much at all this week stood together, speaking with a unified voice against a common outrage. The situation in Iraq is a terrible mess, they seemed to say. While millions suffer in that country, the man who played the greatest role in their present misery ought not now to be honoured by Queen and state.

For a start there was the cost of the exercise. The colossal amount of money spent on this visit could have turned around the lives of thousands of people in a developing country. The £5m or so spent by Scotland Yard on Bush's security alone could have protected 12,000 vulnerable Iraqi orphans for a whole year, giving them food, clothes, shelter, education and health care.

But there is a more profound objection than that. Earlier this week, I spoke to an aid worker who has been working in Iraq and asked him what the atmosphere was like amongst the people. I expected that, as a Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic, he might have some insight into the average Iraqi's true sentiments. "Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy!" he told me. "They have become desensitised to everything. They are sick of promises of freedom and democracy. They have lost everything they once owned and yet they are told they are free." He added, "The biggest worry on their minds is security and the sanctity of life. They feel that America has failed them. The Iraqis I speak to tell me that life was hell under Saddam Hussein but, they say, compared to now, it was a hell of a lot better."

With such sentiments, it is no surprise that anyone suspected of collaborating with America has come to represent the enemy. Even the genuine work of humanitarian aid agencies is viewed with suspicion. As this aid worker told me, "The Iraqi people have lost all credibility for anyone who makes promises and does not deliver. With a very few exceptions, they view the humanitarian aid sector with the same sceptism."

The precedent of Afghanistan does not augur well for Iraq. There, despite all the fine words of George Bush and Tony Blair, the job of picking up the pieces after the US-led action has been left largely to the humanitarian sector. This will not work in Iraq. For a start the oil-for-food programme, which helped prevent millions of Iraqis from starving in the past, has now been scrapped. With half of Iraq's 26 million population dependent on public food rations and only four out of every 10 Iraqis in employment, the scale of the problem facing the country is daunting. And that is without taking into consideration all the business of rebuilding social infrastructures, restoring law and order, and building a new political legitimacy.

Yet what have we seen this week? More missiles destroying more buildings leaving more people homeless. The decent response of Mr Bush would, at the very least, have been to postpone this celebratory state visit until more progress had been made in the task of restoring a semblance of normality on the ground in Iraq. To have waited might not have been good timing in his need to create a victory photo-opportunity for his re-election campaign. But it would have been deemed far more seemly by many of those who took to the streets in protest this week. The harsh truth is that, when it comes to making the world a better place for the ordinary people of Iraq, all the pomp and circumstance of a state visit like this one will make not one jot of difference. That Mr Bush cannot see this shows how deep the problem runs.