Code Pink, the Taliban, and Malala—The Sequel!
Last week I wrote a piece raising questions about the Code Pink delegation to Pakistan to fight drones. It was published Oct. 13 on openDemocracy.net, where it has prompted lots of comments. They are still going on and you can read them here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/meredith-tax/code-pink-taliban-and-malala-yousafzai
I also posted it on my blog, below, and a friend sent it to the elist of Women in Black, a large global network of peace groups in many countries. The resulting exchanges say a lot about the current state of the women’s peace movement. Because I believe that the women’s movement and peace mvoement would both benefit from more open debate, and wish to make the discussion accessible, I am posting some of the WiB comments below, with with my own response and one from Afiya Zia in Pakistan.
Edith Rubenstein, a Belgian peace activist, wrote on Oct. 18:
“I am outraged by the article of Meredith Tax against Codepink....For me, Codepink is one of the peace movements I prefer. They are feminists. They do not write so much, and what they write is relevant, but they act often physically without hesitating to take risks. Recently, they have protested against the conference of AIPAC, which is in fact a fundamentalist organization, as you know, and they have disturbed it; against the Republican National Convention against the program of suppressing reproductive rights of women and they act in alliance with Eve Ensler who fights for the raped women in Kivu, Congo,... against the Democratic National Convention against the wars and the drones.
“I know nothing about Imran Kahn and it is possible that he is a dubious figure, but he was the guy who prepared to protest in the tribal areas and Codepink took that opportunity to go there, even if it was dangerous! Like Women in Black, they choose to be critical of their own government.
“In my opinion, it is the US which represents the real danger for humanity today: they have close relations with fundamentalists: Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalists in Israel among others. The ‘war against terror’ is in itself an absurdity: terrorism is a police and a court issue and when a state is assassinating presumed terrorists instead of judging them, there is really an ethical problem!...So I estimate this article very unfair, what is called in French ‘un procès d’intention’.”
Medea Benjamin of Code Pink also responded, on Oct. 19:
“Yes, I think this critique of Meredith (who I don't know personally) is quite unsisterly and way off mark. She should have at least contacted one of us before writing a piece criticizing a mission in which 34 committed peace activists took great risk to convey a message that we think all lives are precious, including the lives of Pakistanis. We have always been against the Taliban and against all violence. Our main critique of the drones, in addition to killing innocent people, is that they are counterproductive and create new recruits for extremist groups. This was confirmed, many times over, by people we met in Pakistan.
“If Meredith would have checked with us first, she would know that we met with many feminist groups and individuals while in Pakistan, as well as other political parties, and we were clear to say we were not there to support Imran Khan or the PTI (his party) but that we appreciated his leadership in mobilizing people against the drone attacks. If Meredith would have contacted us, she would have learned that immediately after the horrendous shooting of Malala, we joined Pakistan groups in rallies outside the press club and the assembly, in addition to donating to her school and putting out a press release. Ah, there are many things Meredith would have learned by calling us, but she preferred to attack first. Again, not very sisterly.”
Marieme Hélie-Lucas, a founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, contributed to the debate on Oct. 19:
“It is very important to understand why Meredith Tax wrote what she wrote and to put it back into context. Many pacifists, including women, - not just now but over the past three decades - have, rightly so, denounced teh war on terror or its previous equivalents, without denouncing at the same time terror itself. As if the reaction to something existed without the initial thing itself.
“For those of us who lived under fundamentalist terror, the hierarchy that many pacifists and feminists made and still make between victims has been quite unbearable: it seems only those attacked by imperialism deserve to be defended; those attacked by fundamentalists do not.
“The fact is that the visit of Code Pink to Pakistan at the very time Malala was attacked made the discrepency even more visible.
“It is imperative that pacifists and feminists do not chose among victims, do not accept priorities ( let's get rid of imperialism first, then we will deal with fundamentalists) and defend ALL victims of war. That indeed includes victims of fundamentalist armed groups.
“I have been shocked, throughout the 90's when Algerian people and especially Algerian women were slaughtered by armed groups to only hear protests about state repression. It need to change.`
“There is a pressing need for pacifist feminists to understand the point i am making, which is the same Meredith was making.”
Medea Benjamin then wrote again:
“I agree with the need to denounce all violence, and especially to support local women in their struggles against fundamentalism. This is something CODEPINK is careful to do. We also say that western military involvement usually backfires, and helps to recruit more extremists. This is certainly the case with drone warfare. So while I understand the basis of this critique, I think in the case of CODEPINK it is misplaced.”
Jane Reynold wrote in response to Marieme Hélie-Lucas on Oct. 20:
“Thank you for your message. I still believe that Meredith Tax was mistaken in her attack on Code Pink.. Instead of believing in the good faith of these women, she chooses to launch a polemic characterizing these women as imperialists. It is true, that many of us who live in the countries that have launched the "war against terrorism" and the various "humanitarian wars" (Kosova, Iraq, Libya,......Syria?) are reluctant to join in condemnation of the regimes that are obviously being targeted by our governments for a new military adventure, seeing that our criticisms of those regimes will be used as a justification for a war. This is obviously not the right response, but even so I ask our sisters to not condemn us all as imperialists, but to help us with suggestions about what can be done without contributing to the push towards war.
“I hope that Meredith Tax will revise her polemic position towards Coid Pink. If she does not, then I'm sorry to say that I believe that her positioning is more to do with her own kudos than any real wish for understanding and peace.”
I responded on Oct. 19, but there has been a delay in posting my response to the Women in Black list. So here it is.
“I stand by everything I said in my piece on ‘Code Pink, The Taliban, and Malala Yousafzai.’ The piece was also published on openDemocracy last week, where it got a lot of comments. Here is the link:
“I think an open, principled debate on these issues would be helpful for the peace movement and the women's movement. I would urge Medea and Edith to either write comments on openDemocracy or submit their own pieces. I have already asked the editor, Jane Gabriel, and she said she would be happy to extend the discussion if you want to write something, as long as it is not too polemical (they like a fact-based approach.
“Edith, I don't think it is enough to say ‘Peace, peace, stop war’ and the US is the main danger in the world. Fundamentalism of all kinds is also a danger and the fact that the US and other Western powers sometimes criticize fundamentalists and sometimes ally with them merely demonstrates the need for a more complex strategy than ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’
“Thank you, Marieme, for your helpful contribution.
“Medea, I do not agree that I should have consulted you before criticizing your campaign in Pakistan. Public figures who send out press releases about their work have to expect that people will comment on them publicly. I think debate on important issues should be held in the open.
“Your response does not answer the points I made. I never said you failed to meet with women's groups while you were in Pakistan. I said you did not consult with Pakistani women's groups, peace groups, or civil society groups before you went in order to ask their help in planning your strategy. I know this because I checked with people there.
“To me, this is the most basic point in building a solidarity movement--you don't go into someone else's country with a campaign designed for consumption in the US and tell them you have come to save them from US drones; you ask them what kind of help they need and how best to proceed. You tell us you "met with many feminist groups and individuals while in Pakistan." But you don't tell us who they were or what they said. Are those points not relevant?
“It sounds like you got an invitation from Imran Khan and jumped at the chance to get him to pay your way to the FATA region. Am I correct in assuming he paid your way? As a friend in Canada wrote me, this is the problem with "doing movement work from a marketing/publicity perspective--you act out of expediency in order to get the money that will get you on the trail in Pakistan to show solidarity with “the people” against the drones, etc."
“Thus you participated in a delegation led by a man whom liberals there call "Taliban Khan," a man who is in a coalition with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the jihadi group that took responsibility for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai which targeted 11 different civilian locations, including a hotel and a Jewish center. Surely, as an experienced political activist, you know he is running for office and that, no matter what you say to the contrary, your participation in his delegation will be seen as the US peace movement giving him support.
“I think this was a serious political mistake that could be harmful to both the peace movement and the women's movement. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is look at them and not stay married to them for life.
“What does it mean to collaborate with a Taliban supporter and at the same time say you have always opposed the Taliban? At best, you are sending out a mixed message.
“What does it mean to join a demonstration in support of Malala, unless you take positive action after you get home to integrate the struggle against the Taliban and other fundamentalists with the struggle against drones? Are you going to do that?
“And what does solidarity mean? Do you have it only with people attacked by drones, like Lauren Booth, or do you have it also with people attacked by the Taliban--and if so, how do you act upon that solidarity? Surely more is needed than to contribute $1000 to Malala's school and go to a demonstration for her.
“To me solidarity means you listen to what women's human rights defenders in other countries say they need, try to understand the complexities of their lives, and look at the role of the US but also at the role of other regressive and dangerous forces. Especially when it comes to countries at war, where the US is involved, it is critical to support the demands of liberals, secularists, democrats, human rights defenders, and feminists rather than local right wing politicians and religious fundamentalists.
“Designing a long term program and building relationships based on the actual demands of civil society in other countries is much harder than designing campaigns meant to appeal to the US left and the press, but it is the only kind of work that will serve women and democratic forces in the long run.”
On Oct. 21, Afiya Zia, a feminist journalist and intellectual active in the Karaachi Women’s Action Forum, responded to the discussion with a detailed discussion of the situation in Pakistan. She stressed that, while drones are a problem, they are far from being the only problem, even in military terms: war is brewing in Baluchistan, where there is a well-established separatist movement, and the military is a constant threat to both civil society and the civilian population in many areas. She notes that Imran Khan, sponsor of the Code Pink delegation, is considered a front man for the Pakistani military, and that the Pakistani women’s movement always opposes both attacks by fundamentalist militants and attacks by the US-Pakistani military—both sides attack civilians, both must be opposed. From Afiya:
“A few additional points on the responses to Meredith’s article on Codepink and the Malala attack (opendemocracy) which was based on consultation with women’s groups/feminists in Pakistan, including myself.
“First of all, the allegation of Meredith’s conduct being ‘unsisterly’ is a tasteless overstatement – it’s an accusation that is not even used in the debates and disagreements amongst feminists in Pakistan where the term would have deeper cultural resonance. Second, the fact that Meredith consulted and quoted directly from the public stands and private correspondence with Pakistani ‘sisters’ perhaps proves to be more sisterly than throwing political weight behind a conservative politician over whose views local women’s groups hold serious misgivings – particularly over his agenda which is determined by a very masculinist religo-nationalism and his refusal to hold accountable the military, that has been historically responsible for so much of the mess of religio-militancy that Pakistan faces today.
“It was wildly misguided of Codepink to join Imran Khan’s march to Waziristan, which was clearly timed just months prior to elections when in fact, drone attacks have been the norm for over 6 years now – but Khan has never held such an event before. It’s convenient to blame this (liberal) government, however flawed, which is Khan’s nemesis, rather than the military, which covertly blackmails all political decisions in Pakistan but, more importantly, is the entity that decides and is clearly responsible for military tactics and operations. These include in recent years, several operations outside of FATA too (Swat) and include the Bin Laden raid, as well as drone operations. Many militants were killed when the army launched an operation to rescue Swat from militant take over. Militants were hanging and shooting citizens in public squares.
“Why did Khan not protest the military operation against militants then (they may not have used drones but they used military might). Why did the Swatis support the army over the Taliban? How do Codepink know how the people of FATA feel about the militants or indeed, that things will be ‘peaceful’ once drones stop? A Stanford report says so? Khan says he knows? Why did the pacifist Codepink not spearhead such a campaign to prevent military action in Swat? Drone operations are abstract enough to get political mileage out of but clearly, the Pakistan army is in collusion with such operations if not active initiators. So, the question that Codepink should have asked themselves and Khan, before throwing their support behind him is, WHY AREN’T WE MARCHING IN PROTEST TO THE ARMY HEAD-QUARTERS – in accessible Rawalpindi– instead of exhibiting support for the militants who are attacking the state of Pakistan (including murder of a female Levies officer and her entire family in retaliation for her resistance to terrorism)?
“The debate on drones is one that troubles Pakistanis – liberals/pacifists included. It is the militants who have categorically helped to resolve the ambiguities in this particular case (Malala). When all apologists for the Taliban, including Khan, made lofty declarations that the reason Malala was attacked was because of drones and US imperialist designs, the Talbian issued statement after statement and press releases saying in effect, wake up you liberal idiots, we attacked Malala for her repeated defiance against Taliban directives to shut down girls’ schools and for her active designs to “secularise society” and for being commended and communicating with Obama and western patrons. Its not about the drones, they say, but social chaos that follows liberal agendas when girls go out freely and resist their Islamic agendas. Tehreeq e Taliban Pakistan even refused to entertain Khan as a sympathizer because they do not consider him Islamic enough and have often labeled him a liberal, in disgust.
“In any case, there are many layers to this and many conspiracy theories that lurk below the obvious narrative. That does not take away the fundamental political issues or identities that conflict over how to resolve such challenges. The important lesson in this case and with reference to militancy and fundamentalist challenges for Pakistani feminists has been, that it is notoriously dangerous to sponsor the ‘either’ ‘or’ position. Despite our deep concerns about militancy we have consistently advocated for caution regarding military action in any part of Pakistan. But what we have not done is fragment our demand or split it such that we insist on putting the spotlight only on excessive army force in FATA. Nor do we blindly follow a politican for whom a select part of an issue is flavor of the month. Khan has never raised the issue of the military’s jihadi incursions into other countries and he has never worked for the case of disappeared separatists in Baluchistan. The only woman victim he has taken a national position over is suspected and indicted terrorist, Afia Siddiqi because she’s in a US jail (against his measly mouthed protest of Malala). She is the veiled icon in all his political campaigns. Surely his views on women’s issues are clear.
“Simultaneously, feminists register and work on the same position for Baluchistan and insist that military action against secular separatists has to be stopped and the state must be held accountable. Our human rights orgs have been committed to exposing mass graves or extra judicial killings in counter-insurgency programmes BUT ON BOTH SIDES – those atrocities committed by militants and army/NATO forces simultaneously. We do not posit one against the other but agonise on both and play the human rights card on principle and consistently not randomly nor out of context.
“Codepink should have taken a more nuanced approach and marched to Baluchistan, which is a challenge that is politically resolvable if we put pressure on our military and judiciary and requires no outside forces – AS YET. It will escalate to a civil uprising complicated by ethnic and religious elements soon and become as bad as FATA. But the allure of media attention especially in the West on this issue of religious militancy makes it sexy and unfortunately, Codepink came across as duped by this. Which women’s groups/human rights groups did they see represented at Khan’s March – did this not raise signals for Codepink?
"Meredith’s point is that we need to take the cue from local feminist views and pay heed to their voices. Supporters may still feel the need to ignore these or only partially consider these and go ahead with their activism. However, it will only be substantive if such an approach is more nuanced, based on a deeper understanding and feeds towards some kind of real political purpose. Otherwise, it just comes across as a stunt –which is how Khan’s march was in its final analysis. There is no conspiracy at work here, it’s the lack of political acumen and the counter-intuitiveness of Codepink that is disappointing in this case.
"Also important for consideration is that for the next critical issue, how do they think they will be received in Pakistan given their association for this soft political march? What if there is an operation in N.Waziristan based on the case of Malala? Will they or Khan have the courage to protest such an operation against the sentiments of people who seek the protection of the state from targeted attacks on children by militants? Drawing moral equivalence is completely unhelpful. It sets up binaries to privilege one atrocity over another. It’s akin to those nationalists who argue (which would include Khan) that Bangladesh may have been victim to West Pakistan’s army action but they were equally violent in reprisal attacks. What purpose does this serve, particularly for feminists invested in the processes, ideological impetus and actors (men) behind such use of force and violence? Pakistani children are not just victims of drones but far, far more die daily due to malnutrition and abuse but we never march in protest on this concern. Children are denied polio vaccination by the mil,itants as unislamic– should we attribute this to be the fault of WHO or UNICEF? How far back do we bend and why is this simile selectively used in the case of the murder attempt of Malala?
"A lot of background and serious work needs to go into movements rather than random, feel-good, pacifist one-off marches. Codepink faltered on this one and should be open to reflection – which was the purpose of Meredith’s piece."
I am too old a fox to assume that this debate will bring any quick or positive changes to the approach of the US peace movement, but at least the questions are starting to get out there.