Anti-War Marches, London – 2001- 2003

British Muslims were able to form important alliances in their opposition to the US-led wars against Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2002).  For the first time, Muslims found that they were not espousing some fringe issue as far as mainstream society was concerned, but their concerns were at the very heart of a wide social movement that deplored US policies and distanced itself from the actions of the Blair government.   The rallies gradually increased in size:  20,000 took to the streets in October 2001; 100,000 in November 2001; 400,000 in September 2002;  the record 2 million in March 2003, the largest political demonstration in the nation’s history. 

The challenges of organising these events brought to the fore fresh talent, including Salma Yaqoob, who successfully engineered an alliance with the Socialist Workers Party/Socialist Alliance in Birmingham. The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and its activists such as Harris Bokhari gained invaluable experience in mobilising British Muslims, and also widened the agenda to include justice for Palestinians.  In a memorable moment, the adhan was called out from the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square by Hassen Rasool, during the march held in Ramadan (18 November 2002).Volunteers from the Muslim Association of Britain also handed out dates for those present to break the fast – many non-Muslims too has fasted on the day as a show of support with Muslims.

[FOR Trafalgar Sq picture speak to HR – caption ‘Adhan’ at Trafalgar Square’]

“If only the leftists had been here today people would have said we’re all leftists. If only CND has been here they would have said it was the middle-class elite. If it was only the Muslims they would have called us extremists. If it was only Asians and Black people they would have said it was the ethnic minorities. Tony Blair, we are here united against this war. You cannot dismiss us all.” Salma Yaqoob, Oct 13th 2001

“We speak for humanity. This is an argument between the people of the world and the rulers of the world.” Tony Benn, Feb 15th 2003

Accounts of Marches

13 October 2002

The Muslim News’s Report on the 13 October 2001 March

More than 20,000 people from various backgrounds, faiths and political affiliations, marched through the streets of London on October 13, calling for an end to the bombing in Afghanistan as well as peace and justice for the victims of the attacks. The demonstration was organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) but was heavily supported by many Muslim groups such as the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. The organisation’s Leader Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui said it was the duty of Muslims worldwide as well as other conscientious people to “make alliances with all oppressed people”. “We need to make sure we are in the front line and part of the movement affecting change; the whole Muslim world will be against Bush and Blair because they are the terrorists,” he said.…

Many people from outside London had attended the demonstration including a huge contingency from Birmingham. Salma Yakoob, Chair of the Birmingham Coalition to Stop the War described how the events of last month had changed her life as an observing Muslim living in the West. “Suddenly, I wasn’t seen as a citizen anymore but a terrorist”. Within the first week of the events in New York, a member of the public spat at Salma. “None of us can say now that we haven’t seen; if we don’t act now, we don’t care” she said referring to the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan….”. Salma importantly highlighted that no single or religious group was in majority at the demonstration but that a cross-section of the whole community was represented, and meant the anger at the bombings was not just coming from the Muslim corner. “If it was only Muslims that were here today, they would have called us terrorists but this is not the case,” she said.

Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham and a long time campaigner against war described the bombings as “turning rubble into more rubble”. He cited the fact that many of the bereaved relatives who lost loved ones in the Trade Centre were against the bombings as well. “We can pursue other methods because bombing is by far the worst,” he said.

CND spokesperson said that they “unreservedly condemned the US-led bombing in Afghanistan” as well as expressing the concern “about the implications for the progressive measures put in place to isolate terrorist organisations worldwide”.

By Mohammed Sajjad

28 September 2002

The Muslim News’s Report on the 28 September 2002 March

A week after the farmers took London by storm, it was the turn of anti-war protesters to lay siege to the city on Saturday when thousands of Britons from across the country poured into the capital to denounce the Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s backing for U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq. Though the turnout did not quite match the claims made by the organisers, there was no mistaking the anger of the protesters as they marched past the Westminster and Downing Street carrying banners which proclaimed:

“Stop War”, “Not in Our name” and “Boycott Murder”. The roughly 5-km stretch from Embankment to Hyde Park was awash with demonstrators who included leading political lights, film and media personalities, trade unionists, religious figures and Gulf War veterans. The march, billed as one of the biggest anti-war demonstrations seen in Europe in decades, took nearly two hours to reach Hyde Park where protesters were addressed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, the left-wing Labour leader, Tony Benn, a former U.N. weapons’ inspector, Scott Ritter, and a number of ruling party MPs opposed to British military involvement in Iraq. Activists of Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of UK, who jointly organised the march, said the one-point message they intended to send out to the world was that Mr. Blair’s stance on Iraq did not reflect the wishes of the ordinary people of Britain. “What Blair is doing doesn’t represent the wishes of the British people,” Ken Loach, one of Britain’s leading film directors said. A prominent dissident Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, was more assertive saying:

“If Tony Blair thinks he has got Parliament on his side, he has not. If he thinks he’s got the country on his side, he has not.” The pro-Iraqi party MP, George Galloway, warned that West Asia would erupt into “molten lava” if Iraq was attacked. Many protesters said they had never attended a march before, but had decided to “stand up and be counted” on this occasion because they believed Britain was being dragged into a war which “nobody but President Bush” wanted. “It is not a Muslim show but a protest by ordinary, decent and peace-loving Britons,” one woman demonstrator said…

15 February 2003

Eye witness accounts – Samia Rahman on the 15 Feb 2003 Demo

There was something different about the mood of the nation as February 15th  approached and I could sense this was going to be a demonstration like no other I had ever experienced. The guys from JUSTPEACE told me they needed stewards and I thought why not? 

I had my first taste of the thrill of collective action during the protests in London against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. That was well before everyone had mobile phones and as I was held in Euston Square by the police for 3 hours after ‘rioting’, I managed to borrow a phone off someone and sheepishly called my mum to let her know I’d be home a little late that evening and suggested she might want to look out for me on TV. She sighed her usual sigh of resignation and said she would put my dinner in the oven!

Three years later and it seemed everyone I knew was gripped by a sense of frustration compelling them to take to the streets and make their voices heard. 

It was amazing – all my friends and family were talking about the 15th of February. My sister, brother and mother who had never been on a demonstration before wanted to be there. My friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, some of whom I had never known to be interested in politics at all, were planning to march. Friends I had not seen for years were e-mailing, asking if I was going on the march and we agreed to try to meet up in Hyde Park – an optimistic plan in hindsight!

One week before the march and the Stop The War office in East London was a frenzy of activity – frantic phone calls to recruit stewards, sending out press releases, massive media interest, calls from celebrities asking how they can help, planning the route, figuring out how best to protect the grass in Hyde Park… the anticipation was immense.

Everyone involved knew it was going to be huge, and I mean really huge, and that meant a carefully co-ordinated plan to orchestrate a safe and comfortable march for all the hundreds of thousands of people we expected.

The stewards meeting on the Wednesday before the big day was packed, with many Muslim as well as non-Muslim volunteers despite it being Eid-ul-Adha. Everyone was briefed with essential information about the route, timings, location of amenities etc. We then split into groups to develop a strategy for the front and back of both the Gower Street march and the Embankment march, the point where the marches converged at Piccadilly and Hyde Park itself. Everyone was excited, filled with talk of the government’s slanderous hype about a terrorist strike to coincide with Eid, and discussing wild rumours of a possible shutdown of the tube to prevent people getting to the rally!

Saturday February 15 had a crisp, wintry feel to it and despite the initial shock of getting up so early I arrived at the embankment enthused and invigorated. Positioned at the front were the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Damon Albarn, Bianca Jagger and Tariq Ali and as the crowds gathered behind us and people came, and came and still kept coming, it was an awesome view of streams and streams of protestors as far back as the eye could see. The atmosphere was electric, everyone was filled with a sense of purpose… it was an unforgettable scene.

Estimates of as many as 2 million people from across the UK converging on the capital to oppose war on Iraq were filtering through the crowds as were reports of marches around the world. Each person added their voice to millions of others in more than 60 cities across the world demanding peace on a day of global protest. What an amazing thing to be a part of.

We arrived at Hyde Park, careful to walk gently on the delicate grass for Tessa’s sake. Exhausted yet invigorated, the people drank Mecca Cola, sang slogans of ‘Make Tea, Not War’ listened to stirring speeches by JUSTPEACE’S very own Shahedah Vawda, Jesse Jackson, Michael Foot, George Galloway, Charles Kennedy and others and many bopped to the sounds of Ms Dynamite. The people were still streaming in even as the rally ended and as we set about clearing up it seemed clear to me this was a day when the common values of humanity and civilisation stood up to resist the slide into hatred and war.