I am now a serial protester, it seems. And among my English friends increasingly the butt of jokes. Three demonstrations in the UK since October 2007, and several others – including some of a distinctly Monty Python-esque bent – during my years of living in Pakistan. I have spent many a pre-protest evening in Islamabad quibbling with activists over the minutiae: what the placards should say (no “death to…” anyone, I would insist) or whether to allow effigy burning, a Pakistani protest staple (“Jem, you don’t understand how politics works here – please, just a burning Bush”).
Tomorrow at midday I will once again be positioning myself outside 10 Downing Street, to await the arrival of retired General and self- appointed President Pervez Musharraf, who I intend to greet with lusty jeers, provocative placards and slogans that almost rhyme. We have agreed that we don’t like the commonly used kuta, meaning dog. Monkey, fox, hyena and, worst of all (for a pork-phobic nation), swine have also been banned. I expect most of you will be thinking: “Aren’t demonstrations a bit old fashioned and irrelevant? Can they actually achieve anything?” It is 40 years since 1968, “The Year That Rocked The World”, when mass protests erupted across the globe, in France, America, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Belgium, Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. While none of those demonstrations achieved their immediate stated aim, cumulatively they changed the world more profoundly than those involved could ever have imagined. Popular protests rarely achieve much on their own. Hillary Clinton had a point when she said that “[Martin Luther] King’s dream began to be realised when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a President to get it done.” She was lambasted by her Democratic rivals for having demeaned the great civil rights icon. But she was right that, while there is no doubt King was brilliant at mobilising a movement, as well as an outstanding orator and inspirational activist, his real achievement was the shifting of American consciousness. This created the environment in which it was possible for Johnson to pass the humanitarian Civil Rights Act which resulted in the greatest social change in 20th-century America. The effects of protests are rarely immediate or even measurable. What demonstrations do is to change the weather. And the weather changes the landscape. Protests invariably move from the extreme to the mainstream. Sometimes, though, they really do what they say on the banners. Ghandi’s march to the sea to make salt marked the beginning of the push to remove the British from India; the Suffragettes did get the vote for women; the Peasant’s Revolt did change the feudal system; and the Anti-Slavery Movement did do away with slavery. They are all examples of what demonstrations hope to achieve: the mass power of the individually powerless.
Tomorrow I will be protesting Gordon Brown’s continued support for Pakistan’s dictator. I will be joined by politicians, lawyers, doctors, human rights activists, journalists and ordinary Pakistanis who want to know what happened to New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”. Our equivalents in Pakistan have been denied the same right to protest. Many hundreds remain in prison – some tortured. We can’t read about it because the media in Pakistan remains restricted. Brown and Musharraf are planning to discuss democracy, counter- terrorism and the upcoming Pakistani elections. We, the crowd outside Number 10, will be there exercising freedom of speech and practising real democracy. Inside they will only be going through the motions. How can they seriously discuss the “democratic process in Pakistan” with straight faces when 60 percent of the Superior Court judges have been dismissed and many are still under house arrest? How can “free and fair elections” take place in three weeks under the supervision of hand-picked substitute judges, a pet caretaker government and a bogus election Commission? Why is our Government supporting and our taxpayers funding a counter-terrorism strategy that has encouraged terrorism? Above all, why has our Prime Minister chosen to host a constitutionally illegal ruler who has lost the support of Pakistanis both in Britain and abroad, and who is seen as the cause not the solution to the country’s problems? Every time Gordon Brown shakes hands with and gives tea to a dictator, in some small way, like protests, it changes the weather.
If you shake hands with one, you shake hands with them all. It’s pointless refusing to be in the same country as Mugabe, if you invite Musharraf into your home. Wouldn’t it be nice if, on hearing our shouts, Brown came to the window of Number 10, waved cordially at the rabble outside and announced: “Actually, you are right.” To be followed from within by pleasing sounds of scuffle and outrage with Brown emerging to join our final chorus of “Resign Musharraf, Resign!” It is more likely that we will just make ourselves heard. But who knows? 2008 may yet turn out to be Pakistan’s 1968. Inshallah. Monday, midday, Downing Street. Effigies supplied.
Ms. Jemima (Goldsmith) Khan is a leader of the Free Pakistan Movement (FPM) based in London, UK.