We are not even at war yet, and the most important freedom in a democracy, freedom of speech, is already under assault.

Sunera Thobani — a private citizen, a university professor and the former leader of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women — is suffering ferocious attacks in Parliament and in the media for something she said.

In a speech to 500 activists who work in the prison system, the anti-violence movement and with poor women, Thobani expressed anger against American foreign policy. She explained that, if we want to understand the terrible events of September 11, we have to understand the raging anger against the U.S. in the Middle East.

Thobani is a dramatic and passionate speaker. She was speaking to an enthusiastic audience, most of whom were glad to hear an alternative point of view. This was one of the most successful women’s conferences held in quite a while.

“U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood,” she said. You may not like the formulation, but the truth of the statement is unassailable.

In Iraq alone, 500,000 children under five died between 1991 and 1998, according to UNICEF. In March 1999, the United Nations Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues stated: “Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war.”

The United Nations is not the same as the United States. But the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed it were creations of the U.S. government under George Bush senior.

As well, there is a long list of bloody coups, civil wars and repressive dictators in Latin America and the Middle East that were supported by the U.S. to protect so-called American interests over the last decades.

In her speech, Thobani also said, “There will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the Western domination of this planet is ended.”

Here there may be room for argument, but there is no question that the strength of fundamentalists in the Middle East is directly due to U.S. support in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The U.S. props up autocratic regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia, where women don’t even have the right to drive.

The contrast between the conference audience’s reaction to the speech and that of the media and politicians afterward is sobering. It gives us a glimpse of what the isolation of an already seriously weakened women’s movement could mean if war does break out.

What was said has been shamelessly distorted by the right-wing media, which seems to see an opportunity here to batter the women’s movement, as well as to create war mania. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente used the occasion to attack feminists who insist that advocacy is just as important as service in agencies working with marginalized women.

Sunera Thobani is not the only one who is outspoken about the history of U.S. foreign policy. Just last week, British novelist Tariq Ali said many of the same things at an event in Toronto. Such arguments are also available every day in alternative media in North America and in Europe’s mainstream press.

So why the ferocious attack against Thobani? While others may be saying the same thing in Canada, no one has said it with as much passion. At least not in public. I have heard this anger in some meetings, coming from Palestinians and survivors of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile, for example.

The ferocity of the attack on Thobani is not the only problem. Both British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and The Globe and Mail’s editorial cartoonist on October 3 suggest that her views put Thobani in the camp of the Taliban. This smacks of a new kind of McCarthyism.

In his war speech, President George W. Bush said, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Ms. Thobani, and many who share her critique of American foreign policy, are with neither.

Thobani has always enraged the chattering classes for her refusal to play the submissive role they expect from immigrant women of colour. There she stood, railing against the U.S. —
in defiance of the agreed-upon rules of debate set by the ruling elite — wearing the traditional clothes of her people. I know people of Arabic or South Asian descent who feel the same way she does, but they are afraid to express themselves.

Now we know why.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....