Nonviolent Activism is Middle-Eastern


Muslims can look back to the classic nonviolent struggle against British empire waged by the Pashtuns from 1930-1934 in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. The leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgar movement makes every list of campaigns chronicling the development of modern nonviolent activism.

Nonviolence is also the dominant tool of resistance in the Middle East — resistance to local corruption and to foreign occupation alike. Nonviolence doesn’t make it into corporate news reporting very much, and there are two main explanations for that. One, terrorism sells newspapers. Two, democracy threatens corporate power.

The United States used violence to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953, and Iranians used massive civil disobedience, strikes, and non-cooperation to overthrow the U.S. puppet dictator in 1977-1979. A moment of hope was subsequently torn apart by violence. But nonviolent protest is alive and well, courageous and creative, in Iran. Women have campaigned for civil rights in recent years. In 2006, women, forbidden to attend soccer games, nonetheless made their way into a stadium where an important World Cup match was being televised. Rather than drag them out before the world’s cameras, Ahmadinejad backed their right to attend. That U.S. propagandists use crimes of the Iranian government to promote murderous sanctions and possibly war should not diminish appreciation for indigenous nonviolent struggle.

The Syrian Druze of the Golan Heights nonviolently and successfully resisted Israeli occupation in 1982. They refused to accept Israeli ID cards, ostracized those who did, went on strike, and defied the occupiers’ orders en masse to deliver food to villages in need and to harvest crops. When soldiers arrested children and took them away in helicopters, more flooded into the fields. They disarmed soldiers and traded their weapons for Druze prisoners. They persuaded soldiers not to fire. They built schools and infrastructure for their communities. They broke curfew to place tea and cookies outside their doors for Israeli soldiers, whose division commander complained that his best troops were being ruined by such practices.

Palestinians used nonviolence to resist the theft of their land during the 1920s and 1930s, including a 174-day strike in 1936. While history books only mention the incidents of violence through the decades, that majority of years that appears empty actually contained nonviolent struggle. Palestinians developed a new nonviolent resistance in 1988-1990 forming joint committees of Palestinians and Israelis opposed to the occupation. An intifada is a civic mobilization, and the First Intifada included closing stores ordered open and opening those ordered shut, holding symbolic funerals, defying school closures, displaying forbidden flags, holding strikes, boycotts, public prayers, renaming streets and buildings, refusing to fill out forms, and refusing identity cards, among much else. While children learned quickly that throwing stones would attract television cameras, Palestinian nonviolence between 1988 and 1991 resulted, according to the Israeli military which killed 706 Palestinians, only 12 Israeli soldiers killed. The damage that Palestinian violence eventually did to the struggle did not prevent its success in persuading many Israelis that a political solution would need to accommodate the concerns of the Palestinian people.

From 1997-2000, a campaign led by four Israeli military mothers nonviolently and successfully persuaded Israel to pull its military out of Lebanon.

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 brought a million Christians, Muslims, and Druze, organized with cell phones and SMS, to Beirut to demand freedom and independence. Demonstrating in defiance of a ban on such activities, these courageous people nonviolently chased all Syrian troops out of their country. Saleh Farroukh remarked that the Lebanese "learned from everywhere that violence breeds violence. Violence would make the army turn against you. The Palestinians lost when they moved from a nonviolent to a violent struggle." Nonviolence has continued in Lebanon, where youth established a protest tent city in 2007 before Hizbullah resorted to violence with disastrous results.

In 2006, the Orange Movement in Kuwait nonviolently forced the government there to reshape its representative structure, making corruption more difficult.

Nonviolent resistance by the Sahrawis to the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara has been growing for the past decade, greatly assisted by the internet and cell phones.

The Kefaya, or "Enough," movement in Egypt has been building since 2003, in large part in response to the illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States. Its first rally to demand that President Hosni Mubarak leave was held on December 12, 2004. The inspiration that Tunisia and Egypt have provided to nonviolent protest movements in Jordan, Iraq, and around the region in 2011 is not brand new. The Kabaat ("We are sick of that") movement in Jordan, and Khalas ("Enough") in Libya, and Erhalo ("Leave us") in Yemen have been growing for years now.

Killing a million Iraqis may have indeed helped the "spread of democracy" despite the actual interests of George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

On the one-year anniversary of an April 2007 strike, Egyptian youth began organizing with Facebook. Strikes in 2007 and again in 2008 lowered prices and raised wages. The Muslim Brotherhood came late to supporting this youth-led struggle, but had itself engaged in nonviolent activism in 2006-2007 to protect the independence of judges who had criticized Mubarak’s election fraud.

In Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere, people’s movements are youth-led and fundamentally leaderless. This seems to come out of a deep understanding of democracy more than out of a lack of talented or charismatic figures.

In 1997, Turkish activists organized a campaign in which everyone shut off their lights at the same time for one minute each evening. This grew into a show of popular resistance that arguably created the space for the political opposition that quickly toppled the government.

In Egypt, the Shayfeen (or "We are watching you") and later "Egyptians Against Corruption" movement began in 2005 and involved courageous citizens openly monitoring and reporting on election fraud. Activism spread from there. In 2008, Egyptians protected an island in the Nile from construction by digging their own graves on it and lying down in them.

So, when we watch Wael Ghonim this week, who helped organize recent resistance in Egypt, describe his efforts to understand his jailers and persuade them that — contrary to what they have been taught — young protesters are not traitors serving a foreign power, we are watching a young man build on a rich tradition that is as much Middle Eastern as it is anything else.

When Afghan Voices for Peace works to spread understanding of nonviolence in Afghanistan, and when Afghans and Iraqis nonviolently protest what the United States is doing to their nations, we can take heart and find hope of a sort no elected official has ever offered.

The Middle East has a very long tradition of using humor to bring down the powerful. Successful revolutions have hardly ever happened without political jokes and satire coming first. This is a converse of the Gandhian description of the powerful’s response to a people’s campaign: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win. When we are seeking to bring down autocracy, we begin by ignoring it and are awakened to the possibility of change by laughing at it, then we attack it (nonviolently, if we want the best chance of success), and then we win. According to Khalid Kishtainy:

"Napoleon, who refused to sleep with fat Egyptian women — considered by ordinary Egyptians to be the most desirable — became the target of jokes about his lack of virility and the effete nature of his troops. The French occupation of Egypt led to the development of an interesting expression of patriotism through sexuality. Ali Kaka, a doll with a monstrous penis, became a symbol of Egyptian ‘manhood,’ defying French domination. The dolls were popular gifts among Egyptians, and pastry shops produced Ali Kaka cakes for children. After a few months of this satirical sexual prelude, Egyptians rose up in a bloody revolt."

This passage and virtually every example of nonviolent revolt that I’ve mentioned all come from "Civilian Jihad," a wonderful book edited by Maria J. Stephan and published in 2009 with a photo of a 2005 protest in Cairo on the cover. In the book, Stephan makes this rather successful forecast:

"While experts debate the pros and cons of ‘go-slow’ approaches versus rapid movement toward democracy and justice in the region — with autocrats and their supporters generally preferring the former — people’s patience with the status quo appears to be wearing thin."

But when that patience is gone, should the approach be nonviolent or murderous?

Stephan reviews world history to justify her answer. She cites a Freedom House study from 2005 that found that 50 of 67 transitions away from authoritarianism between 1972 and 2005 were driven by bottom-up civic movements, while armed revolutions and insurgencies had very little success. Another study, co-authored by Stephan, looked at 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and found a 26 percent success rate for armed insurgencies but a 51 percent success rate for nonviolent action. In the understatement of the decade, Stephan put these words on the first page of the book:

"The views presented in this book do not reflect those of the U.S. government."

However, the U.S. people is another story altogether. A terrific essay included in "Civilian Jihad" by Rami G. Khouri compares Middle Eastern nonviolence with the U.S. civil rights movement:

"The conditions for Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East today do not correspond exactly with those of African Americans in the United States, and the tactics they use sometimes vary because of these differing circumstances. That said, however, the underlying sentiments and motivations among Arabs are the same: a desire to assert their humanity and demand recognition of their civic rights from their government. To achieve this, they are willing to brave death, in order to affirm life; to fight powerful overlords, in order to overcome their own powerlessness and vulnerability; and to stand up and risk repression, rather than remain on their knees."

Someday, perhaps they will say, together even with U.S. atheists like me:

Free at last! Free at last! Allahu Akbar, We are free at last!