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May 13, 2009

nonviolence and the Palestinian cause

For several months, I have been thinking of a post about nonviolent resistance in the Palestinian territories. I'm finally writing now because of a thoughtful and well informed article on that very subject: "The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King in the West Bank," by Gershom Gorenberg in the Weekly Standard.

I recommend the whole piece. It reinforces my sense that a nonviolent struggle could produce a Palestinian state on somewhat more advantageous terms than are now available. One could say that Israel is "vulnerable" to a nonviolent strategy, but equally Israel needs to escape from the nightmare of occupation. The Jewish State seems incapable of achieving a resolution by itself--which may be the nature of a master/slave dialectic--so a nonviolent victory for the Palestinian cause would also be the best thing that could happen to, and for, Israel.

Gorenberg documents what I already knew in less detail: there are, and have long been, nonviolent Palestinian resistance efforts. They are usually small-scale and always overshadowed by violence. That is hardly surprising. Nonviolence takes tremendous commitment, coordination, and discipline. Nonviolent efforts are very easily broken up, discouraged, or overshadowed by forces on either side of the conflict that prefer violence. Successful nonviolent campaigns are exceedingly rare. The Palestinian case is typical rather than strange.

For me, the core principle is not nonviolence. I'm glad we invaded Normandy in 1944, and I hope the Taliban loses on the battlefield. I'm not a pacifist, but I do think that self-limitation is crucial. Lord Acton was right; unlimited power corrupts. Revolutionary struggles (the ones that aren't crushed) typically end in tyranny or fratricide, because their leaders can't stop using the tools that have brought them to power.

We could even view liberal democracy as a device for promoting limited political movements. There are enough openings at different levels of a democracy--and enough civil rights--that political causes don't automatically fizzle out. Yet each movement is always checked by its rivals, causing it to be limited and disciplined. The Palestinians don't have a democratic context in which to organize. Their leaders and partisans must limit themselves, must set their own rules. Fatah is a case study of what happens when they don't. Within its own sphere, it is corrupt and violent. Beyond its domain, it is weak. If Fatah somehow wins, the Palestinian people will have to struggle to get a decent government out of it.

Nonviolence is an example of a self-limitation, but it is not the only one. The American revolutionaries of 1776 fought with guns, yet they showed admirable restrain that paved the way for a successful republic. In the First Intifada, the Palestinians managed to avoid guns and bombs in favor of stones for the better part of two years. The signature of the Intifada was children throwing things at tanks. As Gorenberg writes:

I think the tactics of the First Intifada could be effective today, but true nonviolence would be better. I say this not because of an ethical scruple but because of the nature of collective action. To get people to do something very hard, and all at the same time, requires a very clear definition of what they must all do. You need a bright-line test, or else individuals will start pushing the limits, and discipline will break down. "Don't ever hurt anyone physically" is a clear rule, a bright line. Using stones and Molotov cocktails but no bombs is too vague and ad hoc; it invites escalation.

Of course, a clear definition of rules is not the only condition of success. Leadership is also essential, although I think Gorenberg somewhat overestimates the individual contribution of Martin Luther King. (There were many other key leaders in that movement.) He does recognize the importance of a third factor: ideological commitment to nonviolence itself. When we face brutality and oppression, the temptation is overwhelming to strike back. ("I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.") It helps enormously if participants in a social movement believe in nonviolence (or in other serious restraints)--not just as wise precautions or clever tactics, but as deep moral imperatives. For instance, it helps if they think that God wants them to turn the other cheek.

Islam is not more violent than Christianity or Hinduism. All three religions are generally soaked in blood, and Islam has modeled tolerance and restraint as often as the others have. But it helped both Gandhi and King that there were minority traditions in their own faiths that were extreme and radical about pacifism. As King asked rhetorically from the Birmingham Jail, "Was not Jesus an extremist for love? 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.'" Franciscans, Quakers, and others before King had made rigorous pacifism a tradition that he could evoke. Although there are certainly peaceful and peace-loving traditions in Islam, I'm not sure there is anything as uncompromisingly and ascetically pacificistic as we find at the margins of Christianity and Hinduism.

But Palestinians have an opportunity to create their identity out of nationalist, ethnic, religious, and cosmopolitan strands. As for their majority religion, Sunni Islam, it is dynamic and flexible, as all faiths are. Gorenberg shrewdly writes:

If Palestinians could develop the pacifist possibilities that are available in their various traditions, the future could be much better for them, and for the world.

May 13, 2009 7:51 AM | category: democratic reform overseas | Comments


I liked this post, Peter, as well as the article you link to. I think you've got it about right: not a principled rejection of revolutionary violence, but a pragmatic one linked to the post-conflict regime.

However, it's difficult to preserve the pragmatic case for radical non-violence in the midst of conflict. When the bullets are flying and the children are dying, it seems like only deeply felt principles remain. There has to be a well-spring of pacifistic 'revelation' to draw upon. There's no dispute: Islam certainly has the resources for such non-violent revelations... but it's a tough sell from outsiders like Gorenberg.

May 14, 2009 2:06 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Joshua A. Miller

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