PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
NONVIOLENCE IS STARTING TO MATTER IN THE MIDDLE EAST
When does nonviolent resistance produce results? One good answer is: When it provokes repression from the people in power. When resistance can no longer be safely ignored, it is starting to matter. By that standard, nonviolent resistance is starting to matter in the Middle East.
Charmaine Means certainly mattered to her superiors in the U.S. Army. She must be a good officer. She was promoted to major and assigned the tricky task of public relations in the sensitive city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. When she was given an order that she could not in conscience obey, she did what all good officers do. She chose to follow in Gandhi’s footsteps. She refused to obey.
The order was to close down the television station in Mosul, because it sometimes broadcasts Al-Jazeera. That’s the Arab-language TV network that U.S. officials love to hate, because it is truly independent. Mosul has no newspapers and no radio station, according to the Wall Street Journal. The TV station was the only means of public communication for a very large city. Major Means said she could not in good conscience close it down, just to suppress free speech. Her superiors could not ignore that. She made a difference to them. They relieved her of duty and flew her out of Mosul, right away.
What a courageous act. It should inspire the whole nation — if the whole nation knew about it. But the nation’s editors have taken care of that. A Google News search found not one single mention of this event. Is the story really not newsworthy? Could the WSJ’s editorial judgment about news priorities be so out of line with every other editor in the country? Or is the story just too dangerous to report? Could only the venerably conservative WSJ, whose "pro-American" credentials are beyond question, take the risk?
Perhaps the news just takes time to spread. Perhaps in a few days, or a few weeks, we will all recognize the name of Charmaine Means as easily as we do Rosa Parks, another woman who refused an unjust order and took the consequences. You never know where one simple act of refusal might lead.
Nonviolence does not always involve civil disobedience. In another part of the Middle East, there is an equally inspiring form of nonviolence: the International Solidarity Movement. It brings volunteers from many nations to occupied Palestine. They do not disobey any orders. They simply bear witness to the actions of the Israeli army, make them know around the world, and offer supportive encouragement to peaceful Palestinians. They take the same risks that Palestinians take every day, coping with the trials of life under occupation.
This project also follows in Gandhi’s footsteps. He envisioned nonviolent armies going wherever injustice arose, placing themselves between oppressors and oppressed. This is the most logically compelling answer to the question we’ve heard so often: If you don’t want to go to war, what would you do about a dictator like Saddam Hussein? We sent a quarter-million highly trained and disciplined soldiers to end Saddam’s rule. Suppose they had been nonviolent soldiers, trained and disciplined in the arts of peaceful resistance, putting themselves between Saddam’s thugs and Iraq’s democratic resistance.
No one knows what would have happened, because the experiment has never been tried on such a large scale. The risks would be huge, of course. But the risks are huge in war as well. This Gandhian vision has been put into practice on a smaller scale in many places all over the world. Often the victims of injustices have been infinitely grateful, knowing that people cared enough to risk their lives bearing witness.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) may be something new, however, in one respect. Perhaps no previous international movement of solidarity and witness has been so effective. In the past year or so, the ISM has become widely recognized, around the globe, as a major force in the campaign for justice for Palestine.
The true evidence of its effectiveness has come in recent weeks, as the Israeli authorities have mounted what looks like a sustained campaign against the ISM. The driver of the bulldozer that killed Rachel Corrie, an American ISM volunteer, may have been acting on his own. Since then, though, there are signs that actions against the ISM may be organized and coordinated by the Israelis. Can it be coincidence that within two weeks of Corrie’s death, two other ISM activists (one American and one British) were shot by Israeli troops?
Others may have narrowly escaped the same fate. In late April, a French activist was taken for interrogation by Israeli soldiers and had a gun put to his head. In a separate incident, an Israeli soldier told ISM activists, ""If you do not leave, I will shoot you in the head." When the foreigners protested that their rights were protected under Israeli law, the soldier replied: "Fuck the Israeli government."
On May 9, an ISM office in the West Bank was raided, three women (including one American) detained, and computers confiscated. On that same day, the Israelis announced that no ISM member will be allowed to enter Gaza. Without any evidence, the Israelis are linking the ISM to a British citizen implicated in a suicide bombing. Anyone familiar with ISM knows that this is beyond belief. Nevertheless, the new policy requires all civilians entering Gaza to sign a document declaring they are not members of the ISM.
The same document will release Israel from liability for anything that happens to the civilian. In other words, the Israelis can now kill anyone in Gaza, from any nation, and claim they bear no responsibility. That means it is open season on the ISM, at least in Gaza. A similar policy for the West Bank may soon follow. On May 10, three ISM members in the West Bank were arrested (even though one was having an epileptic seizure at the time).
All of this is embarrassing for the Israelis. They would not risk the repercussions unless they saw the ISM as a serious threat. Why a threat? ISM members never act violently against the Israeli military. They never aid Palestinians in acting violently against the Israelis. They do use direct nonviolent action. They serve as human shields. They intervene to mediate when the Israelis are threatening innocent Palestinians. Mostly, though, they just see what is happening and tell the world. That, more than anything else, may be what the Israelis fear.
The nonviolence path holds no guarantees of success. But then neither does violence. Nonviolence guarantees only one thing. You do not spend the rest of your life asking that most agonizing question: Did I do the right thing when I pulled the trigger? Instead, you tell yourself with assurance that you did what you could to break the cycle of violence. The more the forces of violence repress you, the more certain it is that you are breaking that cycle.
When the U.S. Army removed Major Charmaine Means from her position, it was testimony to the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. When the Israeli government launched its campaign of repression against ISM, it was testimony to the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. Who knows how courageous nonviolence might change the Middle East? No one knew how America would change when Rosa Parks stayed in her seat.
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