Symon Hill

Pacifism is not passivity

By Symon Hill
March 30, 2011

Millions of people across north Africa and the Middle East have are demonstrating the power of active nonviolence. But British politicians and pundits seem to have learnt no lessons, falling in line behind the bombing of Libya as soon as Cameron announced it. In the face of all the evidence, they are accepting the old assumption that violence works.

Nonviolence has been a characteristic of the vast majority of the activists who have been tackling tyranny in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. People in Libya have understandably resorted to violence in their desperation, but they are the exception.

An Egyptian protester illustrated the reality of nonviolence when she spoke with a journalist last month. "If the tanks do not open fire, Mubarak is finished," she said, "And if the tanks do open fire, Mubarak is finished". Her words reminded me of Gandhi's insistence that active nonviolence is not an option for cowards, but for the "stoutest hearts".

As a pacifist, I am used to being told that I am naive, cynical or unpatriotic. Most of the media have given little space to opponents of the bombing of Libya. The lack of real debate reached the point of absurdity when MPs were allowed to vote on the bombing - but only after it had started.

I am reminded of a similar atmosphere in 2001, when bombing Afghanistan was presented as the only option to capture Bin Laden and prevent terrorist attacks. Now, as then, those who raise questions are told "We can't just do nothing!". This is the old warmongers' trick of pretending that there are only ever two options - violence or passivity. But pacifism is not passive. To be a pacifist is to take a stand against the dominant values of our society, and this cannot be done passively.

There is nothing more naive than believing that violence will always work. Of course, some nonviolent movements have been more effective than others. But the many successful uses of nonviolence are often forgotten, while war is applauded and written about in history books. Advocates of war rarely speak of the repeated failure of violence to achieve its aims even in the short term, let alone the long term.

As the people of Tunisia and Egypt know all too well, freedom and democracy develop from the ground upwards. They cannot be imposed from above, least of all by armed force. While Libya is bombed by British planes, Saudi forces in Bahrain are suppressing peaceful dissent with armoured vehicles made by BAE in Newcastle. Cameron's government was authorising the sale of arms - including crowd control ammunition - to Gaddafi less than six months ago.

UK governments allowed British companies to arm Saddam in the eighties and Mussolini in the thirties, only a few years before going to war with them. This time we have a British government moving from arming a regime to bombing it with no intervening period whatsoever.

The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, has argued that "The alternative to military options is hardly inaction". Suggestions for alternatives include financial assistance and intelligence-sharing with anti-Gaddafi movements, working with Libya's neighbours to prevent the flow of non-Libyan mercenaries to Gaddafi's forces and various economic and political pressures.

I am not arguing that all these options would be effective. A rigorous investigation could determine how successful each of them might be. But ministers chose to use civil servants and armed forces to plan a bombing campaign, rather than to thoroughly explore all the options and act accordingly.

It is vital that debate about war is never shut down by politicians or the media. It is not naive to ask why Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers have denounced some dictators while arming others. It is not cynical to ask why money can be found for war when there is apparently no money for universities, social care services and disability living allowance. And it is not unpatriotic to suggest that a civilian killed by a British bomb is just as much a victim of injustice as someone murdered by Gaddafi.


(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion (New Internationalist, 2010).

Part of this article appeared originally on the Guardian website on 22 March 2011. See

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