Recently, Nobel Peace Laureate and famed Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire was shot by the Israeli military while participating in a nonviolent protest against the wall being built in the West Bank. Coverage of this incident and of Palestinians and Israelis cooperating in peaceful resistance has been very minimal. This is an important wake-up call to those of us who often advocate nonviolent social change as an alternative to armed struggle, not least Christian peacemakers.
Robert Naiman comments: “Those who blame the Palestinian people for their fate, attributing it to Palestinian violence, and faulting the Palestinians for not emulating Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Mandela (whose role in the “armed struggle” against apartheid in South Africa is always conveniently elided for the purpose of this comparison) should periodically ask themselves – when Palestinians do engage in nonviolent protest, and are subjected to brutal repression as a result, how come the mainstream media don’t pay any attention?”
He continues: “Wouldn’t this be a precondition for a successful nonviolent protest strategy? That people find out about it? Imagine if US news organizations had not reported on lunch counter sit-ins in the South, Freedom Rides, or the Montgomery bus boycott - and the repression that resulted. What if no-one reported on the deaths of Evers, Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney? Would these protests have been as effective?”
I would suggest that this pattern of ignoring massive nonviolent protest isn’t only limited to Israel/Palestine. There were widespread nonviolent protests in the first months of the US occupation of Iraq. Some were bigger and some were smaller. But they represented an optimistic embrace of their new found freedom of expression and the understanding that democratic engagement isn’t limited to voting.
The weekly log from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq in June 2003 mentions three separate peaceful demonstrations, each well organized and a creative expression of people’s needs and desires in a post-Saddam Iraq. This was a time before the daily suicide bomb attacks when there was a sense of hope and new beginning. Yet the US response to one of these demonstrations is telling:
“Back in Baghdad, the delegation came upon a peaceful demonstration of 300 Iraqis in Paradise Square calling for a united Muslim government. A US tank lowered its gun barrel and repeatedly swept it over the crowd.”
By June of 2004, Iraqis had got the message. The Christian Science Monitor wrote an optimistically titled article, ‘Seeds of nonviolent resistance sown in Iraq’ which talked about the founding of the Ashura Council of Adhamiyeh, a small nonviolent political group. The group organized the second demonstration that the Adhamiyeh neighbourhood of Baghdad had seen. During the first demonstration four protesters had been killed by the US military. But about 150 protestors in this largely Sunni neighborhood were willing to try again and this time US tanks wisely avoided a confrontation.
But the second half of the article is much less optimistic. One local resident who is quoted reflects the disillusionment among Iraqis that has since become even more evident: “This demonstration has no value, and it has no supporters,” he says, noting the relatively small number of participants. “The Americans will not listen to this. It is just an outlet for the people’s feelings.”
Another resident expressed a similar sentiment: “I oppose the Ashura because the Americans won’t listen,” says Abu Muayed. “The Americans told many lies about hidden weapons of mass destruction and plans for reconstruction. None of it came true. So, some of the Iraqis started resisting, and God help them.”
Of course there were continued efforts at nonviolent activism among Iraqis. The CPT Iraq team worked alongside members of Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), a group that courageously crossed sectarian lines to help with cleanup in Fallujah and organized a campaign around children and small arms. But unfortunately MPT was an exception to the widespread acceptance as violence as the only effective means.
The quiet demise of mass nonviolent protests in Iraq is one root among many of the current situation, but it is one the talking heads in the US rarely mention. How would things have been different if nonviolent demonstrations by Iraqis had been widely covered by US journalists and taken seriously by the Iraq Occupation Authority?
In Loving without Giving in: Christian Responses to Terrorism and Tyranny, Ron Mock argues that an important way to combat terrorism is to support nonviolent means of addressing the “corrosive grievances” that can lead to it. Obviously this provides an alternative to terrorism for addressing the grievance, but he also says “an enemy with friends working for peace is less dangerous, not more, because such an enemy has a powerful antidote to dehumanizing hatred.”
Yet there may still be hope. This month on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest in Najaf. The US military was a bit more PR savvy than they were in 2003. “We say that we’re here to support democracy. We say that free speech and freedom of assembly are part of that.” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the American military said. “While we don’t necessarily agree with the message, we agree with their right to say it.”
Its good to see that some things have changed in four years. But is it too little too late?
Tim Nafziger is a Ekklesia consultant. He has been active with Christian Peacemaker Teams in the UK, USA and Colombia. In 2006 he returned to the USA after working with the Anabaptist Network UK. He is an IT consultant.