Thursday, 17 February 2011

On non-violence, and on what is possible

Iranian blogger Pedestrian writes today in reaction to a TV report on how Egyptian demonstrators organised and prepared for protest:
Of course, I couldn’t help but compare their situation to Iran, when actions of this sort would never be possible. (Ahmed would have been imprisoned and tortured for attending the workshops, for “treason and attempting to topple the Islamic Republic of Iran” long before he could put what he learned to use).

But the very interesting methods they employ during protest: they set up first aid centers, they give out food, they prepare eye drops for the tear gas, they hug militias, they have a functional group which stands strong even when one or two of them are taken into custody, etc, etc, … none of this would ever be barely imaginable in Iran or in any place where the state killing machine is leagues more lethal and vicious.

You see, it’s not just the protesters who were nonviolent, the militias stopped attacking during prayer. Fighting, like shopping in a bazaar or a first date, is a social negotiation first and foremost where conflicting worldviews translate to physical maneuvers.

This isn’t to say that outright violence is going to get anyone anywhere. But rather, quite the opposite, in what sort of setting does nonviolence as a strategy even make sense? Does it in the case of Iran?


Related, The New York Times on Gene Sharp, Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution. See also comments at the Small Wars Journal.

Earlier on this blog, a post on John Runnings, an American peace activist strongly influenced by him, and a second post also mentioning Gene Sharp.

As the SWJ is paying attention to Gene Sharp, will the next big thing after COIN for the US military be training in use of non-violent strategy and tactics? It surely has a place if a force is to have full spectrum capability.

Non-violence does not necessarily indicate virtue. It is possible for organisations to adopt tactical non-violence without signing up to to a pure non-violence strategy, just as it’s possible for organisations like Hamas or previously the IRA to use both democratic and terrorist methods. From John Runnings’ writing:
There is a form of non-military strife that can register outrage that is no physical threat to the opponent. This means is overlooked by those who assume that resistance must be passive when applied to resistance to the military. This form of non-military strife was used by Tshombe in 1962 when he was trying to secede Katanga from the Congo, as reported by U. Thant in his book, VIEW FROM THE U.N. (pg. 140).

“It was in Finland, where I arrived on the night of July 11, 1962, that I received the most disturbing news from the Congo. The message was to the effect that Mr. Tshombe had changed his tactics.

On that day, a planned and viciously conceived assault by thousands of Katangese women and children was made on Indian troops at a roadblock in Elisabethville. These troops - cursed, abused and spat upon by the Tshombe-organized women and children - displayed a most remarkable restraint and discipline under extreme provocation, and never fired on the mob. I also received report from Robert Gardener, United Nations representative in the Congo, that Mr. Tshombe had informed him that he would employ civilian demonstrations, especially women and children, instead of troops, to provoke the United Nations force, in cynical contempt for the safety and well-being of his own people. This change of tactics posed new problems for the force and put a very great strain on the troops.”

I was disappointed in U. Thant that he failed to admire the courage displayed by the women and children that were able to stand up to armed threat of the United Nations of the world and defy them. He later spoke of Tshombe and his colleagues as “a bunch of clowns”. (I would propose that some of the attributes of the clown might be encouraged in anti-warriors. The charm of the clown is that they do the unconventional with elan, to make people laugh, in contrast to the military whose efforts are seldom amusing.)

And suppose Saddam Hussein had withdrawn his military, and sent women and children to occupy the Iraq-Kuwait border to get in the way and to spit upon the American tanks and soldiers. Would Clinton have had the political climate to fire on them? What fun the world media could then have had, showing the United States military in confrontation with little boys trying to spit on the tanks, though they had not yet learned to spit over their chin?

This is not to play down the many virtues of Gandhi’s more pacifist approach. But it is important to know that vulnerable challenge may be successfully used by people who are not saints(...)

Added: Nonviolence in the Arab streets, with Gene Sharp, Sherif Mansour & Mubarak Awad, from Radio Times on WHYY. Mubarak Awad is a Palestinian campaigner promoting non-violent methods. He’s also a supporter of Iran’s Green Movement: see this earlier post for more.

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