Responses to nonviolent protest in the West Bank and in Iraq

Who is Our Enemy? Part 2

Since Ben Anderson asked about the difference between pacifism and nonviolence over on the Practical nonviolence prevents bank robberies post, I thought I’d start a new thread along the same line to see if others wanted to add their thoughts on the topic. It just so happens I came across a current event which adds an interesting angle to the discussion.

This past Friday, Irish Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire was shot by the Israeli military while participating in a nonviolent protest against the wall being built in the West Bank. I for one didn’t hear anything about until this evening when it happened to show up on my Google news page. A quick search shows that only 13 articles have been written about this incident in the past week. Robert Naiman highlighted this dearth of coverage in a blog post on the Just Foreign Policy website (also sent out as a press release by the International Solidarity Movement). Naiman’s challenge is a good wake up call to pacifists who often advocate nonviolent social change as an alternative to armed struggle:

Those who blame the Palestinian people for their fate, attributing it to Palestinian violence, and faulting the Palestinians for not emulating Gandhi, 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 U.S. media don’t pay any attention?

Wouldn’t this be a precondition for a successful nonviolent protest strategy? That people find out about it? Imagine if U.S. 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 democratic freedom of expression and the understanding that democratic engagement isn’t limited to voting. This weekly log from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq in June 2003 mentions 3 separate demonstrations each well organized and creative expressions of people’s needs and desired. This was a time before the daily suicide bomb attacks when there was a sense of hope and new beginning. The CPT article says that “there were far fewer troops on the streets than in Baghdad and that the soldiers and civilians were more relaxed.” Yet the U.S. 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 U.S. tank lowered its gun barrel and repeatedly swept it over the crowd.

By June of 2004, Iraqis had gotten the message. The Christian Science Monitor wrote an optimistically titled article, “Seeds of nonviolent resistance sown in Iraq” which talked about the founding of Ashura Council of Adhamiyeh, a nonviolent political group. The group organized the second demonstration that the Adhamiyeh neighborhood of Baghdad had seen. During the first demonstration four protesters had been killed by the U.S. military. But about 150 protestors in this largely Sunni neighborhood were willing to try again and this time U.S. tanks wisely avoided a confrontation.

But the second half of the article is much less optimistic. Two bystanders who are quoted reflect the disillusionment that has since become much more clear:

“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.”


“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, a group that courageously crossed sectarian lines to help with cleanup 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 U.S. 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 “Part 1” of this piece I drew on Ron Mock’s Loving without Giving in: Christian Responses to Terrorism and Tyranny. I think his insights are again useful when looking at nonviolent protest. Mock argues that an important way to combat terrorism is to support nonviolent means of addressing the “corrosive greivances” that can lead to terrorism. Obviously this provides an alternative to terrorism for addressing the greivance, 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.”

In closing I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tens of thousands who protested in Najaf on the 4th anniversary of the war. The U.S. 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 4 years. But is it too little too late?