Syria on the Brink: Can Nonviolence Bring Her Back?

Petaluma, California – When the Arab Spring was initiated by Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation last year in Tunisia, it ignited longings for freedom throughout the region; more than that, it took hold of the creative imaginations of non-violent activists and millions of dissatisfied individuals around the world. Has this hope ground to a halt with the violence in Syria?

Not necessarily.

We should remember that non-violence has strong roots in Islam, and Muslim-majority Syria is no exception. Like all great revelations, that of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was based on a vision of human unity that forbade violence and stressed elements of non-violence as we know it.

Lessons from the Qur’an reflect the same teachings that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. from their respective traditions. The 103rd chapter in the Qur’an, Al-Asr states that those favoured by God “believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to sabr” (103:3), which means endurance or patience and is one of the Arabic terms for non-violence.

In a well-known hadith (recorded actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) the Prophet (pbuh), having declared that a Muslim must help not only a victim but also an oppressor, was asked by a puzzled companion: how should we help an oppressor? The reply was, ‘”by preventing him from oppressing”.

These examples, among others, show that one need not go outside the Qur’an and hadith for the fundamental principles of non-violence. And these principles have surfaced continuously in the history of Muslim-majority countries. The 2010 book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East, edited by Maria Stephan, cited a growing number of examples even before Arab Spring, of which the partially successful Palestinian resistance movements are the best ones.

Syrian activist Bsher Said mentioned to us recently that the non-violent opposition was caught unaware when the uprising erupted a little over a year ago. However, some ingredients were present: there were cadres of young people in many Syrian cities who were taking up public work like cleaning up neighbourhoods, even though that sometimes drew unwelcome attention to them.

As with most things, non-violence works best when you know what you’re doing, but you also need a willingness to suffer without bitterness, or worse if needed. This too is not wanting in Syria today.

Said and others who make up Freedom Days, an umbrella organisation for the uprising, have repeatedly risked their life to promote political change non-violently. Pro-democracy activists in nearly every city of Syria are putting on plays, writing songs and sending up balloons filled with strips of paper with “freedom” written on them, which when shot at release the messages.

The ingredients have been and are still there for civic mobilisation that can be just as creative and even more concrete, extending the strikes and work stoppages that have already sent the message that the government and opposition must negotiate and find a path forward.

Historically, non-violent insurrections succeed when the international community recognises and supports the courageous struggle of actors on the ground. Organisations like Peace Brigades International and Nonviolent Peaceforce, to name just two, have been doing precisely this kind of unarmed civilian peacekeeping with remarkable small-scale successes in places like Colombia, South Sudan and Sri Lanka, which have situations comparable to that of Syria.

We, who are outside Syria looking in, must make knowledge of non-violence commonplace and support the institutions, like unarmed civilian peacekeeping, that practise it.


* Michael Nagler is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Stephanie Van Hook holds an MA in Conflict Resolution and is Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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3 Comments on "Syria on the Brink: Can Nonviolence Bring Her Back?"

May 8, 2012

Stephanie: thank you for your reply. I am pleased to learn of Badshah Khan.

It is very difficult. One should like to invite difficulty where the streets do not run with blood. Such a burden is the heart of peace. That burden has been foreclosed for too long, I believe. That is why the streets run with blood.


May 7, 2012

Should we accept this? Is the project of the keeping the hope for nonviolence in the affirmation of the belief that one can find an adequate path of nonviolence in the heart of every great religion one that ultimately is realistic, possible, viable, to be endorsed? And to these one may add: is this true and good? Such a question would seem imprudent and, perhaps, factually inaccurate. Some could say that such a question may actually lie beyond the pale and be one that simply can not be asked in the first place. Or, what if, on the contrary, it were in fact the most critical question for nonviolence in a place like Syria? A question, I suggest, of the location of nonviolence. What if nonviolence were always, in a certain way, beyond the pale of religion itself?

Should we accept the version of nonviolence that is handed down in the Islam? In Judaism? Hinduism? Jainism? In Christianity? In Buddhism? The list of religions should set off a resonance with the famous words of Gandhi when asked if he were a Hindi: “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Yet this same Mohandas said something that puts the sanctity of each of these, and perhaps all, religions in question fundamentally: that were all of the religious teachers from whom he learned to show that they did not hold nonviolence up as a highest thing, he would cease to follow them. This is beyond the pale of proper religious believe and discipleship. But it is, I suggest, both necessary and beyond the pale in a good way. A way that may not be understood very well. And understanding it, I suggest, is of critical importance today, in sites where fundamentalism plays powerful roles in determining how the worlds of thought and action are understood.

I think is not enough to glean quotes that support nonviolence from widely employed and often spiritually enforced and dogmatically held texts, any more than one can, by citing some of the turns of logic Gandhi used which do show a kind of advocacy of violence at times as preferable to doing nothing, make the case that Gandhi really endorsed violence.

Nonviolence is only possible when thought is genuinely free and takes place in that site of heart and mind that is occupied by religious belief. This appears to be a kind of conflict with religion. For many, such free thought spells the end of deep spiritual experience, and in truth, it does put even the most hallowed texts at more of a distance than some would like. It was from this distance that Gandhi approached the multiplicity of religious and the ideals of good, truth and nonviolence he saw in them.

The world communities are lethargic in their support of nonviolence in Syria because they are themselves locked in the grips of prevalent religious fundamentalism that continues to affirm “evil in the world” and makes constant reference to religious texts as sites of total belief without question. In the process, thought is rendered unfree and unable to play its critical role in the balance between truth and nonviolence that is so critical.

In saying this I don’t mean to diminish the fine actions Michael lists. But I think it is a mistake to think that Gandhian or other effective and truly robust nonviolence can actually be found in most, or perhaps, any religious texts simpliciter. Without getting clear on it, the danger is that this sets up a constant failure. I am given to put forth that I think this is likely the case. The narrative of a hoped for nonviolence as an emergent, increasingly employed approach is one that I believe must be questioned, not in a malaise of hopelessness that works against what is for many the only hope, but rather in precisely that very hope, a hope both beyond and before religion. It is this hope, I suggest, to which the masses of a place like Syria must be invited or which they themselves must find, leaving religion intact, after a fashion, but also occurring somewhat before it and in a certain original condition of thought and freedom. This was Gandhi’s location. Without getting clear on this, there is not so much hope, I am not afraid to think, for nonviolence.

For while this logic is difficult and the ground it treads may feel threatening to some, it should be noted that it is also a place from which able appeal can potentially be made to others. What if, instead of taking nonviolence in a direction beyond the pale, instead of threatening the comfortable beliefs of many, instead of being an insult to what is most high, it simply put what is most high right where it belongs: the truth and nonviolence as the grounds of Being that they already are? What if this unusual relationship with religion were one of the chief sources of Gandhi’s ability to unfold nonviolence thoughtaction in word and deed, leaving religion both intact yet in a certain way transcended?

To transcend religion? Who could dare utter such a thing? Isn’t religion the very realm of transcendence itself? Consider Gandhi again. And consider the day, the world, the roles of religion, the necessary attitude we must take in relation to religion. What if this were a Gandhian kind of experiment with truth that necessitates transcendence of religion? What if it were the very thing that were needed to effectuate the best realization of truly practicable and well-grounded nonviolence? Yet, without getting clear on what is really involved in gleaning affirmations of nonviolence in Islam or other religions, and I fear Michael makes this mistake, those in dire crisis will remain as bereft as they have been, and have been for far too long.

I am with Gandhi: the whole world is truly my teacher. Even the most offensive or violent oppressor has their strengths and good things about them which I will never deny in an imputation of evil that traps thought in the grips of war. And the best teachers may also fail in many ways to affirm nonviolence. Should they fail to affirm nonviolence as a highest thing, and I might add, wherever this is the case, I cease to follow them and hold to truth in ahimsa satyagraha, nonviolence thoughtaction.

It remains to add that this grounding, while seemingly obscure and long-winded, is highly practical and enables, I believe, the best grounding for the most efficacious enjoining of others into nonviolence, even if I am not in a position to show how that is the case.

My kindest regards and apologizes for taking up so much comment space.