Nonviolent Resistance in the Islamic World

January 3, 2002

The tragic events of recent months have only strengthened the stereotype here in the United States of the Islamic world as an area of violent conflict. However, the region also has an impressive and growing tradition of nonviolent resistance and other unarmed challenges to authoritarianism.

The term “nonviolent action” is not highly regarded among those in unarmed Islamic resistance movements, in part because its Arabic translation of the term connotes passivity. Yet while the term understandably may not have widespread acceptance, and while few may explicitly refer to these movements as largely nonviolent campaigns, in practice many such actions fall under the rubric of nonviolent action.

What Is a Jihad?

Despite Western stereotypes to the contrary, the dramatic spread of Islam in the seventh century was not as much through Arab militarism as the absence of formidable opposition. More often than not, the way was open to them. Indeed, the Arabs of that period had little military professionalism, techniques or organization. Their generals tended to be merchants, poets or tribal chieftains. Their culture did not have the militaristic caste tradition of the Spartans, Prussians, Janissaries or Karalis, nor did they build up a military organization comparable to such other empires as those of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines or Persians.

Part of this perception in the West of Islamic militarism is based on confusion over the concept of jihad. Rather than a holy war in the Western sense, jihad refers primarily to one’s internal struggle for righteousness against the temptation to sin. It may also refer to any external struggle of moral significance, including nonviolent action. Thus, jihad is distinct from qital, the fight. When a jihad must take the form of a qital is debatable, but belief in jihad does not presuppose the use of violence in the quest of a just society. It has been said that the term “militant Islam” is redundant, given Islam’s inherent dedication to struggle for justice. Militancy, however, does not necessitate militarism—and struggle does not necessitate violence.

One of the great strengths in Islamic cultures that makes unarmed insurrections possible is the belief in a social contract between a ruler and subject. This was stated explicitly by the Prophet Muhammad’s successor Abu Bakr al-Siddiq when he said, “Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule. If I disobey him, you will owe me no obedience.” Successive caliphsreiterated the pledge; Imam Ali, for instance, said, “No obedience is allowed to any creature in his disobedience of the Creator.” Indeed, most Middle Eastern scholars have firmly supported the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler. The decision to refuse one’s cooperation is a crucial step in building a nonviolent movement.

What follows is a short synopsis of some of the major nonviolent campaigns in the Islamic world in recent decades.

Bringing Down the Shah

Through mass arms transfers from the United States, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi built one of the most powerful armed forces ever seen in the Middle East. His American-trained secret police, the SAVAK, had been thought to have successfully terrorized the population into submission through widespread killings, torture and mass detentions. However, open resistance began in 1977, when exiled opposition leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for strikes, boycotts, tax refusal and other forms of noncooperation with the Shah’s regime.

Such resistance was met by brutal repression from the government. The pace of the resistance accelerated as massacres of civilians were answered by larger demonstrations following the Islamic 40-day mourning period. In October and November of 1978, a series of strikes—strikers included hospital workers and journalists—nearly brought Iran to a standstill. The crisis deepened when oil workers struck at the end of October for the release of political prisoners, costing the government $60 million a day. A general strike on November 6 paralyzed the country.

Under enormous pressure, the oil workers returned to work but continued to stage slowdowns. Later in the month, the Shah’s nightly speeches were interrupted when workers cut off the electricity at precisely the time of his scheduled addresses. Massive protests filled the streets in major cities in December as oil workers walked out again and an ongoing general strike closed the refineries and the central bank. Despite large-scale massacres of unarmed demonstrators by royalist troops, the protesters’ numbers increased. The Shah fled on January 16, 1979, and Khomeini returned from exile two weeks later. He appointed Mehdi Bazargan prime minister, thus establishing a parallel government to challenge the Shah’s appointed prime minister Shapur Bahktiar. With the loyalty of the vast majority clearly with the new Islamic government, Bahktiar resigned February 11.

Despite the bloody image of the revolution and the authoritarianism and militarism of the Islamic Republic that followed, there was a clear commitment to keeping the actual insurrection unarmed. Protestors were told by the leadership of the resistance to try to win over the troops rather than attack them; indeed, thousands of troops deserted, some in the middle of confrontations with crowds. The mobilization of the masses by clandestinely smuggled audio cassette tapes led Abolhassan Sadegh, an official with the Ministry of National Guidance, to note that “tape cassettes are stronger than fighter planes.” Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches, circulated through such covert methods, emphasized the power of unarmed resistance and noncooperation. In one speech, he said, “[T]he clenched fists of freedom fighters can crush the tanks and guns of the oppressors.” There were few of the violent activities normally associated with armed revolutions such as shooting soldiers, setting fires to government buildings or looting. Such incidents that did occur were unorganized and spontaneous and did not have the support of the leadership of the movement.

It was the central value of martyrdom in Shi’ite Islam that made it possible, despite savage repression under the Shah—which led to as many as 20,000 deaths at the hands of his army and secret police—for the opposition to mobilize popular resistance rather than being crushed or forced into a self-defeating armed confrontation against the government’s vast military forces. The emphasis was to “save Islam by our blood.” Indeed, there are interesting parallels between the early Islamic figure Imam Hossein’s emphasis on martyrdom with Gandhian tradition of self-sacrifice.

Once in power, the Islamic regime abandoned the nonviolent methods that had led to its triumph, particularly after its dramatic shift to the right in the spring of 1981. But its clear recognition—while it was still the out-of-power opposition—of the utilitarian advantages of nonviolent methods had made its victory possible.

The Druze of the Golan Heights

When Israel seized the Golan Heights of southwestern Syria in 1967, most of the population was forced to flee. However, five villages populated by Druze (members of an Islamic sect and ethnic group who also live in southern Lebanon and northern Israel) remained. The Israelis sought to gradually annex the territory, and began pressuring the Druze to accept Israeli identification cards. The population resisted.

In December 1981, when the Israelis formally extended direct administration over the territory, they began an attempt to systematically coerce the population into accepting Israeli citizenship. The Druze began a nonviolent campaign that included a general strike, peaceful demonstrations and curfew violations. They systematically ignored military restrictions against public demonstrations and fraternization between villages. Children and adults eagerly sought arrest and many engaged in a “reverse strike,” installing a sewer pipeline that the occupation forces had refused to support.

As many as 15,000 Israeli troops occupied the Golan, imposing a 43-day state of siege, destroying homes, arresting hundreds of people and shooting suspects, but the Israelis finally ended their insistence that the Druze accept Israeli citizenship. Furthermore, they promised not to conscript Golani Druze into the army, to allow them to open economic relations with their fellow Syrians across the armistice line, and to stop interfering with Druze civil, water and land rights. When the Israelis refused to live up to these promises, mass protests and civil disobedience continued.

The resistance forced the Israelis to compromise further. Palestinian attorney Jonathan Kuttab observed, “The [Israeli] soldiers were really being torn apart, because they couldn’t handle that type of nonviolence.” American peace activist Scott Kennedy quoted an Israeli division commander’s complaint that the Golan situation was “ruining some of his best soldiers.”

The successes of this resistance effort inspired Palestinians, also living under Israeli occupation, to rethink their previous reliance on armed struggle by exiled guerilla groups, and to consider the efficacy of unarmed resistance in the West Bank and Gaza. Within a few years, the first intifada had begun.

The Two Intifadas

The still-incomplete struggle for national self-determination for the Palestinians, after little progress during years of armed struggle—including terrorism—against Israel, made significant gains in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The change came about as the result of the shift toward largely nonviolent methods during the first intifada, the uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. For decades, Palestinians had engaged in forms of unarmed resistance, including the general strikes of the 1930s against Zionist immigration; hundreds of such actions and campaigns over the past half-century have been documented by the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Thus, many of the tactics of the intifada were not new, but they brought this form of struggle to new heights in terms of its scope and role as a calculated strategy of resistance. Indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organization, after having de-emphasized the armed struggle for a number of years, formally renounced it in 1988.

The first intifada included confrontations by stone-throwing youths against occupation troops and the murder of collaborators, but the bulk of the resistance was nonviolent, consisting primarily of peaceful demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, occupations, blockades and the creation of alternative institutions. A combination of Israeli repression and factionalism within the resistance led to increased violence in the latter part of the six-year uprising, yet virtually no firearms were used by the Palestinian resistance and it remained a primarily nonviolent movement.

Within its first year, the intifada forced Jordan to give up its nominal administrative authority over the West Bank and to endorse Palestinian self-determination to an unprecedented degree. It also exerted substantial influence on popular opinion throughout the Arab world that forced some often unresponsive regimes to take the Palestinian question seriously once again. Finally, the intifada forced the Palestine Liberation Organization to take such political initiatives as the declaration of independence of December 1988, which led to a diplomatic successes, including recognition of the PLO as a negotiating partner by Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian population was mobilized and empowered to an unprecedented degree during the intifada, and the Israelis were faced with their most intractable opposition ever. Alternative institutions were set up emphasizing participatory democracy and empowerment of the people against both an occupying army and the existing patriarchal and feudal traditions of Palestinian society.

The 1993 Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority weakened the nonviolent movement as most Palestinian urban areas came under Palestinian self-governance, making it difficult for the population to confront the Israeli occupation directly nonviolently. Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s autocratic rule usurped the grassroots democratic institutions that had grown up as part of the nonviolent struggle of the 1980s, and reactionary Islamic movements committed to violent resistance grew in strength. Ongoing Israeli repression and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the failure of the peace process to provide the Palestinians with a viable state led to the second intifada in September 2000. Armed Palestinian police and security personnel joined irregular forces in battling Israeli occupation forces and settlers, and extremist groups have launched terrorist attacks inside Israel. But, although this new uprising has been far more violent than the first intifada, significant nonviolent forms of resistance continue in the face of brutal repression, often in cooperation with Israeli activists.

The Polisario of Western Sahara

Not only are there many cases of unarmed insurgencies against existing regimes in power, there has also been a case of such a successful movement within a nationalist movement prior to the formal seizure of power. The Polisario Front, the nationalist movement of Western Sahara seeking to reclaim its country from Moroccan occupation, has ruled up to 170,000 Sahrawis (the people of Western Sahara) in refugee camps in the desert of southwestern Algeria since the exodus following the 1975 invasion. While Polisario guerrillas waged an armed struggle against Morocco, the Front set up a sophisticated governmental structure-in-exile independent of Algerian control, calling itself the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and included a network of health care centers, cottage industries, agricultural projects and distribution systems that have won praise from international development agencies. Though Morocco occupies most of the territory, the majority of the people in this sparsely populated country live in the camps under Polisario control.

Despite those impressive structures, which insured a high degree of economic and social democracy, actual political democracy for most of the period was limited. Many Sahrawis felt there was too much domination by one element of the Polisario and that there were serious discrepancies between the movement’s egalitarian line and the political reality. On the political level, the Polisario’s executive committee made most decisions; despite the facade of participatory democracy, many of the local political leaders were hand-picked. There was a series of work stoppages and protests in 1988 as democrats pressed for liberalization. Hardliners resisted, arresting democratic opposition leaders. Still facing stiff opposition from the population through ongoing nonviolent resistance, the SADR went through several governments that autumn, but still failed to satisfy the population. But the democrats won a series of victories in 1990 and ’91 and now essentially hold power. The large June 1991 Polisario Congress, the first to include substantial representation from outside the camps, was dominated by democrats. Among other radical reforms, the executive committee and Politburo were replaced by a national secretariat in which key positions were held by reformers. There is now a new and more democratic constitution and an independent human rights commission.

Undoubtedly the already existing social and economic democracy made possible the transition to political democracy. Yet given the isolation of the camps and the monopoly of the armed forces in the hands of the Polisario elite, a more active repression would have likely been attempted had the leadership thought it would work. Indeed, it may be the first time that such a serious division within a national liberation movement was resolved through nonviolent action, avoiding disintegration into armed factions or establishment of a new rival liberation organization.

From Egypt to Indonesia

There has been a long history of nonviolent resistance throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic parts of Asia. The 1919 revolution in Egypt consisted of months of civil disobedience against the British occupation, centered in Cairo and Alexandria and including strikes by students and lawyers, postal, telegraph, tram and railway workers and, eventually, Egyptian government personnel. The result of this nonviolent movement was the British recognition of limited Egyptian independence.

Recent years have seen successful nonviolent insurrections against military-dominated governments in the predominantly Muslim West African countries of Nigeria, Mali and Niger, restoring those countries to democracy.

The repressive sixteen-year rule of Jafaar Nimeiry in Sudan was ended during the spring of 1985 following two weeks of largely nonviolent demonstrations in the capital of Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman. A general strike called by trade unions and professional organizations paralyzed the country; the democracy movement received active support from cross-section of the population, including the business community. Despite thousands of arrests and scores of shootings, the protests continued. While there was some rioting, most of the protests were peaceful. By April 5, even the judiciary had joined what was referred to as a “civil rebellion.” Radio stations were shut down and the airport was closed to prevent Nimeiry, who had been visiting the United States (a major supporter of the regime), from returning home. The military then seized power in a bloodless coup on April 6, but popular demands soon led to the establishment of a civilian government followed by democratic elections, which resulted in a popularly elected government that remained in power for another four years before being toppled by a military coup backed by hardline Islamists.

Despite a history of repressive colonialism and military rule, Pakistan has witnessed impressive examples of nonviolent resistance. The Pushtuns of the Northwest Frontier—who are today the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan—were among the most effective participants in the nonviolent anti-colonial struggle against the British; Mohandas Gandhi referred to them as his best “nonviolent soldiers.” Khan Abdul Ghaffir Khan, known as the “frontier Gandhi,” organized a group called Khudai Khidmatgar, or “Servants of God,” that grew into the thousands and played an integral part in the independence movement, particularly in the early 1930s.

In more recent years, Pakistanis engaged in one of the largest nonviolent action campaigns in modern history in a 1983 uprising against the hard-line Islamic dictatorship of Zia al-Huq. Though this rebellion was savagely suppressed, sporadic nonviolent action campaigns persisted until the dictatorship was overthrown in 1988, resulting in the election of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman prime minister in the Islamic world.

A massive nonviolent uprising toppled Bangladesh’s Islamic dictatorship in 1991 and resulted in the establishment of one the strongest democracies in Asia, led by Hasina Wazed, a progressive activist and daughter of the country’s founder, Mujibar Rahman.

General Suharto’s 33-year rule in Indonesia was one of the most brutal in modern history. As many as half a million Indonesian leftists were massacred in his rise to power in the mid-1960s, and more than 200,000 East Timorese were slaughtered in the wake of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. However, in the spring of 1999, a massive and largely unarmed uprising succeeded in overthrowing the dictatorship. The country’s first democratic elections were held that fall.

The predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo/a engaged in a nine-year unarmed resistance against Serbian minority rule during the 1990s, establishing perhaps the most elaborate network of parallel institutions in the history of nonviolent struggle. Though eventually eclipsed by the rise of the hard-line nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army, which prompted increased Serbian repression and NATO military intervention in 1999, the party of pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova—who led the nonviolent campaign for independence from Yugoslavia and opposed the NATO bombing campaign—has subsequently become the leading political force of the quasi- independent republic.

West-East Solidarity

There are thousands of other cases of smaller-scale nonviolent campaigns, such as the Lebanese Muslim women who joined their Christian counterparts in demonstrations demanding an end to the country’s sectarian violence; of thousands of Palestinian Muslims joining hands with Jews and Christians encircling the entire Old City of Jerusalem for the cause of self-determination and security for both Israelis and Palestinians; and the Saudi women who drove cars through the streets of Riyadh in open defiance of the kingdom’s ban on female drivers.

Even among pacifists and other peace activists in the West, little is known about these and other nonviolent struggles. (Even this year’s War Resisters League calendar, which consists of 52 case histories of successful nonviolent movements from around the world, has only two examples by Muslims and none from anywhere in the Arab world.) It is incumbent upon nonviolent activists in the United States to familiar ourselves further with this impressive and ongoing history of nonviolent resistance by Muslims, who constitute a full one-fifth of the world’s population, and offer our solidarity. As the United States continues to make war against Muslim peoples and nations, those resisting such violence must know that their nonviolent struggles will no longer be ignored. Solidarity with Muslim peoples will help them resist the temptation to resort to violence and will help free all of us from the threats of terrorism, fundamentalism, repression, militarism and imperialism.

With the United States pouring billions of dollars worth of sophisticated armaments into the region, bombing Muslim nations and providing repressive governments and occupying armies with military economic aid, it is a mistake to blame the militarism and authoritarianism of the Islamic world on cultural or religious factors. Indeed, the need for nonviolent action in the Islamic world is no less than the need for nonviolent action in the United States to oppose those U.S. policies that help sustain the region’s violent and undemocratic status quo.

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