Nonviolence in the Middle East

by Arun Gandhi
The universal ignorance and misunderstanding that surrounds the philosophy of nonviolence – at least the Gandhian interpretation of it – is due to the inadequacy of the English language. Taken literally, nonviolence means not using physical violence while ignoring the non-physical violence that we, individually and collectively, commit every day. This non-physical or passive violence is more insidious because it generates anger, which leads to physical violence. Therefore, unless we recognize and deal with our “passive” violence, we cannot end “physical” violence.

Gandhi’s nonviolence emphasizes the need to build interpersonal and international relationships on positive principles of respect, understanding, acceptance, and appreciation rather than on negative principles of selfishness and self-interest, as we presently do. This requires respect for different religions, cultures, nationalities, and other physical and social characteristics. If respect becomes the basis of our relationships, violence becomes difficult to practice. Gandhi’s nonviolence is also firmly based in love and compassion for all of creation. Thus, when people question the relevance of nonviolence, they are questioning the relevance of respect, love, and compassion.

Gandhi’s nonviolence is not a strategy for conflict resolution, nor is it a weapon to be used when convenient and discarded when not. It is a way of life, an attitude, and an outlook. One has to live it, practice it, and think it. Nonviolence emphasizes the need to recognize the good in every individual and to let that good flourish so that the “evil” (anger and violence) can be suppressed. Gandhi taught me at age 12 that anger is as useful and powerful as electricity, but only if we use it intelligently. We must learn to respect anger as we do electricity.

Violence in the Middle East, like violence elsewhere, is manifested in the hate, prejudice, and selfishness found in us all. Our spirituality is defined by the same negative attitudes that define our relationships. The competitiveness we have injected into our religion contains the seeds of the violence destroying our social fabric today. Can it be changed? Gandhi said nothing in this world is impossible to achieve if we have the will to do so.

Historically, we have made many mistakes of which the most devastating is the religious division of nations such as Ireland, India, and Palestine/Israel. These partitions have generated hate, prejudice, and violence on a vast scale with repercussions so extensive as to almost defy logical conclusions.

Shortly before his assassination on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was asked: “What is the solution to the Palestine problem?” He replied: “It has become a problem which seems almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘Do not be so silly as to resort to terrorism….’ The Jews should meet the Arabs, make friends with them, and not depend on British aid or American aid save what descends from Jehovah.”

If a solution was difficult in 1948, it is even more so now, although not impossible. The question in the Middle East, as in India and Ireland, is: What is the goal for each side? Palestinians and Israelis have tried to suppress, if not annihilate, each other through violence, which is impractical and inhuman.

An ideal solution would be for the parties involved to take a more human approach and, as Gandhi says, befriend each other, work out a mutually satisfactory solution, and then live in friendship. Since nations have been divided for so long, putting them back together is virtually impossible. German unification has often been used as an example, but its division into East and West was ideological not religious. When the ideological differences of the two sides were resolved, bonding became easy.

Religious differences cannot be merged so easily; they can only be respected. As a result, bonding into one nation two disparate religious groups that have been torn asunder becomes even more difficult. An equitable solution will be possible only when the people in the countries in crisis resolve not to become pawns in international power politics.

As long as western powers, particularly the US, manipulate smaller nations for their own purposes, and as long as the people in the conflicting countries allow themselves to be manipulated, a solution will be impossible. The US wants Israel to be a strong, dependable partner to safeguard the supply of oil and, as illustrated by the recent action against Afghanistan, it (the US) is willing to buy the allegiance of Pakistan to contain the terrorists.

Politics without principles, Gandhi said, is a deadly sin that contributes to violence. Unless we allow ourselves to be governed by ethics and values, respect, and compassion, violence will continue to deplete our lives.

I recently read a bumper sticker that expresses the truth succinctly: “When the people will lead, the leaders will follow.”

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Arun Gandhi is the Founder and Director of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Written exclusively for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) provides news, op-eds, cartoons, features, and analysis by local and international experts on a broad range of Middle East issues. CGNews syndicates articles that are accurate, balanced, and solution-oriented to news outlets throughout the Middle East and worldwide. With support of the European Community and UNESCO, the service is a non-profit initiative of Search for Common Ground and the European Centre for Common Ground, international NGOs working as partners in the fields of conflict resolution and media production.
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The Other Armed Struggle
Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad”
A Plea for Realism
Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace
Palestinian Women and Nonviolence
Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative
Weapons and the Two Palestinian Intifadas
Nonviolent Direct Action in South Africa
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Other articles in this series

The Other Armed Struggle by Chris Miller
Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad” by Khalid Kishtainy
A Plea for Realism by Bassem Eid
Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace by Gila Svirsky
Palestinian Women and Nonviolence by Lucy Nusseibehv
Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative by Jonathan Kuttab
Weapons and the Two Palestinian Intifadas by Tawfiq Abu Baker
Nonviolent Direct Action in South Africa by Susan Collin Marks