The Other Armed Struggle

by Chris Miller
Many people and groups struggling for their rights and freedoms lack confidence in the potential effectiveness of strategic nonviolent struggle, often dismissing it out of hand. Such skepticism stems from common misconceptions about the nature of nonviolent struggle, several of which are addressed here.

Myth: Nonviolent action is passive
Nonviolent action provides power through a weapons arsenal. It is a socio-political technique comprising three classes of methods: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Without the ability to effectively operate these weapons or “tools,” they are as useless as someone with construction equipment who wants to build a house, but lacks knowledge of carpentry or architecture.

Depending on the objectives of a conflict, nonviolent action may aim to persuade, coerce, or even politically paralyze an opponent. It is not passive. It is also not negotiations, conflict resolution, or conflict management - all of which attempt to eliminate or reduce the escalation of violence. Nonviolent struggle is “nonviolent war” waged by at least one side to achieve political objectives by changing the power relationships within a society or between opposing groups.

Myth: Nonviolent struggle is a weapon of the weak
Political power is the totality of means, influences, and pressures available to any given power-holder. All power-holders, even the harshest dictatorships, rely on the submission, cooperation, or – at the very least – acquiescence of the people over whom they rule or are attempting to rule. This insight into the nature of political power forms the basis for strategic nonviolent struggle. In fact, nonviolent struggle works through the identification, deliberate targeting, and withdrawal of an opponent’s required sources of power, which cannot be exercised without the obedience and cooperation of those ruled by that opponent. This understanding of power reveals the potential strength that seemingly weak groups hold in terms of nonviolent resistance.

Myth: Nonviolent struggle is imported from the West and East
Cases of nonviolent struggle have been documented from every corner of the inhabited world. Unfortunately, a complete history of this technique is not readily available, as it has often been ignored or downplayed.

Not only has nonviolent struggle been used within the Muslim world but some Muslim scholars have suggested that it is particularly well suited to Islamic tradition and practice. For example, characteristics exemplified within Islam such as discipline, social responsibility, perseverance, and unity are necessary conditions for a successful nonviolent struggle.

There have been many cases of nonviolent struggle in Muslim societies. Examples include: Egyptian nonviolent resistance against British colonialism, 1919-1922; the Palestinian general strike of 1936; the predominantly nonviolent Iranian Revolution, 1978-79; major components of the Palestinian Intifada, 1987-1991; the Arab oil embargo of 1973; and the Moroccan nonviolent invasion of the Spanish Sahara in 1975, among others.

Myth: Violence is necessary in struggles against injustice
Fighting against perceived injustice cannot and should not be avoided. In fact, conflict is inevitable and often positive.

It is my understanding that Muslim scholars have continuously debated the concept of jihad. As a non-Muslim, I cannot adequately contribute to this debate; however, in the most general terms, a jihad outside of one’s self can be understood as an effort to defend against perceived injustices.

Such debates have recently attracted international attention, particularly regarding the question of whether a jihad can or should include the use of violence. Regardless of one’s opinion on this issue, there is an assumption that a struggle must be pursued - that is, passivity, intimidation, or assimilation are simply unacceptable. A more important question is: What is the most effective way to defend one’s rights or beliefs?

Unfortunately, violence has been the predominant response in desperate and acute conflicts. This dogmatic and romantic reliance on violence is neither accompanied by a strategic evaluation of the effectiveness of that violence nor is it compared to potentially more effective alternative means.

Nonviolent struggle has achieved successes in dismantling dictatorships, blocking coups d’état, expelling foreign occupiers, and protecting rights and freedoms. It also offers particular advantages over violent struggle. For example, people of all ages can participate in nonviolent action, which helps them become more confident, courageous, and empowered. It also helps reduce expectations that outsiders will facilitate change. In addition, nonviolent struggle increases the chances that both domestic and international attention will focus on the issues rather than the means. Subsequently, it is likely to evoke greater sympathy and concrete support for just causes than would violent struggle.

The strength of nonviolent struggle is also apparent from the repressive measures opponents employ to suppress it. This is a result of the opponent’s unmitigated dependence on the superiority of violence and the false belief that such violence would be sufficient to help them remain in power.

These are but some of the misconceptions that plague the understanding, and thus adoption, of nonviolent struggle in acute conflicts. Assessing the potential effectiveness of nonviolent struggle should be based on a solid understanding of the nature and dynamics of the technique. It has been more powerful and successful than many realize.

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Chris Miller is Program Coordinator for the Policy and Outreach Program at the Albert Einstein Institution.

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.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, not of CGNews or its affiliates.
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Nonviolence in the Middle East
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

Nonviolence in the Middle East by Arun Gandhi
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