Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad”

by Khalid Kishtainy
Curiously enough, it was not Iraq, my original home, nor Britain, my adopted home, but a country that I had never seen or had any dealing with – Palestine – that made me committed to nonviolence. During my study of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I noticed that every chapter of that history made me gasp and say to myself, “Oh, if only the Arabs had not gone to war with the Israelis.” Every time they did, they lost something. I believe that most Arabs share this feeling now, especially in relation to the losses of the 1948 war and the 1967 debacle.

Helped by my pacifist gene and an instinctive aversion to killing and violence, that realization aroused my interest in nonviolence and the study of Gandhi, his work, his teachings, and the technique of nonviolence.

My starting point was not religious, spiritual, or sentimental, but practical and empirical as I found that nonviolence is a more effective weapon – at least over the long term – than violence. The result of this research was my book “Towards Nonviolence,” the first of its kind in Arabic and which I am told made some impression on the Palestinians just before and during the first Intifada. In the opinion of Gene Sharp, a leading scholar of nonviolence philosophy, 80% of that uprising was nonviolent.

In any event, the topic has now become part of the Arab political agenda and thought, so much so that the Arab Thought Forum of Amman held a three-day conference on the subject under the heading “Arab Nonviolent Political Struggle.” This was the title in English, although in Arabic they used the term “resistance” instead of “nonviolence.” In the conference publication, my paper was omitted in the Arabic version, but included in the English one.

The reason behind this double-dealing is the Arab and Muslim suspicion that nonviolence means pacifism and surrender, a charge that is often heard. During that conference, the term was debated. “Nonviolence” is an inadequate translation of Gandhi's “Ahimsa” in Urdu, and “la ‘unf” sounds even worse in Arabic. To avoid this negative hint, we agreed on “civilian resistance” or “civilian struggle,” but I advocated “civilian jihad” to give it a Muslim coloring. Other writers are now using this term, and the Sudanese leader and former Prime Minister al-Sadiq al- Mahdi adopted it for his concept of nonviolence. The term was inspired by a hadith that the Prophet pronounced whenever he came back from battle: “We return from the minor jihad to the major jihad,” meaning from military action to civilian work. The abused and misunderstood term “jihad” does not mean “holy war” but “the exertion of effort.”

As everywhere else, advocates in the Arab World must tackle this problem and explain the difference between pacifism and nonviolence, particularly the fact that nonviolence does not, should not, and cannot mean surrender or indifference. Indeed, it is the man of arms who is more likely to surrender once his gun is broken or confiscated, or his ammunition and supplies are exhausted. The civilian mujahid has no gun to lose or ammunition to exhaust. His arsenal is in his heart and his brain and cannot be taken away from him. He understands how history moves. It may take him a long time, but he will achieve his goal with the minimum of human suffering and material losses.

The beautiful thing about nonviolence is its totality, for it brings with it justice, human rights, freedom, democracy, and political education. Armed struggle, on the other hand, is mostly based on secrecy and blind obedience. Orders from unknown, faceless people must be followed. There is often bloody strife and physical liquidation within the movement. It teaches you to ignore the law, the rights, and the lives of other people. Everything is arbitrary. Armed struggle is obviously not a good school for democracy, which explains the chaotic rule that always follows a violent revolution. Algeria after French rule is a good example of this. It may even explain the difference between Indian democracy and Pakistani dictatorship. Afghanistan is a good example of how the good man of arms one day is the bandit the next.

To shoot your opponent you need first to hate him, which makes it difficult for you to befriend him when the time comes. This point is very relevant to Palestine. The Arabs must not live with the pipe dream of throwing out the Jews. They will have to live with them, which we can see is becoming more difficult every day because of all the bloodshed and the obsession with vengeance. A path must be paved towards a future of coexistence and cooperation, but this path will be more difficult to tread if it is covered in blood. This is what makes it so important for the ideas of nonviolence to be cultivated on both sides. It may be difficult now to tell the Palestinians to throw flowers rather than stones at Israeli soldiers, but someone should tell these children to perhaps make the stone throwing only symbolic, i.e., without aiming at or hurting anybody. Let it be just a new form of civilian protest. The Israelis, on the other hand, should make room for nonviolent action if they really want to get rid of violence.

Since nonviolence is the gateway to peace, it is always associated with justice, for you cannot have a long-lasting peace without justice. Nonviolence is the hope of the future and can be the most effective political tool of mankind.

# # #

Khalid Kishtainy is a columnist with Asharq Al-Awsat. He is the author of Towards Nonviolence (Amman: Dar al-Karmal, 1984 - in Arabic), which examines the relevance of nonviolent ‘civil resistance’ as an effective strategy for change in the Arab world.

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.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"The articles of the Common Ground News Service give hope that there are people out there who work on solutions inspired by the need to co-exist in tolerance and by the hope for a better future."

- Christopher Patten, Former Commissioner for External Relations, the European Commission

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

Nonviolence in the Middle East
The Other Armed Struggle
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
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this series

Nonviolence in the Middle East by Arun Gandhi
The Other Armed Struggle by Chris Miller
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