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The Power of Nonviolence*




Awad & Kessel Abdul Aziz Said

After fifty years, the prospects for peace have been shattered. Palestinians and Israelis are moving apart, separated by despair.

Peace advocates on both sides and in the Arab world and the international arena have an opportunity to narrow the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Strategies of confrontation are demonstrably unworkable. What is needed is a fresh perspective on the use of nonviolence that saves lives and secures dignity and achieves re-humanization and liberation for Palestinians and Israelis.


Nonviolence is an instrument of power, a strategy for liberation, and a tool for economic empowerment, but most of all, nonviolence means action. Nonviolence motivates people to act justly and ethically, in demanding just and ethical action, without resort to physical coercion. It includes both an injunction to act morally and not to be silent in the face of injustice, and a call for the expression of personal views of morality as a step toward assisting others in the larger community. Nonviolence is action based on principle, undertaken in the tactical way that most effectively actuates the moral point. Tactics and strategy are important to consider in deciding what to do and how to do it. The key here is the relation between means and ends. There is no separation. This is the heart of the practice of nonviolence.

In nonviolent action, the relationship between principle and practice has an effect.

Occasionally, nonviolent action itself may directly cause the desired result as when a demonstration convinces political leaders to change their course of action. Most often, successful nonviolent action is a catalyst for building moral and political support to change social and political policy. Gandhi’s march to attempt, peacefully, to occupy the salt works in India was powerfully effective because so many had the courage to just keep marching in file up to the entrance where the guards beat them down with clubs. The U.S. Civil Rights movement also made powerful gains through individuals working together to take similar risks. In Birmingham, Alabama, where peaceful marchers, kneeling and singing hymns, were attacked by police wielding clubs and unleashing police dogs, the moral point of the marchers was forcefully made to the millions who saw the event on television and perceived the justice of the marchers and the injustice of the authorities.

Strategic nonviolent action is often provocative. It places the opposition, often the authorities, in a double bind. If the nonviolent act is allowed, it makes its point and the movement gains strength. If the authorities resist, particularly where they resort to violent means, the relative justice of the actors and injustice of their opponents is magnified, bringing considerable political gain to the activists.

Nonviolence requires courage. But courage is not foolhardiness and action that is intentionally or recklessly destructive of one’s self and/or supporters is harmful and thus inherently violent and unjust. Courage, the will to act, must be balanced by moderation. To be just, one must be reasonable and act reasonably. Being reasonable involves a number of qualities including taking the time to understand and evaluate a situation carefully before acting, so that action will take into account all of the elements of the situation and be appropriate to them.


Nonviolence as a power technique is action that leads to both justice and peace. It is a means of wielding power, a strategy that is designed to fight a violent opponent willing and well equipped to wield military force. It is a strategy designed for use against opponents who cannot be defeated by violence. Nonviolence does not reduce the violence of the opponent, it merely renders his violence ineffective. The oppressor maintains power through the consent of the oppressed. Once that consent is withdrawn the oppressor becomes powerless.

The weapons of nonviolence include psychological, economic, and political methods and can be divided into five categories:

-          Methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion include formal statements, communications with a wider audience, symbolic public acts, vigils, drama and music, processions, public assemblies, and withdrawal and renunciation.

-          Methods of social non-cooperation include non-cooperation with social events, customs, and institutions, and withdrawal from the social system.

-          Methods of economic non-cooperation include boycotts by consumers, by workers and producers, by owners and management, by holders of financial resources, and by governments.

-          Methods of political non-cooperation involve rejection of authority and citizens’ non-cooperation with the government.

-          Methods of nonviolent intervention include direct actions with psychological, physical, social, economic, and political components. Weapons of choice consist of hunger strikes, nonviolent occupations and blockades, and the establishment of self-reliant institutions or rival parallel governments.

Similar to other instruments of power, such as conventional war or guerrilla war, nonviolence has its own requirements for effectiveness that need to be adhered to in order to produce the maximum impact of techniques. The success of nonviolence depends on a number of factors.

There has to be a grand strategy with realizable objectives. There must be an incremental motion from one realizable objective to the next. The grand strategy must be adaptable to change without loosing track of values. Intensive training, self-reliance, and self-discipline are necessary for the individual and the group. There is no room for improvisation.

Nonviolent strategy has a long history with varying degrees of success. Success sometimes has come through changing the minds and attitudes of the opponents, but that is rare. More often partial success has been achieved through accommodation (gaining and giving up part of one’s objectives). Nonviolent strategy has also demonstrated its capacity to produce nonviolent coercion of the opponent (so that no alternative remains but to capitulate). At times, the opponents’ regime is even disintegrated in face of massive repudiation and paralyzing non-cooperation as was the case in the downfall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines in the Eighties. Nonviolent strategy has been waged in recent years, in many parts of the world, including Chile, South Africa, Poland, Hungary, Burma, and Palestine itself during the early period of the first Intifada. Nonviolence was also used to end the Milosevic regime in Serbia. Historically, nonviolent strategy has wielded significant power in conflicts when applied skillfully and has often been met with serious repression by the opponents. That response reveals the power of nonviolence. In fact, the brutalities of repression against nonviolent resisters trigger a process of “political jiu-jitsu” which increases the resistance, sows problems in the opponents’ own camp, and mobilizes third parties in favor of the nonviolent resisters.

Nonviolence is compatible with Islam. Nonviolence in Islam is connected to the concept of power. Islam’s metaphysic views power as the prerogative of the Creator, and basic to Islamic anthropology is the conviction that creatures function to serve the divine purpose of creation. Action for liberation is a form of obedience to the Creator, according to Islam, since it is stated in the hadith that “No obedience to a creature while disobeying the Creator.” From that perspective, it becomes an important aspect of Islam to fight injustice. Jihad can be waged by heart, tongue, and hand. In the hadith it is said, “a true Muslim is one whose tongue and hands bear no violence and a perfect Mujahid is he who has given up those that are prohibited by God.” Jihad is an effort; a striving for justice and truth that need not be violent.

The vast majority of Arab liberation movements against European colonialism in the Arab world utilized nonviolence. In Morocco, for instance, the “Latif” prayer was used as a tool by the nationalist movement against the French during the 1950s, and was banned by the French. The “Latif” prayer invoked divine qualities of kindness and mercy. This is but one of many possible examples.

*** *** ***

* Originally published in al-Hayat, July 15, 2001.

** Dr. Mubarak Awad is the Director of Non-Violence International, Washington, D.C., USA.

*** Dr. Abdul Aziz Said is the Director, Center for Global Peace, American University, Washington, D.C., USA.


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