When Nonviolent Intervention Meets Terrorism: Which Side Wins?
When armed insurgents in Iraq abducted four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams two weeks ago, something was clearly wrong. Like other hostage situations in Iraq, a shadowy insurgent group took responsibility, The Swords of Truth Brigade. It made a tape of the hostage. They threatened to kill them if their demands – the release of Iraqi prisoners – were not met.
But something is very different. Rather than serving as another symbol of infidels invading the country, this hostage situation is backfiring against the insurgents. Around the world, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other religious and non-religious groups are calling for the hostage’s release. Even in Baghdad and in Sunni regions of Iraq, Muslims are speaking out against the insurgents’ actions.
What is going on?
The abducted work with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an ecumenical organization dedicated to being a peaceful witness around the world. They have worked in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia, and even responded to violence in the US, UK and Canada.
Their goal is to serve as peaceful witnesses to reduce violence. Their strategy is to send committed, trained citizens into high-conflict zones to build grassroots connections and support local democracy builders.
They listen to stories, transmit those stories outside of the immediate conflict zone, and sometimes engage in nonviolent intervention by physically placing their bodies in the way. CPT moves openly with their recognizable bright red hats, speaking with leaders and documenting stories even in places no other Westerner would go. CPT had already reported torture in prisons long before the Abu Graib prison scandal surfaced.
Their way was building democracy they way it ought to be built: by supporting average people to take control of their own lives; rebuild their bombed out homes, schools, and water treatment plants; and supporting civil society – prerequisites to democracy.
What does that matter to those who took them hostage?
Because of CPT’s willingness to take risks, they had built relationships. Therefore, when this happened people around the world and inside Iraq came out against the attack. Many groups who had otherwise been silent spoke out against the hostage taking.
In Baghdad, Muslims organized a large demonstration to ask for the hostages’ release. The Association of the Muslim Ulemas, which represent the majority of Sunni Muslims, came out asking the four to be released. All of their sheiks spoke in the Friday community prayers at every Sunni mosque in support of CPT. The Association of Muslim Scholars and dozens of other Iraqi organizations have asked for their release.
Outside of Iraq, communities are mobilizing with Muslim scholars and religious leaders leading the way. Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad were calling for their release. Even an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee, Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim, has appealed to the insurgents to let them go.
What we are seeing is an undermining of the insurgent’s legitimacy. This is what will reduce their power in the long run. No amount of bombing in Iraq or military efforts can create that political will.
This is bad news for the Swords of Truth Brigade and others like them. Their action is backfiring against them. Gandhi long ago called this the “jujitsu” dynamic of nonviolence: by being morally centered, it highlights the injustice.
Why this is foreign policy that should spread
CPT gained respect because they gave respect. They understand you cannot create security based on the sands of military power. You must build it on the foundation of relationships and connections.
Those still stuck in the old “shock and awe” approach need to take another look.
There are many civilian nonviolent intervention organizations around the world – and they are growing in number and in size. They do their work quietly, making a big impact without the drama and explosions that a war brings. Groups like Peace Brigades International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, and CPT send people into dangerous situations to reduce violence and protect communities. They have saved the lives of thousands of people.
Such direct grassroots, civilian work is the wave of the future. It does not require the huge resources that military campaigns bring, but it does require the courage and sacrifice.
As is now becoming clear to those who have eyes to see, this is how US foreign policy should be: not sending in sons and daughters to fight, but to support the local citizens in their own place to struggle against injustice.