Nonviolent resistance and self-rule: Middle Eastern social movements take the challenge!

by Martina Pignatti Morano
Un ponte per... (Italian voluntary association and NGO)
Mail to: martina.pignatti [at]
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It is a privilege to speak at the celebration of a text that opened for me the door to Gandhian thinking: Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), the preparation of the constructive programme for a people that wanted to rule themselves, and bring an end to oppressive foreign occupation. I will speak today of Middle-Eastern movements who struggle for liberty and justice, who deal with cruel occupations, and to whom my Italian association is offering solidarity. Their cause is apparently far from our life but in fact Middle-East has been dramatically hurt by Western colonialism, neocolonialism and militarism, hence Western citizens of conscience have the duty to intervene to oppose the crimes of their governments and bring responsible solidarity to local people who work for change and self-determination.

I bring you today some good news from Middle East, indeed while US and Israeli leaders worry about the possibility that Iran acquires the atomic bomb, something very different and very important is happening: Palestinian and Iraqi civil society groups are working hard in their offices, homes and backyards to rediscover the fomula of the weapon they once had... Nonviolence, the “moral atomic bomb” (as the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani used to say). I will not speak in the name of Iraqi and Palestinian activists, but I will argue that international solidarity is fundamental for their success and that the teachings of Hind Swaraj could have a great impact to empower their action. This may help to pay back – at least morally – the political debt that the international community has towards Middle-Eastern people.

In Iraq civil society succumbed to military power and dictatorship in the last decades, and people are used to see political change happening through military coups. The last one, in 2003, was led by foreign powers and brought massive destruction, but people decided not to stay in their homes or just wait for better times. They took advantage of the new space that opened up to create again a lively civil society: thousands of human rights group, women groups, students associations, reviews, media organizations and workers' unions have been founded. The problem is that many of them are funded and manipulated by Iraqi political parties to gain votes and strenghten their constituences. Many others implement a foreign agenda, mostly with USA funding. The good news is that a third way exists, indeed somebody is trying to build threads that unite independent civil society organizations, and a powerful thread to pull people together has been the word NonViolence (LaOnf in Arabic).

The Iraqi Nonviolent Group LaOnf started to exist after some Iraqi human rights activists, during the 2005 World Social Forum, knew about the theory and practice of active nonviolence. They immediately decided to organize training programmes for Iraqi organizations, asking for the support of European anti-war associations, to promote nonviolent strategies of social and political transformation. After experiencing the dramatic effects of the circles of violence, they were convinced that a radical alternative was needed and had to come through collective action. The first participants in these programmes organized the first nonviolent campaign in May 2006, the Iraqi Week of Nonviolence, which was then repeated in 2007 and 2008. A national movement was gradually built, with local groups in all 18 governatorates of Iraq, a democratic decision-making mechanism and an elected national board. They promote the culture of active citizenship through nonviolent action, they campaign against political, sectarian and family violence, they argue against occupation and influence of foreign states in Iraqi affairs, and they defend the culture of voluntary work and independence in civil society. In their campaign of 2008 to prevent electoral violence, 179 organizations and 290 single activists where engaged in actions on the ground all over the country.

This movement just managed to organize in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) on 6-8 November 2009 the First Iraqi Nonviolence Forum, that gathered about 120 Iraqi activists from all provinces and an international delegation of other 20 activists from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, USA. LaOnf called for the participation of all those who belive in nonviolence as the only tool to build an independent, democratic and peaceful Iraq. I report here the Forum's Ethics, as formulated by the Iraqi organizing committee:

  • Our Forum is built on the principles of cooperation and voluntary work, we reject overspending and unjustified disbursement of funds, we focus instead on content for the success of the forum and will provide simple and basic arrangements for logistics.
  • Participants in our forum should refuse war, occupation and sectarian violence; believe in nonviolence as an option for change and people's expression; defend this practice and protect its diffusion in Iraq through all nonviolent methods of struggle, against any attempt to block them through repression.
  • The Forum aims to promote another image of civil society, built on the fight against internal corruption, based on voluntary and no-profit work, providing services and assistance at the lowest possible cost, taking people's initiative as the basic resource for action, refusing to trade the suffering of vulnerable groups, not making profits through facades of voluntary and humanitarian work.

The forum aims to give a strong impetus for alternative nonviolent change in Iraq, as opposed to the usual approaches that try to keep and enforce peace by increasing militarization and limiting freedoms, and those which present violence as the only tool for resistance and change. These approaches are widespread, despite the heavy price paid by the Iraqi people for such violence and despite the serious threat brought by violence on Iraq's unity and national identity. In this situation, we work with a growing hope to end the US occupation, with the aim of building real and full sovereignty of Iraqi. We face the challenge of strong interference by some neighbouring countries, the evident political crisis, and not enough attention to dialogue, partnership, cooperation to find solutions to outstanding problems. We have to deal with widespread unemployment, poverty and political obstacles inhibiting laws which could regulate the economy on a national basis, support development and guarantee redistribution to all Iraqis of profits coming from natural resources of their country (e.g. strengthening national companies and the rights of Iraqi workers).

We are holding this forum with the commitment to contribute to the achievement of tangible progress in peace and security, to the delivery of essential services for the Iraqi people, to the fight against corruption;

being aware of the challenges faced by the Iraqi civil society, due to attempts by some to control freedom of expression, assembly and association with the pretext of security concerns;
seeing in the next legislative elections a chance for achieving positive change through nonviolent means, an important mechanism of expression of people's will to change, which must allow everyone to promote her/his ideas;

for the freedom of assembly and to find community-based solutions. The success of the forum shows the importance of this group, that is nationally rooted but looks for exchange of experiences with international nonviolent movements that share the same ethics. And it is my convinction that a very fruitful exchange could take place on the notion of Swaraj with Indian and Asian movements, so here I call for your cooperation! Gandhi in 1009 was asking to the Indian reader of this book: “Let us suppose that the English have retired. What will you do then?” And this is exactly the question Iraqis are posing themselves now that the withdrawal of US troops may become a reality. The history of the Indian movement for home rule, its spiritual and political dimensions, its attempt to join forces of the “extremists” and the “moderates” to build a new country, to nationalize strategic economic sectors, to understand democracy as much more than parliamentary democracy, would bring inspiration and material for discussion to the Iraqi activists. Like the Gandhian movement did, the Iraqi Laonf movement accepts the possibility of unrest once the occupying troops leave, and is ready to campaign in their communities to de-escalate violence, while if the Obama administration doesn't keep the promise Laonf will campaign for immediate and total withdrawal of occupying forces. But the main concern of the Iraqi civil society today is how to build internal cohesion and defend people's rights. The government is becoming more and more authoritarian, is violating freedom of expression and freedom of association, and strong action needs to be taken to reverse this worrying trend. Both students and workers unions have seats in the newly elected national board of Laonf, and they are ready to continue campaigning.

Besides the Iraqi movement, let me mention another Middle-Eastern population that is struggling mainly through nonviolent resistance against a cruel occupation: the Palestinians. Popular committees of rural villages organize corageous nonviolent demonstrations against the Apartheid Wall, with the precious help of Israeli and international activists that try to protect Palestinians with their own bodies from repression of the Israeli army. An international struggle that has its victims, but is a frontier of the global justice movement. Young peace activists tragically pay with their sacrifice the crimes of the last colonialist state in the region. Moreover, since 2005 the Palestinian civil society produced a collective and unitary call to the international community for a comprehensive campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Given the failure of simbolic protest and peacebuilding/peacemaking initiatives, this campaign is now the frontier of international solidarity to Palestinian and Israeli people who truly seek for a just peace. Quoting the appeal of the Palestinian civil society:

In light of Israel's persistent violations of international law; and
Given that, since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel's colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal and called for immediate, adequate and effective remedies; and

Given that all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine; and

In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions; and

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

Here again, international activists who implement the campaign in their countries could learn important insights from the Indian movement of Swaraj, and the attitude Gandhi had when calling for boycotts. The BDS campaign, being endorsed by international civil society groups, will not crush the economy of Israel (mainly based on high-tech and military exports), but it can have a tremendous impact on the moral image that Israel promotes of itself around the world. In order to deconstruct the image of Israel as a democracy that respects human rights, and in order to avoid accusations of antisemitism by Sionist propaganda, the BDS campaigns needs to keep extremely high standards of morality and nonviolent language. Expressions of rage against the State of Israel will be accused of having an antisemite tone. Wishes for revenge and restitution of what the Palestinians have suffered may be accused of complicity with the Palestinian armed resistance and a wish to destroy the State of Israel. All this will not help the cause of justice. Hence a high level of self-control must be achieved by those who know the situation of Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, and feel strong indignation for the conduct of the Israeli army. Everything we need to ask the international community is non-cooperation with a country that violated the highest number of UN resolutions, without ever incurring in any sanctions. Divesting from its economy, not buying its products, suspending cooperation agreements with its institutions is the simplest way to stop business-as-usual and start pointing at the issues at stake: the occupation, the apartheid, the right of return for refugees.

If the international civil society continues to support the BDS campaign, and learns effective nonviolent ways to spread the message to more people, this will encourage Palestinians to take the most difficult decision: apply the boycott in the occupied territories, in spite of their total dependence on the Israeli economy, accepting self-sacrifice to promote self-sufficiency as a strategy for resistance like their father and mothers did in the First Palestinian Intifada. To conclude on this, I am strongly convinced that promoting Nonviolent Resistance as Self-Rule in Middle East is a fundamental challenge, but one that local civil society can only take with a strong support of the international solidarity group, and of the global Swaraj movement. We should all feel that these conflicts concern us too, as we did all over the world in 2003 when we marched against the war in Iraq. One march is not enough to stop a war, let's pay attention to what Middle-Eastern civil society is asking for and answer the call!

For more info on the Iraqi Nonviolent Group:

To endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign on Israel:


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