Peter Popham: 2011: when protest turned peaceful



In September, a man nicknamed "Little Gandhi" was buried in his home town near Damascus.

Ghiyath Matar, a 24-year-old father-to-be, had been tortured and killed by the Syrian secret police. His crime: greeting the soldiers, who came to crush the anti-regime protests, with water, dates and roses, and leading demonstrators in mass chants of "peaceful, peaceful..."

This was the year that a new sort of Islam emerged, an Islam as tightly wedded to non-violence as Gandhi himself was. But it's a phenomenon that we are having difficulty coming to terms with.

Islam is the main reason that atheism has gained so much ground in the past two decades. It is a long time since the CofE posed a threat to anybody, and the influence of Rome has been dwindling for years. But, if one wanted proof that "the God delusion" filled people's heads with pious fury, the proponents of violent jihad offered it on a plate.

In vain was it pointed out that the real fathers of Islamist violence were the modern secular prophets, Marx and Mao, and that equally godless theorist of violent Third World revolt Frantz Fanon, famous for saying "violence is man re-creating himself". Bin Laden's talk of crusades, infidels and paradise was proof enough that his jet fuel was religious mania.

But 2011 was the year when a different sort of Muslim spoke up; when huge numbers of Muslims voted with their feet for non-violent political action, mass political defiance. Starting in Tunisia, leaping across to Egypt, and on to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, huge crowds gathered week after week, bringing down two of the world's most deeply entrenched tyrannies without firing a shot.

The Arab Spring turned to autumn, and in many places non-violence gave way to its opposite. Yet this does not diminish the momentous nature of the original impulse, or the shock effect of its success. It was 50 years since the publication of Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, the secular bible of violent anti-colonial revolt which argued that only by taking up arms could the black races win their freedom. But after 50 years of failure, it was time to try something different.

And this fazed us all. So firmly had we identified Islam with violence, we jumped to the conclusion that Tunisia's and Egypt's pacifists must have turned their back on their faith. We could not have been more wrong. What is now emerging is that this new approach to liberation, one that specifically ruled out recourse to arms, was, for many Muslims, as deeply rooted in their faith as the one that they rejected claimed to be.

The violently reductive interpretation of Islam is by no means the only one. In practically all societies on earth (other than our own), appealing to the religious impulse remains the way to release man's deepest passions, whether for good or ill. Odious as the fact may be to atheists, Gandhi's achievements make no sense divorced from his Hindu heritage, and the power of the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi's message owes almost everything to their Buddhist faith. Likewise, it was a fresh interpretation of Islam that gave the Arab Spring its momentum and produced the feats of defiance we have witnessed in the streets of Syria.

The "Little Gandhi" of Damascus was a follower of Jaydat Said, the revolutionary Syrian professor of theology who turned 80 this year. While most Islamic preachers stress Mohamed's life as a warrior in Medina, when he led attacks against Jewish and other tribes, Said chose to underline his earlier years in Mecca when, it is claimed, he and his followers non-violently withstood years of persecution.

Said's doctrinal lead comes from the Book of Genesis. In his book The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam, he urges Muslims to imitate Abel who, when Cain made to attack him, replied, according to the Koran, "If thou dost stretch they hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee...". Said derives an entire theory of non-violent political conduct from Abel's example. And, after years of uphill struggle against the apostles of violent jihad, those who interpret jihad to mean an inward, spiritual commitment with no implication of violence are getting the upper hand.

Non-violence has a strong appeal in practically every religious tradition, but the theory of non-violent political action owes as much to secular teachers as does the violent sort. If Gandhi was the first great practitioner, it is the veteran American scholar Gene Sharp, the founder and head of the Einstein Institution in Boston who has devoted decades to documenting the theory and practice of non-violence, who is the movement's father figure. Today, much of the inspiration for the non-violent uprisings around the world comes from the Serbians who brought Slobodan Milosevic crashing down after he rigged his re-election: their organisation Canvas, the Centre for Non-Violent Actions and Strategies, has trained hundreds of activists from many countries in the theory and practice of political defiance. There is no religious background to Gene Sharp's work: he backs non-violence on the pragmatic grounds that, in the long term, it is far more likely than violence to succeed. Canvas feels the same way.

But when they are adopted by societies where the religious impulse remains strong, both violence and non-violence take on a religious tinge – and arguably become much more potent in the process. When Frantz Fanon's French writings were translated into Farsi, keywords such as "the oppressed" were given a specifically Islamic resonance, and Fanon's exaltation of revolutionary violence became a key part of Ayatollah Khomeini's message. The rest is history – of a very bloody and sterile sort.

Atheists err when they identify the violent orientation of al-Qa'ida and the rest with piety; as Bernard Rougier, the author of Everyday Jihad, put it, religion "is a box where you can find all sorts of tools to legitimise your strategy". And 2011 was the year the religious impulse revealed its power in a way we can all admire.

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