Back to top

The Incoherence of Nonviolence

Such a title may immediately convey the impression that the present author opposes nonviolence. However, this is most certainly a mistaken impression on the part of the reader. The very idea of the incoherence of nonviolence is premised upon the reality that moral ideals are often pursued at the expense of high-brow abstractions common to ideologising or theorising. Discretion exercised by human beings in a concrete and lived context is inescapable. Living out the ethics of nonviolence defies the coherence that is at times attributed to it and other related modes of acting including revolution and democracy. For the past and present of nonviolent action is only a mere indication of the multiple and disparate potentialities of the future of nonviolence in the twenty-first century.

And there is perhaps no better place to meet and discuss the thorny issue of the alternative to violence than present-day Japan at a time of profound oppositions revolving around the debate about being a ‘normal’ nation-state and the declaration of war in the country’s constitution. Accordingly, the University of Tokyo brought together academics from different fields of interest working on nonviolence at the ‘Nonviolence as a Strategy, Nonviolence in the Future’ workshop on 17 November. Self-admittedly, I was one of the invitees asked to present a paper and I agreed to the request of the organisers who share with me a growing interest in the intersections between Islam and nonviolence. This workshop and the ensuing discussions were a link in the ‘chain of nonviolence’ at the plane of knowledge thanks to the efforts of the organisers.

My own entry point into the arena of nonviolence is that of political thought. Indeed, the presenters at the workshop with contributions ranging from Gene Sharp’s strategic nonviolence to the daily yet revolutionary struggles of Egyptian women to maintain a public presence filled me with the impression of the dizzying variety of nonviolent manifestations. No one philosophy or figure can or is able to exhaust the numerous potentialities of the moral problematisation of violence, especially that wrought by the state. Each presentation was an enlightening witness to the variety of the human experiences of nonviolence at the level of theory and practice.

The 'Systemization of Nonviolent Action'

One of the most infamous names of the early twenty-first century is none other than Gene Sharp and his work on nonviolence took a decidedly strategic turn in comparison to Mahatma Gandhi’s own ‘principled nonviolence’. In Maki Tanguchi’s presentation on Sharp, we did indeed see the huge debt owed by him to the embodiment of anti-colonial Indian activism clothed in ascetic garb. What is rather interesting about Sharp’s novel contribution, pointed out by Tanguchi, was Sharp’s “academic systematization of nonviolent action,” although I would also add the war-like language to underline the ambitious and radical intent of nonviolence to sceptical audiences. Such differences are evident in how Gandhi devoted his life agitating and struggling against the British Raj when the pursuit of nonviolence was by no means neatly packaged. Instead, the incoherence of the ‘experiments with truth’ lent Gandhi’s ideas, values and actions a force and a creativity that unveiled the immoral and coercive nature of British colonialism. The positive refusal of Sharp, according to Taniguchi, to be a party to the cycle of vengeance, in many ways identical to Gandhi’s motivation, was nothing less than the taking of self-responsibility for peace.

Egyptian Women After the ‘Revolution’

Women undoubtedly participated alongside men in popular protests ushering in the ‘Arab Spring’. In the case of Egypt, an impassioned plea by Asmas Mahfouz, a ‘millennial’, to take to the streets against Hosni Mubarak served as a provocative rallying cry for revolution.  However, the counter-revolution began even before the revolution could really take off as Junko Toriyama’s presentation captured through personal testimonies collected from ordinary Egyptians. For the oral record contains not simply what has happened in the past but affords a window into the power of memory and the moral sense of human beings in the present. Toriyama conveyed in concrete terms the unfulfilled promise of revolution and the role of women in a truly transformative act without essentialising the latter. A truism may be offered here that revolutionary collective agency involves participants whose identities are shaped by contingently-constructed gendered, class-defined, nationally-oriented and ideologically charged conceptions of the self and the other.

The 'Chain of Violence'

The “chain of violence” so abhorred by nonviolent activists was noted by Professor Kei Nemoto in his presentation on Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle against the military junta in Burma. However, the commitment to nonviolence was qualified by strategic concerns of successful political action that leaned towards the implied possibility of “the use of violence.” When nonviolence is espoused and conveyed to others to be a profound moral choice and a successful one, it has the potential to sway others to adopt such an approach. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s successful example that has been tried and tested lent itself to widespread emulation even by armed rebel organisations. However, advocates of nonviolence can certainly become victims of their own success illustrated vividly and lamentably in Su Kyi’s case that leads to the disavowal of the political path that led them to positions of power. Her stances towards the state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya have confirmed the authoritarian nature of Burma. The very logic of the modern state, especially its coercive apparatus, thrusts its agenda onto the calculations and fears of aspiring political elites for the sake of not returning back to the political wilderness.

Revolution and the Elective Affinity between Nonviolence and Anarchism

Revolutions by their very nature disrupt the normal course of the political life of a society. Unflinching nonviolence is one solution to restoring moral purpose in Professor Chibli Mallat’s identification of the crucial distinction between the means and the ends of revolution. No other figure in contemporary history holds the high esteem of working out, however haphazardly, the specific and actual details of the means of nonviolence as Gandhi does while not losing sight of the grand ethos of nonviolence as he backed away from revolution. For Gandhi, the intertwined dynamics of the personal and the political brought together self-discipline and collective mobilisation without which nonviolence would have been an empty slogan. Pragmatic yet principled searches for novel and reinvented forms of political refusal reflected the incoherence of nonviolence that fed the creativity of anti-colonial action. Another type of change differing from revolution was conceived. The future of nonviolence was the production of self-determined subjectivities in local democratic councils with echoes of the anarchist tradition, the other face of Western modernity.

Reversal of the centredness of the state, in two words ‘limited government’, is to be coupled with nonviolence in the relationship between political authority and citizens. Democracy and revolution were placed perennially in opposition to the modern state by the late Sheldon Wolin, the American political theorist, and moves towards their institutionalisation at that level would spell the end of both. In a somewhat similar vein of thought, for Shaykh Jawdat Said, about whom I presented at the University of Tokyo workshop on nonviolence, disobedience is the essence of the message of the monotheistic prophets. I tried to illustrate the elective affinity between anarchism, especially religious anarchism à la Tolstoy, and nonviolence in Said’s ideas. My choice of speaking about Said was partly motivated by the desire to provincialise, render local, styles of thinking and acting that make purported universal claims. The workshop was the most suitable forum to insert the voices of Muslims, often ignored, seldom heard, into the chain of nonviolence.

Mohammed Moussa is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He has engaged with the challenging questions posed by tradition, the ubiquity of power and Islam in the contemporary world in a variety of forums. His publications include a monograph on the political thought of Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali (2015) and a recent article on democratic learning in North Africa (2018). Mohammed is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute and a regular contributor to Critical Muslim.