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Non-violence, anima of revolution

The  Arab spring in 2011 is but one instance of a wider movement of change, says the author of Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East.

Chibli Mallat
17 March 2015

What is non-violence theory?

Rather than non-violence "theory", I use the term philosophy, in a tradition known since Hegel as "philosophy of history". A philosophy of non-violence stands in contradistinction with a recorded history of some 4,000 years of the human journey in which violence is the main nexus, midwife, spirit, anima for sudden large-scale change in society, namely revolutions and wars. A philosophy of non-violence starts with a revolution which is absolutely non-violent. The revolution acts with a clear conscience not to cause physical harm to a dictator, or harm any of the members of its large apparatus of repression. But a philosophy of non-violence goes beyond the revolutionary phase to include constitutionalism and justice.

How does non-violence theory differ in perspective from constitutionalism, and in what ways are they interconnected?

A philosophy of non-violence cannot stop on the day a dictator is deposed. This is when the constitutional moment starts. A constitution is a social contract between the citizens, as individuals and groups, establishing rules that prevent them carrying their political interests and ambitions in a violent manner. Here lies one major difference with traditional non-violence theories. For them non-violence is a method of protest, which stops at the moment when the main objective of the protest either defeats an oppressive order or is defeated by it. We soon learnt from the Middle East revolution (or the "Arab spring") that this is not sufficient, and that the period following the collapse of dictatorship is no less important for the fuller philosophy to flourish in historical terms. Successful constitutionalism is very much part of non-violence, albeit on different terms.

To what extent does non-violence influence post-dictatorship justice?

In the same way a revolution is inevitably followed by a constitutional moment, the participants in a revolution who brought down the dictator need to account for a terrible past. They do so in a number of ways, most significantly in the trial of the dictator and his top aides. That moment of accountability is an essential part of the non-violence philosophy.

Post-dictatorship accountability raises a large number of issues, both historically and theoretically. There is a pyramid of accountability that includes trials, compensation, truth and reconciliation committees, and the constitutional moment itself revisited from a justice standpoint. Post-dictatorship justice raises difficult issues like the death penalty, or the "golden exit" of a dictator who is offered immunity to leave. To tackle dictatorship as a crime against humanity (since the word emerged in the trial of Louis XV1 in the revolutionary France of 1792-93), one must consider the significant body of literature and experiments, from international trials in the Ottoman empire in 1860 to the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

How did the Arab spring in 2011 change philosophical outlooks on non-violence?

In 2011, revolutions across the Middle East carried the torch of non-violence and deposed three entrenched dictators and shook the throne of several kings and emirs. This is known as the Arab spring, an awkward metaphor which misses the phenomenon by limiting it to Arabs. Iranians had had their "green revolution", which failed, in summer 2009, and other countries followed suit. There were large demonstrations in Israel in summer 2011, and a significant movement in Turkey in 2012 and 2013. This is ongoing, witness Bahrain, Sudan or Saudi Arabia. More importantly, developments in the Middle East provide an anchor for a much larger enquiry on a worldwide scale. Dictatorships don’t differ in essence whether they are practiced in Latin America, Europe, China or the Middle East. What is remarkable is that probably the most violent region of the world, the Middle East, was capable of rallying around a non-violent philosophy of historical change in 2011.

What are the major social and political circumstances, which trigger non-violent versus violent approaches to regime change?

This aspect (which isn’t well studied yet), involves well-organised revolutionary nuclei alongside a massive popular movement which stands up to the dictator and sometimes brings him down. The role of women is essential, as are the new forms of social media which defeat the traditional control of authoritarian governments on the media. Non-violence, however, isn’t rocket science, and it is in the minds of people that it "spontaneously" works. People are far more creative than academia or political punditry think. They learn from experience, adapt, and are at their most creative in revolutions, which are momentous by definition. But the philosophy of non-violence doesn’t come from thin air; it is the culmination of years of non-violent resistance, which prisoners of opinion exemplify.

What role does gender play in non-violence?

The tectonic philosophical break that non-violence brings to history is both the condition and result of the ascent of women taking over the public sphere, on terms which for 4,000 years men had anchored in violence. Gendered anima is the spirit of history. Nowhere is it more remarkable than in Syria, where the female revolutionary icons have been the common target of the dictatorship and the violent Islamic movements. The revolution in Syria started in Marja Square on 16 March 2011, when women assembled in silence and were brutally attacked by the government’s repressive apparatus.

Do non-violent revolutions warrant the same foreign intervention as violent uprisings?

This is a difficult question, which remains untested. When Nato intervened in Libya in 2011, the revolution against Qaddafi had long turned violent. We don’t have an instance of foreign military intervention on the side of a non-violent revolution yet. Therefore, I try to provide a theory, which dovetails with the difficult concept of R2P, the responsibility to protect (civilians). A condition for military foreign intervention on the side of a non-violent revolution is for the revolution to remain non-violent, and any violent intervention should be focused on the dictator as a criminal against humanity. But this is yet untested. I am convinced, in any case, that a non-violent revolution doesn’t need foreign military intervention to succeed in the first place.

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