Where are the Martin Luther Kings of the Middle East?
In a land where millennia-old resentments routinely erupt into violence, the selective amnesia about the more recent example of Martin Luther King is striking – it is a part of the world that pretends as if the non-violence movement never existed.
Six months ago, a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project on Islamic Extremism found that 57% of Jordanians, 39% of Lebanese, and 25% of Pakistanis felt that violence against civilian targets – such as suicide bombing – was often or sometimes justified. The bittersweet news was that this represented a decline from 2002. What’s worse is that nearly half of the Muslims in Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco felt that suicide bombings against Americans and Western civilians in Iraq were justified. And these are our allies.
The presence of non-violent activists could help create an active alternative to terrorism on the Arab Street. It could help cut to the heart of the moral relativism that argues that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”
Martin Luther King said that “a man who won’t die for something is not fit to live. “Suicide bombers believe that a man who won’t kill for something is not fit to live.
Martin Luther King believed that “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Terrorists’ lives are defined by a commitment to destructive selfishness.
And to those who get wobbly and weary following the war on terror, Martin Luther King warned, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
In a region that seems perpetually caught in a cycle of violence, the power of non-violent strategy should be self-evident by now. It is not that there have been no precedents to look toward and learn from.
Without firing a shot in anger, Mahatma Gandhi led a popular non-violent protest that ultimately removed British colonial rule from the second most populous nation on earth.
Influenced by Gandhi’s teachings, Martin Luther King helped lead a civil rights movement one century after the Civil War, which finally ended the system of racial discrimination and segregation.
A quarter century ago, the workers revolt of Solidarity highlighted the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union and helped hasten its fall by striking for basic rights in Poland.
One of the most brutal dictators of the last decade, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, was finally taken out of power not by bombs but by a peaceful uprising from the people of Belgrade.
In the last year alone, the peaceful Orange Revolution in the Ukraine ended an attempted electoral coup, while the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri led to a still-ongoing shift in the balance of power in the region.
Arguments that the Middle East mindset isn’t hospitable to nonviolence ends up sounding like a liberal version of “the white man’s burden.” It is more reasonable to assume that the amoral influence of terrorists and dictators on the region has weeded out high-profile moderates through intimidation and murder. “They haven’t got the guns,” comments the Hudson Institute president, Herbert London, “and they haven’t got the guts.”
But Jack DuVall, the president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, cautions that the absence of charismatic leaders along the lines of Martin Luther King in the Middle East is not necessarily a sign of an absence of organized non-violent resistance. “I think that a lot of these countries are in a phase that is equivalent to Poland in the late 1970s. Nobody knew who Lech Walesa was at the time. … The regime may look powerful and very much in place while dissident movements are organizing. The fact that we don’t see high-profile leaders doesn’t mean there isn’t work going on.”
To encourage more peaceful revolutions against Middle East dictatorships during the war on terror, we need to encourage coverage of those who would lead strategic non-violent movements.
An example of one who understands this sits in a jail cell in Iran – the journalist Akhbar Ganji. Imprisoned almost continuously since the summer of 2000 on charges of “spreading propaganda against the Islamic system,” Mr. Ganji has embarked on several extended hunger strikes while penning two “Letters to the People of the Free World” from his prison cell. In the first, he wrote, “In authoritarian systems, lying turns from a vice to a virtue.” In the second, he wrote that dissidents’ “only weapon is moral courage in exposing the violations of human rights and the tyranny of the rulers … This candle is about to die out, but this voice will raise louder voices in its wake.”
There are other examples in other Middle Eastern countries of dissidents beginning to stand up to terrorist violence and dictatorship armed only with moral courage. The Internet can be a powerful tool to help spread their name and influence, uniting a diverse people to stand up against the cycle of violence that empowers dictators around the world. As Martin Luther King said, “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”