Blog Posts

Nonviolent conflict modeled by Gandhi could be just as effective today

13 November, 2014

Update Jan 7, 2015:
Mary’s posting in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter (reproduced below) has had some play. It responded to claims made by Rabbi A. James Rudin (the American Jewish Committee’s senior inter-religious adviser) that Gandhi’s form of nonviolent action is rendered ineffective in response to the actions of the Islamic State and like atrocities. In her response, “Nonviolent conflict modeled by Gandhi could be just as effective today,” she uses examples from Gandhi’s own time (the Nazi occupation) and subsequently (the 1987 Intifada).

Original Post:
In the decades since the death of Mohandas Gandhi and of his student and successor in the art of nonviolent struggle, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the understanding of how civil resistance can be effective has expanded. New ideas and practices have emerged in societies that Gandhi could not have foreseen as venues for people’s movements, targeting forms of oppression that he had not encountered and which have been able to succeed against brutal regimes and dictators. The social science of nonviolent action has also deepened, showing among other findings that while violent campaigns have achieved their goals in roughly one-quarter of all cases, civil resistance has since 1900 succeeded in more than half of all such campaigns.

So the question posed by Rabbi A. James Rudin — whether “Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance” could be used to oppose Islamic State atrocities — sidesteps the greater reality that today, it would not be Gandhi’s notions, but a more advanced form of nonviolent conflict, burnished by the collective experience of hundreds of social movements in Gandhi’s wake worldwide, which were predicated in no small part on his experiments and practices.

One of the most common and misleading criticisms of Gandhi that Rudin invokes is when he says that Gandhi was either “naïve” to believe that nonviolent action could work against the Nazis or was indifferent to their atrocities. Self-educated and relying on newspapers for foreign news, Gandhi was doubtless not well briefed on the implications of Hitler’s rise. Yet as the French scholar Jacques Sémelin documents in his classic study Unarmed Against Hitler, effective nonviolent resistance in nations under Nazi occupation was able to thwart some of Hitler’s aims.

Sémelin cites civil resistance to the Nazis by teachers and church leaders in Norway; medical doctors in Holland; scholars and clergy in Poland; Czech and Slovak students and scholars; industrial strikes by laborers and miners in Belgium and France; and notably in Berlin, by the wives of Jewish men who had been taken to the death camps but were returned. All of this helped slow down and undermine the German war effort.

Gandhi may have anticipated this when he said before World War II that facing nonviolent resistance would be a “novel experience” for Hitler. Indeed, the Führer was known to be furious about the impact of the Danish resistance in particular, in which Denmark’s Jews were saved. Neither he nor his commanders in Denmark knew how to deal with it without alienating and rousing the whole country, which they managed to do anyway.

It is important to emphasize that even Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent action did not rest on passive resistance (by 1908, he had essentially rejected this term), but on undermining the legitimacy of oppression and increasing the costs of maintaining it. James Lawson, King’s chief strategist who had spent three years in India studying Gandhi’s work, applied this dynamic in the American civil rights movement, and many others used the action in subsequent nonviolent campaigns.

Yet while the novelty of nonviolent resistance has diminished, the refusal to notice its accomplishments or understand its dynamics is still with us, as Rudin inadvertently demonstrates when he suggests that Gandhi’s techniques have not been widely used by Palestinians.

In the first, largely nonviolent 1987-1990 intifada on the West Bank, Palestinians harmonized the use of more than 100 nonviolent sanctions, including marches, strikes, civil disobedience, renaming of streets and schools, resigning from jobs, tax resistance, boycotts, picketing and vigils. Resilience in the face of harsh reprisals and crackdowns came from hundreds of “popular committees,” often run by women.

The 1987 intifada had an impact on Yitzhak Rabin’s thinking and led to the 1991 Madrid Conference and the opening of political space for the Oslo Accords. Fatah and Hamas subsequently alternated between armed and unarmed resistance, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause. Still, radical flanks willing to use violence have often disrupted and displaced nonviolent struggle, even while it was proving effective.

The greatest risk from encouraging violent resistance against even the most hateful oppressors — such as the horrific acts by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — is that large-scale violence in the public space marginalizes the potential role of civilian populations, upon whom both dictators and occupiers ultimately rely for their sustenance and legitimacy, the very factor that creates the potential leverage of civil resistance.

“People power” is not merely a phrase; it is the hallmark of nonviolent conflict. End the cooperation of those who are oppressed, and oppressors cannot last, as Gandhi had discerned by 1905. The ways to do this multiply with every new struggle, and the knowledge of how to apply nonviolent tactics is expanding exponentially. Gandhi was its first major theoretician and practitioner, but what he advanced has animated tens of millions, from Hungary to Hong Kong, from Chile to Tunisia.

History shows that doubting the power of the people to prevail without violence is a doubtful strategy, either to suppress that power or to show the way to a freer and more peaceful world.

[Mary Elizabeth King is the author of A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance and Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change.]

This post was first published by the National Catholic Reporter.

How the Mississippi Freedom Summer can be best honored

20 October, 2014

Despite the dangers, Freedom Summer awakened many young Mississippi would-be voters to study and practice with the forms, before attempting to register to vote. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Despite the dangers, Freedom Summer awakened many young Mississippi would-be voters to study and practice with the forms, before attempting to register to vote. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

As summer has turned to autumn, memories remain vibrant from the commemorations in June of the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer at Tougaloo College, on the outskirts of Jackson. The word tougaloo in the language of the Choctaw Indians meant “here the waters divide” and refers to the fork of two creeks on the campus. I had lived in a tiny weatherboard house across from the gates of the college, established for freed slaves in 1869 by missionaries on the grounds of a slave plantation, while working on the 1964 freedom summer project. In this black enclave, I felt protected by the local community, which called us “Freedom Riders,” whether or not we had been on the 1961 freedom rides. Even so, I had planned 10 different routes for driving to and from Tougaloo College to the office of the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, in Jackson. Each day I changed which roads I took, because I believed that I might be targeted and under surveillance by night riders and vigilantes.

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“A Single Garment of Destiny”: Martin Luther King Jr and Our World

9 December, 2013

Public Lecture by Mary King at Martin Luther King, Jr., Foundation, The Hague, May 24, 2013. Photo Copyright Martine Sprangers Fotografie

Photo Copyright Martine Sprangers Fotografie

“A Single Garment of Destiny”: Martin Luther King Jr and Our World

Mary Elizabeth King, Public Lecture: Martin Luther King, Jr., Foundation, De Boskant, The Hague, May 24, 2013

50 years ago this spring, the Christian Century published the most important document to emerge from the U.S. civil rights movement: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” 45 years ago last month, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Our focus tonight is on how Dr. King learned the theories and methods of nonviolent action, how his global vision was important in sustaining the civil rights movement, and what this means for us today.
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Reclaiming the nonviolent side of history

1 August, 2013

On May 24, 1919, an unidentified photographer shot a scene in which a woman with her face veiled addressed a group of Egyptians amid a nascent rebellion against British colonization. (Pinterest)

On May 24, 1919, an unidentified photographer shot a scene in which a woman with her face veiled addressed a group of Egyptians amid a nascent rebellion against British colonization. (Pinterest)

Around the time that my book A Quiet Revolution was published in 2007, detailing the Palestinians’ use of nonviolent resistance, I recall that The Atlantic was publishing an article by Jeffrey Goldberg. In it, he asked, “Where are the Palestinian Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings?” — or words to this effect.

Upon reading this, the question burned for me: How can historical reality be so ignored, and how can history be told in a way that is so one-sided?


This article appears through a collaboration with Transformation, a feature of

The violent responses to Zionism have been assiduously documented. Yet in archives, newspapers, interviews and conversations, I found numerous uncelebrated Palestinian Gandhis and Kings. Indeed, I identified at least two dozen activist intellectuals who had worked openly for years to change Palestinian political thought — many of whom would be deported, jailed or otherwise compromised by the government of Israel for their efforts. More to the point, the 1987 intifada was only the latest manifestation of a Palestinian tradition of nonviolent resistance that goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. Similar oversights have occurred in the histories of peoples all over the world.

A young historian of Polish origin, Maciej Bartkowski, has edited a book that revisits 15 struggles for national self-determination, which have until now been understood primarily in terms of violent struggle and armed insurrection. Reexamining these major historical campaigns for independence or liberation, Recovering Nonviolent History makes clear how much we owe to the efforts of average people fighting for independence or liberation with civil resistance. The popular mass movements presented by Bartkowski and the authors — of whom I am one — reveal that people-power struggles have been significant, if overlooked, in the molding of collective national identities and institutions.

The people of Ghana, for example, possess a deep tradition of philosophical and strategic nonviolent action that is rarely acknowledged; they won independence through boycotts, organizing associations, “intelligent compromise” and strikes. Indeed, few areas of the world have experienced the extent and intensity of strategic nonviolent action as has Africa, yet such interventions are not normally described in terms of nonviolent struggle. Mozambique, for instance, was home to a freedom movement that from 1966 onward liberated parcels of land from colonial control, which were supplanted by parallel popular political processes. These zones became miniature “states-in-the-making” that could compete with the power of the Portuguese. Even though armed struggle played a role and is often highlighted in historical accounts, it actually held secondary significance.

In conventional histories, violence is generally celebrated and eulogized; national memorials glamorize death, bloodshed and warfare. A different picture is beginning to emerge, however. Nonviolent, organized action has been able to undermine the authority and domination of imperial powers, thwart foreign forces, and weaken military occupiers or their domestic representatives. Often facing severe oppression and reprisals, people who engage in civil resistance have aided the survival of their societies, toughened their resilience, constructed fledgling economic and political institutions, and won greater self-determination.

A demonstration in late 1987 in Bethlehem, marking what was then 20 years of Israeli military occupation, and including women in traditional hand-embroidered garb. (Hashomer Hatzair Archive)

A demonstration in late 1987 in Bethlehem, marking what was then 20 years of Israeli military occupation, and including women in traditional hand-embroidered garb. (Hashomer Hatzair Archive)

This past spring, I asked my students at the University for Peace main campus in Costa Rica to choose a chapter from Bartkowski’s book, write an essay and present the story of a recovered history. An Afghan student who had spent time in Iran chose the chapter on Persian nonviolent movements going back to the late 19th century. In the nationwide tobacco protests between 1891 and 1892, for instance, men and women stopped consuming imported tobacco for their water pipes, particularly as it became clear that a foreign Christian firm had come to control Iran’s tobacco trade. Mass demonstrations occurred in major cities. In Shiraz, a leading member of the clergy called for noncompliance with the order to sell tobacco grown for export to the company. A fatwa, or decree, issued in the name of an Iranian leader of the Shia community, deepened a growing boycott and had the effect of widening civil disobedience. As a result of popular unity and pressure, eventually the government canceled its arrangement with the foreign firm.

As often happens, the Iranian movements did not so much reject violence explicitly as they drew on Iran’s history of popular resistance in carrying out various forms of nonviolent action. Such traditional techniques included taking bast — inviolable refuge — in mosques and diplomatic legations, closing bazaars, petitions, shop closings, mass demonstrations and boycotts of foreign goods. Demonstrations by women in local protests against prices of basic foodstuffs were sometimes effective, based as they were on concepts of Islamic justice.

These orchestrated actions offer a new perspective on Iran that counters the presumption of a violent society often emphasized by Western leaders today. What if Western diplomats were to pursue contact by acknowledging the histories of Iranian people power? What if media accounts about Iran told stories of the Iranian Gandhis and Kings?

A pupil from the United States who had traveled to Tahrir Square for a month of interviews was engrossed by the book’s account of the deep roots of Egyptian civil resistance. Egypt’s hidden history includes 1919 women’s leadership of demonstrations in opposition to the British occupation of Egypt. Here, women had an advantage: The British police commander wrote about a demonstration of “the native ladies of Cairo” that frightened him, because “stopping a procession means force and any force you use to women puts you in the wrong.”

In the struggle against the British, Egyptians employed nonviolent methods such as speeches, marches, nonviolent sieges, alternative institutions and covert publications. In class, we had already discussed the right to resist as it evolved in the concept of the social contract in 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment thought; it was thus an electric moment to learn of the Egyptian religious scholars’ 1905 fatwa stating that “according to the rules of Islamic Sharia [law], people have the right to install rulers and to impeach them if they deviate from the rules of justice and take the path to injustice.”

In the British colonies of what is now the eastern United States, at least nine of the original 13 colonies had achieved de facto independence a year before the outbreak of the war of independence. Walter H. Conser and a team of scholars working in archives on both sides of the Atlantic have documented this largely nonviolent political process, which Conser presents in Recovering Nonviolent History with potent brevity. His chapter should be taught in every U.S. high school.

“A history of military operations … is not a history of the American Revolution,” John Adams warned in 1815. “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, and in the union of the colonies; both of which were substantially effected before hostilities commenced.” Colonists made their independence a reality through a program of non-importation, non-consumption and non-exportation of British products. They set up extra-legal committees that assumed the functions of governance. “In reality,” Conser writes, “political independence from Britain was evident before the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.”

American schoolchildren, however, are drilled in the narrative of military victory in the war ― with little or no attention, for instance, to the more politically significant defeat of London’s Stamp Act by civil resistance. My students were surprised to learn how persistently neglected has been this dimension of history in U.S. classrooms. They were not shy about suggesting that such disregard may be linked to the contours of the U.S. presence in the world today, with the ambition emanating from Washington of fostering democracy abroad with cruise missiles or drones.

Stories of women’s activism especially aroused the interest of my students. This subject is most often obliterated from official histories and authorized historical analysis. African peoples, for instance, often had deep traditions of women’s leadership predating the colonial period; some practices for resolving conflicts were reserved for women alone to fulfill. Yet these customs were repeatedly expunged by imperial importations of a submissive role for women. The recovery of these nonviolent histories, in particular, is a conversation that has only begun.

How we human beings think of ourselves as being able to make social and political change is shaped — or distorted — by how we understand the past. Some Palestinian families, for instance, have actively preserved memories and awareness of how their relatives and ancestors had struggled without violence to preserve their way of life during the 1920s and 1930s. These memories affected how they perceived their own ability to be instrumental as change agents, even under military occupation after 1967. The building of peace demands that the history and practice of civil resistance be studied and taught, because it influences what we learn from the past, but also how we comprehend, interpret and plan, in the present and for the future.

Rediscovering history through the lens of nonviolent struggle can change how we situate ourselves as historical actors. If we want a more peaceable world, we should realize that what has become widely accepted as history can hide the stories of average people, who through nonviolent struggles have shaped the contours of their destiny.

This blog post by Mary King was originally published by Open Democracy and Waging Nonviolence.

Global human-rights leaders defend Voting Rights Act in US Supreme Court

27 February, 2013

First page of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Wikipedia)

First page of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Wikipedia)

Distinguished human-rights advocates from across the world have released an open letter to the Supreme Court today in which they express concern and chagrin at the possible watering down of legislation that was one of the most important, tangible outcomes of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. From Africa, the Americas, Europe, India and elsewhere, the signatories include South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Britain’s leading human-rights advocate Baroness Helena Kennedy, Spanish justice Baltazar Garzón Real, and Sofía Macher, a Peruvian representing Amnesty International. These people have in many instances been decisively inspired by U.S. protection of human rights. Now they say to the justices in Washington, “Beyond your borders, the global march toward justice will suffer grievous harm should you surrender to those who seek to disenfranchise American citizens.”

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One Billion Rising, and more

21 February, 2013

One Billion Rising event in New York City on February 14. (Flickr/Marnie Joyce)

One Billion Rising event in New York City on February 14. (Flickr/Marnie Joyce)

On Valentine’s Day, demonstrators across the world reached beyond borders to protest persisting violence against women in an event called One Billion Rising. Prompted by the December 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman who was studying to become a physiotherapist, and the Taliban shooting earlier in the year of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who wanted to be educated, women’s rights activists are turning to sweeping nonviolent action to pierce global lethargy. A United Nations evaluation has shown that one in three women worldwide, or approximately one billion women, endure some type of violence at the hands of men in the course of their lifetimes.

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Al Jazeera coverage strengthens wave of Iraqi protest

2 January, 2013

Screenshot from

Screenshot from

As 2012 came to a close, massive nonviolent demonstrations took place in Iraq, with thousands of Sunni demonstrators in Anbar province marching in protest of the allegedly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al Jazeera English (AJE) has carried live reports this past week showing tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly self-declared Sunnis, as they demonstrated along a main highway leading to Syria and Jordan. Local councils called for civil disobedience because, they said, Sunnis are being sidelined in Iraqi politics, and pronouncements asserted that sit-ins would not end until protesters’ demands were met. AJE’s reporter commented that the challengers had a stated commitment to nonviolent action, and that local clergy had joined in the call to such action.

Marchers in Iraq repeated a slogan heard elsewhere in the Arab Awakening — “The people want the downfall of the regime” — calling to mind the period two years ago when AJE acquired increased international legitimacy for its reportage as the Arab world stirred with popular defiance, notwithstanding the network’s limited reach in the United States. With correspondents throughout the Middle East, including Israel, AJE has become the primary source for coverage of the region. The recent protests in Iraq are yet another example of what political analysts now speak of as the “Al Jazeera effect” — the network’s ability to influence global affairs by circumventing the official, governmentally-controlled news organs in the region.

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Teaching and learning civil resistance in West Africa

19 December, 2012

Oumar Ndongo and Mary Elizabeth King. (WNV/courtesy of author)

The real-life experience of African nonviolent struggles was important for Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew knowledge and encouragement from the civil resistance of Africans in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and elsewhere in their quests for independence from colonial rule. In 1957 he visited the Gold Coast (soon to be renamed Ghana), with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., U.N. official Ralph Bunche and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. All were to participate in the independence celebrations of Ghana as a new nation, where protracted nonviolent struggle had been pursued in seeking free elections. African nonviolent campaigns, significant in the early and mid-20th century, remain equally so in the 21st century. The rest of the world has a great deal to learn from such campaigns, especially thanks to the central roles of women in resistance and peacemaking.

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The significance of defections in Syria

20 August, 2012

From the Al Jazeera interaction feature “Tracking Syria’s defections.”

After Tunisia’s nonviolent revolution, on March 15, 2011, citizens of the small southern Syrian city of Duraa organized to challenge the government’s severe torture of 20 children, who had posted graffiti criticizing the government. As news spread of the authorities’ crushing of the civil resisters who objected to torturing children, sympathetic demonstrations swelled in solidarity across much of Syria. Local pro-democracy movements dropped ping-pong balls with “Freedom” and “Democracy” written on them from hillsides into towns below. Fountains sprayed red-tinted water, in allusion to gratuitous killings. The increasing brutality raised the voices of Syrians, who minimally asked for protection of civilians. Person by person, family by family, community by community, Syrians turned against the government of Bashar al-Assad. They changed sides.

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Palestinian hunger strikes, past and future

24 June, 2012

Khader Adnan stencil on a wall by Manara square, Ramallah. By Friends123, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 25-year-old Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak ate a piece of chocolate last Monday, ending the longest hunger strike of any Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody — more than three months long. The previous record-holder, Khader Adnan, ended his strike just four months earlier. What began as an isolated incident in Adnan’s fast has been growing into a wave of effective resistance. Both men concluded their strikes upon the announcement that they had secured their freedom.

Hunger strikes by Palestinians are not new; what may be different in contrast to historical antecedents is that they have been attracting global attention in news reports. It may be thanks to the growing comprehension of civil resistance around the world since last year’s Arab Awakening. Meanwhile, inside the Occupied Territories, the potency of nonviolent struggle is acquiring momentum as a wide range of Palestinian actors — with diverse priorities and preferences — is increasingly turning to strategic nonviolent action to press for resolution of their grievances.

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