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.