Sorry, Peaceniks—Nonviolence Won’t Stop ISIS
This is one authoritarian regime we can’t beat by protesting
Tanks couldn’t stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Neither could artillery or helicopters. Not even Hezbollah’s well-trained fighters have succeeded in crushing the militant Islamists who conquered much of western Iraq in June.
So why would holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” defeat ISIS’ head-chopping, enemy-crucifying fanatics?
Yet one peace researcher argues that nonviolent protest can stop ISIS.
To her credit, Maria Stephan, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, doesn’t suggest that sitting down to a nice cup of tea will soothe the leaders of the new self-declared caliphate. Instead, she more pragmatically argues that non-violence political and economic action could undermine crucial Sunni support for ISIS, which has been able to capitalize on Sunni anger at Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.
“Against ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, it is unlikely that civil resistance could ever achieve a total victory,” Stephan writes. “But organized non-violent defiance and non-cooperation could be a complicating factor for terrorist elements seeking to control territory in Iraq, Syria and beyond.”
For example, Iraqis could “restrict their labor and consumption en masse, to the consternation of their terrorist overlords.” Or, they could look to Colombia, where civilians “fought against paramilitaries by building parallel structures and institutions that buffered them somewhat from those armed groups.”
Stephan claims that 53 percent of non-violent movements have succeeded, compared to just 26 percent of armed campaigns. As evidence of the power of non-violence, Stephan points to mass protests that ousted authoritarian regimes in Iran, Chile, Sudan, Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia, Tunisia and Ukraine.
How tempting is it to dream of innocent Iraqis ridding themselves of the fanatics and warlords, but without resorting to the same brutal means as their tormentors?
Unfortunately, we’re talking about Iraq, not Egypt or The Philippines. Iraq is not some state ruled by an aging strongman clinging to his old power and wealth. It’s a country that has suffered a decade-long sectarian civil war. There isn’t much a constituency for nonviolence. Nor would the inheritors of a new Iraq necessarily reward peaceful protestors.
During the U.S. occupation, American and Iraqi officials persuaded Sunni tribes to fight Al Qaeda—the much-ballyhooed Anbar Awakening. But why should the same tribes run the risk of opposing ISIS nonviolently—which very likely will get some of them killed—when their reward almost certainly is oppression at the hands of the Shia government?
Stephan suggests that Iraq’s Sunni minority could also deploy nonviolence against the Iraqi government. In which case, Iraqi Sunnis would be fighting both ISIS and the government. Fighting on two fronts simultaneously is never a good idea if you can avoid it.
Yet the real reason why nonviolence is a non-starter in Iraq is more tactical. Despite its peaceful name, nonviolence actually is a weapon—an alternate form of coercion for those who won’t or can’t use violence to achieve their goals.
Like any weapon, it works better against some opponents than against others. Gandhi’s nonviolence succeeded in India because Britain was vulnerable to public pressure. Jewish nonviolence against the Nazis would have failed because Hitler was not.
ISIS is on a mission to create an Islamic state, where God’s law—as the group interprets it—reigns supreme. If a few infidels and apostates get beheaded in the process, so much the better.
Compared to the alleged rewards of paradise, what difference does it make whether infidels and apostates practice nonviolence? Public protest is not likely to shame a group that is busy blowing up Shia mosques in the name of Islam.
As for economic pressure through non-cooperation by Iraqi Sunnis, ISIS appears to be flush with cash, thanks in part its Gulf state sponsors … and to robbing banks.
The question isn’t whether nonviolence could damage ISIS. The question is whether it will damage it sufficiently to either change its behavior or compel the group to leave Iraq. If neither occurs, then the only way to defeat ISIS is through violent means.
Which is how exactly how non-ISIS Syrian rebels, tired of ISIS hijacking their supplies and assassinating their leaders, drove the extremists out of parts of Syria.
The tragedy is that Stephan actually is right. For Iraq to emerge from the cycle of bloodshed, Iraqis are going to have to accept that it’s possible to express grievances and effect change by means other than killing.
Too bad ISIS doesn’t see it that way.