Martin Luther King Day is celebrated. Barack Hussein Obama is inaugurated. The confluence of dates at the beginning of this week seems a culmination of hopes from the past, an auspicious omen for those with even greater hopes for the future. And in a general sense among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East (whose satellite channels delight in using the new president’s middle name) there is a shared sense of new possibilities opening up. This, even though their attention—their fear, their anger—has been focused on the carnage in Gaza these last three weeks.
What the vast majority of Arabs have been slow to realize, however, is the profound connection that exists between the history of the struggle that opened the way for Obama to become president, and the future of their own fight for freedom and dignity, and not only in the face of Israeli occupation, but under the tyrannies of so many Arab dictators. We talk about remembering Martin Luther King because of the power of his vision, of his language, of his morality and of his faith. But mainly we remember him because he adopted a strategy of nonviolent confrontation with an insidious and pervasive system of repression—and broke it—and broke through it. We remember him because his way worked.
What we know about the Middle East today is that wars no longer end in victories, and the process of peace never delivers more than the process itself. A new approach has to be found, and the leaders of the governments in the region don’t seem up to the task. The most promising is nonviolent resistance: mass protests, boycotts, refusal to obey unjust laws.
Again, consider what we are seeing on the Mall in Washington today. As we look at that enormous crowd we do not, unless we are interested in the footnotes of modern American history, remember apostles of the gun like Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton or Stokely Carmichael or the rioters shouting “burn baby burn” as America’s cities—their own homes—went up in flames in the 1960s. Violence drew attention to the civil-rights movement. It expressed the anger that had built up for years. That is unquestionable. But what it did to advance the cause of building a new world with new ideas, if anything, is hard to measure. What King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance achieved is unquestionable: just about everything we are looking at now.
White Americans did not need to be taught to fear black Americans, after all. Jailers, deep down, will always fear their prisoners, slave-owners their slaves, the occupiers the occupied. That much was deeply ingrained in the white American psyche long before the Black Panthers posed for posters. What white Americans needed to be taught was to respect black Americans. And that fundamental change in attitude, so long coming, was the direct result of the sit-downs, the marches, the boycotts—the bravery of the resistance to oppression that King’s life and history and, indeed, his martyrdom epitomizes. It was the bravery of the righteous, not only in the religious and moral sense, but in the pure common-sense sense that King and his followers were doing much more than acting out their anger or fighting for revenge. They were correcting an aberration in society so wildly irrational that, to look back on it today, one must wonder how and why it ever existed.
Forty years from now—and possibly in less time than that—we could look back on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on what now seems the endless Age of Despotism in the Arab world, as something almost inconceivable. But for that to happen the people who hunger for that moment, and I believe that almost everyone in the Middle East does hunger for that moment, will have to reject the idea that only violence can appease their fury, or that some day some outside force will simply recognize their rectitude and fix the problems they can never seem to resolve on their own.
Over the weekend I was in Doha, Qatar, where two conferences took place. One was a confab—call it a quasi-summit—of a few Arab and Muslim leaders (including the head of Hamas and the president of Iran), which preceded another summit of other Arab and European leaders in Egypt, which came before another summit of most Arab leaders in Kuwait which tried to repair the damage done by the earlier summits. And what all of these leaders contributed to the cause of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East was, as far as I can tell (and I have watched a lot of these things) precisely nothing new at all.
The other Doha conference was more interesting. Attending were a couple of hundred people assembled from all over the world under the rubric Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. Unlike the Muslim leaders of today, this group was less interested in posturing and intramural rivalries than in finding some practical solutions to the many problems that address their people, whether in Gaza or Rotterdam, Kabul or Los Angeles. There was a lot of talk about community organizing. One well-attended seminar on the subject, conducted by a Palestinian lawyer, held up Obama’s presidential campaign and even his 2004 speech at the Democratic National convention as paradigms to study.
Obama, you will recall, started as a community organizer. So did Dr. King. Of course it’s obvious that more will be required than a few marches, sit-ins and boycotts to change the habits of occupation and internal repression in the Palestinian territories. It took a lot more than that to bring the United States as far as it has come. But civil disobedience in the Middle East has some promising precedents, even in the blood-drenched Holy Land.
The Arabs of the little village of Bil’in on the West Bank, working with Israeli and Palestinian activists, have won international attention and the support of the Israeli courts in their fight to change the path of the wall that would have divided their community. But there is an earlier and even more significant example.
The closest the Palestinians have ever come to what Dr. King and President Obama might understand as massive civil disobedience was the first Intifada that began in 1987 and lasted until 1993. It finished forever the Palestinians’ passive endurance of Israeli occupation. Before then, for the first two decades after the West Bank and Gaza were taken by the Israelis in the 1967 war, the Palestinians there had waited for the Arab Nation or their own leaders in exile or maybe the good offices of the United States to end their plight. Then they just couldn’t wait any more. Children began throwing stones at the Israelis, and would not stop, even when soldiers broke their bones. That is not nonviolent, to be sure, but the message was much the same: a popular uprising based on sheer guts against the massive brawn of the occupiers. And the rock-throwers were backed by general strikes and refusals to buy Israeli products.
That sort of resistance, built on asymmetric courage, not asymmetric warfare, can change radically the way adversaries think about each other and themselves. It can open the door to peace, and there was a long moment in the early and mid-1990s when the Middle East conflict was indeed much closer to being resolved than most people remember now. Made possible by massive, mostly nonviolent resistance, it was destroyed by terrorist acts on both sides. An Israeli slaughtered dozens of unarmed Arabs as they prayed in Hebron in 1994. Another Israeli murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as he attended a rally, singing peace songs in Tel Aviv in 1995. Among the Palestinians, Hamas and other groups, including a wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, embraced the notion that only ferocious, suicidal violence could win respect.
Very likely Hamas still believes that, even after the events of the last month demonstrated how powerless it is to defend its people, and how feckless its little fireworks displays really are. All Hamas’s violent resistance does is make it easier for otherwise sensible Israelis to rationalize the use of overwhelming force, and while many regret the death of so many hundreds of innocents, the general sentiment in Israel is that proportionality is for suckers. You meet fire with fire, and if you’ve got the guns, you use them. Having made its point, the Israeli government has been shrewd enough to pull most of its forces out of Gaza just before Obama takes the oath of office. It might even claim it did him a favor.
So, as the new American president takes power, we will hear many voices in the Arab and Muslim world calling on Obama to impose peace on the Middle East. And, yes, he can help and, I believe, wants to do so. But he has to have something to work with. An Arab movement that shows its unity and courage through stubborn peaceful resistance, not violent potshots and suicidal rituals, would offer a truly new beginning. Civil disobedience is a language of confrontation that leaves the door open to conciliation. It was the language of Dr. King, and it is a language that Barack Hussein Obama, the community-organizer-cum-president, understands very well. Some Arabs know it already. Others would be wise to listen to them.