Nonviolence can work wonders – even in the Middle East

A gathering in Jordan gives peacemakers in the region new cause for hope.

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It was an extraordinary gathering. For four days at the end of October, 60 people, most from the Middle East, came together here to discuss how concerted nonviolent action might defuse tensions and help bring peace to this war-blighted part of the world.

A distinguished scholar from India helped us engage closely with the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, and a veteran African-American participant in the US civil rights movement helped us explore the work of Martin Luther King Jr. We heard from Israeli and Palestinian activists about projects to restore wholeness and hope to communities burdened heavily with fear, violence, and foreign occupation. We learned about the quiet transformational work that Christian Peacemaker Teams have done in Iraq and the West Bank, and explored theories and practices of nonviolent action from around the world.

This assembly – a UN-sponsored leadership conference on nonviolence – brought together Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and others from the Middle East. One-third of the participants came from farther afield – from Nepal, Uganda, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Russia, South Africa, and elsewhere – and added a valuable global and comparative perspective to the mix.

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We saw very secular Israeli activists engaging passionately with socially conservative (and very articulate) veiled women from Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Pro-peace Israeli rabbis in yarmulkes worked with Muslim teachers in flowing robes. There were Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular peace activists, and veterans of nonviolent struggles in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.

On the final night, an Israeli rabbi and a young Arab woman sang a poem composed two hours earlier by a South African. It told of the dream of coexistence along the Jordan River.

How did this happen – at a time of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and deadly civil strife in Iraq?

It was a combination of hard work and serendipity (you could say grace).

Back in April, Jairam Reddy, the head of the Amman-based United Nations University International Leadership Institute (UNU-ILI) planned this course to coincide with the centennial of Gandhi's first nonviolent demonstration, undertaken in Dr. Reddy's native South Africa in September 1906. Then, the punishing 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon this July dealt a huge setback to Israel's already fragile peace movement. And between April and October, the violence in Iraq escalated.

But throughout that violence-racked summer, small groups in all those countries continued to believe in and practice the principles of nonviolence. Annemie De Winter, the regional representative of Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation, stayed in touch with many of them. She helped UNU-ILI to assemble the rich roster of in-region course participants. Reddy and his staff did the rest of the work. (Disclosure: I gave Reddy a small amount of consulting help on the project.) The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington made a small but welcome financial donation. Then, given the talent, commitment, and flexibility of the group that assembled in Amman, the four days of work and learning flowed remarkably well.

I have supported many nongovernmental efforts for reconciliation and justice between Arabs and Israelis since the late 1980s, and I've seen this movement traverse times of hope and times of great setbacks. Considering the difficult conditions it had to confront, I was truly amazed at how successful the UNU-ILI gathering was.

Our gathering thrived because of the great human qualities and rich experience of the participants. It helped, too, that so many Middle Easterners can now see that violence – whether direct physical violence or the violence of oppressive systems – simply does not "work." So in key places, people have become more eager to seek alternatives.

The achievements of Gandhi's movement in India and of the (largely nonviolent) African National Congress in South Africa last century are solid examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent mass action that today's peacemakers embrace as instructive models. The teachings of Gandhi, Dr. King, and others do not try to avoid the big political problems that conflict- ridden or oppressed societies face. Instead, they seek to mobilize new, nonviolent human energies in order to resolve them.

Obviously, this movement toward nonviolent action in the Middle East is still in its infancy. In every country in the region, it is still vulnerable to the forces of violence. But in Amman in October, vital seeds were sown, and vital connections made. Now, we all need to work hard to nurture and strengthen this hopeful movement.

Helena Cobban is the author of "Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes."

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