The Common Good
November 2004

Nonviolence in Najaf?

by Rose Marie Berger | November 2004

Will we recognize an Islamic peace movement when we see it?

The BBC headline caught my eye:

The BBC headline caught my eye: "Iraqi cleric in Najaf peace march." It’s the kind of story that gets buried in mid-August, especially between the Democratic and Republican national conventions. But I was intrigued.

We rarely hear news about Islamic nonviolence. A few might remember 1930s Pakistani pacifist Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who led the Servants of God organization in nonviolent resistance against the British. But, in the West, Islam and nonviolence don’t generally go together.

Is a new page opening in Islam’s contribution to nonviolence? Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, did what the U.S. military, the Iraqi troops, and the armed supporters of militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could not. He ended the three-week standoff in Najaf in which hundreds of people had been killed.

Ten thousand Shia Iraqis gathered peacefully in Najaf to support Sistani’s peace plan to end the violence and reclaim the shrine of Imam Ali. "Sistani did not issue a fatwa (a religious order)," cleric Abdullah Mehdi told Baghdad-based Christian Peacemaker Team member David Milne, "but an invitation."

"I regard this action by Sistani and his followers as quite significant," Milne told me. "Iraq has such a violent history that a nonviolent action marks a significant beginning, especially when it had such strong support. The action appears to have achieved its goals quickly when other attempts - including repeated assaults on the shrine and other attempts to negotiate an agreement - failed."

Sistani brokered a five-point peace plan. Najaf and neighboring Kufa are to be declared weapons-free zones; all foreign forces will withdraw from Najaf; local Iraqi police are to take charge of security; the government will compensate those harmed in the fighting; and a census will be taken in preparation for upcoming elections.

Sistani’s strategy was politically savvy. He appeared strong in resisting the unpopular U.S. forces. He allowed the weaker combatants, namely Sadr’s militia, to save face and disappear into the crowd of peace marchers without retribution. He emphasized local civilian control of the city. And he presented an effective nonviolent model to Iraqis.

There is also severe criticism of Sistani, especially for protecting Sadr and his forces. "I don’t see any evidence that Sistani understands nonviolent strategies," said Jack DuVall, founding director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. "Using nonviolent camouflage to shield violent fighters certainly doesn’t remind me of anything that Gandhi did." While many of Sadr’s forces turned in their weapons during the peace march, an unknown number of them did not - leaving open the possibility for another armed rebellion. Additionally, shots were fired during the peace march, though reportedly not from the marchers.

SISTANI’S MARCH was not the product of a broad-based Iraqi nonviolence movement. Both Milne and DuVall agree that large-scale civilian-based training is necessary before there can be any legitimate comparisons to other nonviolent struggles. However, neither was it a unique event. Human rights observers noted similar "sit-ins" in the Sunni region around Ramadi where thousands peacefully demonstrated at a U.S. base until six detained women were released. In the days after Sistani’s march, several hundred people in Najaf continued a peaceful presence demanding that the remainder of Sadr’s militia leave the city.

"We see the beginnings of a peace and human rights movement in Iraq," said CPT’s Milne, "but it doesn’t conform to Western models. Iraqis hunger for peace and justice. It is important to understand that Iraqis are starting from a very basic position regarding their knowledge of human rights. They were cut off from these ideas for decades. To go back to the Gandhi comparison, I think it is important to acknowledge that Iraqis have their own ways of doing nonviolence."

To religious nonviolence, Christians bring a radical commitment to "love thy enemy," Hindus bring technique and a nonviolent creed, and Muslims bring rigorous discipline. Islamic scholar Chaiwat Satha-Anand has written that the five pillars of Islam have the capacity to support a deeply rooted spirituality of nonviolence - but it probably won’t look like Christian or Gandhian movements. I just hope we can recognize it when we see it.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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