War has been a part of my life since I can remember. I was born in Afghanistan, just six months after the Soviets invaded, and even though I was too young to understand what was happening, I had a deep sense of the suffering and the fear around me.
Those early experiences had a major impact on how I now think about war and conflict. I learned that when people have a fundamental issue at stake, for most of them, giving in is not an option. For these types conflicts — when people's rights are violated, when their countries are occupied, when they're oppressed and humiliated — they need a powerful way to resist and to fight back. Which means that no matter how destructive and terrible violence is, if people see it as their only choice, they will use it. Most of us are concerned with the level of violence in the world. But we're not going to end war by telling people that violence is morally wrong. Instead, we must offer them a tool that's at least as powerful and as effective as violence.
This is the work I do. For the past 13 years, I've been teaching people in some of the most difficult situations around the world how they can use nonviolent struggle to conduct conflict. Most people associate this type of action with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But people have been using nonviolent action for thousands of years. In fact, most of the rights that we have today in this country — as women, as minorities, as workers, as people of different sexual orientations and citizens concerned with the environment — these rights weren't handed to us. They were won by people who fought for them and who sacrificed for them. But because we haven't learned from this history, nonviolent struggle as a technique is widely misunderstood.
I met recently with a group of Ethiopian activists, and they told me something that I hear a lot. They said they'd already tried nonviolent action, and it hadn't worked. Years ago they held a protest. The government arrested everyone, and that was the end of that. The idea that nonviolent struggle is equivalent to street protests is a real problem. Because although protests can be a great way to show that people want change, on their own, they don't actually create change — at least change that is fundamental.
Powerful opponents are not going to give people what they want just because they asked nicely ... or even not so nicely.
Nonviolent struggle works by destroying an opponent, not physically, but by identifying the institutions that an opponent needs to survive, and then denying them those sources of power. Nonviolent activists can neutralize the military by causing soldiers to defect. They can disrupt the economy through strikes and boycotts. And they can challenge government propaganda by creating alternative media.
There are a variety of methods that can be used to do this. My colleague and mentor, Gene Sharp, has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action. And protest is only one. Let me give you a recent example.
Until a few months ago, Guatemala was ruled by corrupt former military officials with ties to organized crime. People were generally aware of this, but most of them felt powerless to do anything about it — until one group of citizens, just 12 regular people, put out a call on Facebook to their friends to meet in the central plaza, holding signs with a message: "Renuncia YA" — resign already. To their surprise, 30,000 people showed up. They stayed there for months as protests spread throughout the country. At one point, the organizers delivered hundreds of eggs to various government buildings with a message: "If you don't have the huevos" — the balls — "to stop corrupt candidates from running for office, you can borrow ours."
President Molina responded by vowing that he would never step down. And the activists realized that they couldn't just keep protesting and ask the president to resign. They needed to leave him no choice. So they organized a general strike, in which people throughout the country refused to work. In Guatemala City alone, over 400 businesses and schools shut their doors. Meanwhile, farmers throughout the country blocked major roads. Within five days, the president, along with dozens of other government officials, resigned already.
I've been greatly inspired by the creativity and bravery of people using nonviolent action in nearly every country in the world. For example, recently a group of activists in Uganda released a crate of pigs in the streets. You can see here that the police are confused about what to do with them.
The pigs were painted the color of the ruling party. One pig was even wearing a hat, a hat that people recognized.
Activists around the world are getting better at grabbing headlines, but these isolated actions do very little if they're not part of a larger strategy. A general wouldn't march his troops into battle unless he had a plan to win the war. Yet this is how most of the world's nonviolent movements operate. Nonviolent struggle is just as complex as military warfare, if not more. Its participants must be well-trained and have clear objectives, and its leaders must have a strategy of how to achieve those objectives.
The technique of war has been developed over thousands of years with massive resources and some of our best minds dedicated to understanding and improving how it works. Meanwhile, nonviolent struggle is rarely systematically studied, and even though the number is growing, there are still only a few dozen people in the world who are teaching it. This is dangerous, because we now know that our old approaches of dealing with conflict are not adequate for the new challenges that we're facing.
The US government recently admitted that it's in a stalemate in its war against ISIS. But what most people don't know is that people have stood up to ISIS using nonviolent action. When ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, they announced that they were putting in place a new public school curriculum, based on their own extremist ideology. But on the first day of school, not a single child showed up. Parents simply refused to send them. They told journalists they would rather homeschool their children than to have them brainwashed.
This is an example of just one act of defiance in just one city. But what if it was coordinated with the dozens of other acts of nonviolent resistance that have taken place against ISIS? What if the parents' boycott was part of a larger strategy to identify and cut off the resources that ISIS needs to function; the skilled labor needed to produce food; the engineers needed to extract and refine oil; the media infrastructure and communications networks and transportation systems, and the local businesses that ISIS relies on? It may be difficult to imagine defeating ISIS with action that is nonviolent. But it's time we challenge the way we think about conflict and the choices we have in facing it.
Here's an idea worth spreading: let's learn more about where nonviolent action has worked and how we can make it more powerful, just like we do with other systems and technologies that are constantly being refined to better meet human needs. It may be that we can improve nonviolent action to a point where it is increasingly used in place of war. Violence as a tool of conflict could then be abandoned in the same way that bows and arrows were, because we have replaced them with weapons that are more effective. With human innovation, we can make nonviolent struggle more powerful than the newest and latest technologies of war. The greatest hope for humanity lies not in condemning violence but in making violence obsolete.