How I learned to debunk common misperceptions of nonviolence

Only through education and intense training did I discover the rich and often untold history of successful nonviolent movements.
An organization in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem shows the decline of land owned by Palestinians (Campaign Nonviolence/Nina Koevoets)

Almost 12 years ago I was sharing an apartment in Ramallah, the West Bank, with a Palestinian and a Canadian. I was only 23 and decided to do an internship abroad after my studies in conflict resolution, with an organization called Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy. There were some Palestinians in the network, but mostly I shared the office with a Japanese guy who had recommended that I go to the weekly protests in Bil’in. This village tried to get back its land that was stolen from them by what they called the “Apartheid wall,” and what Israel preferred to call a “security barrier.”

I told my Palestinian flatmate, let’s call him George, about my plans of going to Bil’in, as we sat in the kitchen. He was working with a human rights organization and said he didn’t believe in “nonviolence.” Nonviolent actions, he said, were symbolic and not effective. I had to agree that I wasn’t sure either how effective they were, but argued that somehow the cycle of violence had to be broken.

George pondered for a few seconds and said: “Look, imagine tomorrow you wake up and you notice that soldiers have taken over this house. They didn’t take your bedroom and this kitchen. Before you could of course freely walk from your bedroom to the kitchen, but now you have to ask their permission.” 

I nodded. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were only 28 percent of what was Palestine before the Jews arrived in big numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The U.N. proposed a division of land where the two areas would be connected, but this never became reality. 

“So, what will you do with nonviolence?” he asked, crossing his arms.

I didn’t have an answer.

He got up, grabbed a knife and stood in the doorway. “Let’s try it. I am guarding the door. You want to get back to your bedroom. What will you do?”

I got up, a bit reluctantly. We exchanged some words about the purpose of my crossing. I mentioned I had a permit. He didn’t think it was valid and told me to come back tomorrow. 

With hanging shoulders I sat back in my chair.

“Well, you could throw those strawberries at me,” George suggested. “But you know, I have a knife.”

I laughed. Of course he was referring to the stones that Palestinian kids throw at the soldiers. 

“I think it may make some red stains in the kitchen,” I answered.

“See. So, I think I illustrated my point,” George said with a satisfied smile on his face. 

An eye-opening experience

I thought about this incident a few times as I started to learn more about nonviolence. As I returned home, I tried processing my first visit to Palestine. It was tough. Coming from The Netherlands, where I grew up in quite a protective environment, the situation in The West Bank was shocking. Perhaps even somewhat traumatizing, I can say now. I cried my eyes out for months after I got home and in some moments despair grabbed my heart. I was trying to keep standing on my feet as I got my first full-time job, but I didn’t enjoy the work and started to look for ways out. And then I found a nonviolence training at the Metta Center. That sounded perfect! I applied, was interviewed and accepted, so I quit my job and went to California for the 10-week training. 

That was an eye-opening experience. I felt almost betrayed by the education I had received. All the history classes about war. My studies in conflict resolution left me without real, practical tools to resolve conflict, except for some “negotiation techniques” in diplomacy. I wondered why I had not searched myself for the history of Gandhi or Martin Luther King before. “But, better late than never,” I said! Those two historical figures mobilized millions of people nonviolently and achieved real change. And not only them: the Metta Center named other examples — like the successful nonviolent movements in the Philippines, Chile and Denmark — that we didn’t learn about in much detail, but it was enough to just know about them for the time being.

Knowledge is (a form of) power.

And we did not only speak about the social movements that struggled against governments, but also projects like a nonviolent group of villages in Colombia (San José de Apartado), the Land Gift movement of Gandhi’s friend Vinoba Bhave,  the work of Vandana Shiva inspired by Gandhi as well, and Peace Brigades International. The latter may have been influenced by Gandhi’s idea of a peace “army” or “Shanti Sena,” which was taken up by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who started an organization he called “Servants of God” with hundreds of thousand members. 

For many reasons, that training was a turning point in my life. I wanted more people to know about what I learned, but first I wanted to learn more myself and went to India, then back to Palestine, then back to university. Five years later I decided I wanted to organize a similar training in The Netherlands. With the support of the Foundation for Active Nonviolence I was able to implement this. But as I started without any experience in organizing something like that, I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to create a 10-week program. In the end, I created an eight-day training, and now I also give workshops that last only a few hours.

In October 2019 the study guide “Engaging Nonviolence” was published by Pace e Bene Press, which I wrote together with Veronica Pelicaric over the course of two years. This book will allow people to facilitate a study program in nonviolence themselves. With this aim, we also offer an online course of the study guide. And as I was teaching the “misperceptions about nonviolence,” I remembered again the incident with my Palestinian flatmate. 

Somehow, after all these years, I had the urge to write him some kind of reply. To tell him, and everyone else, how effective nonviolent actions actually are, and how important it is that more people know that. Knowledge is (a form of) power.

Nonviolent actions are more effective and take less time

Quite common misperceptions are that nonviolence is passive, cowardly and that it is ineffective. Some people confuse the word “pacifism” with “nonviolence,” while the latter is much more than only rejecting violence. It is not only without or against violence, but also action for justice and most of the time one needs to act in order to change something or at least make a conscious and collective choice for non-action/ non-cooperation.

This also eliminated the misunderstanding that it is cowardly, because standing up for injustice, putting your life on the line, is rather courageous. It may in fact be considered completely reckless or even mad, if it was thought to be completely ineffective.

Gandhi and King achieved great changes. And success isn’t limited to just them: the effectiveness of nonviolent action was illustrated by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works.” This was the first research that compared violent and nonviolent groups. They examined over 300 social movements, or what they call “campaigns,” that aimed to change regimes. Twenty-three percent of the violent campaigns achieved their goal, compared to 56 percent of the nonviolent campaigns. Moreover, when the nonviolent groups mobilized 3.5 percent of the population, none of them failed. These numbers may be important because a larger crowd is harder to suppress. A bigger group also has more potential to have connections in the media, government or other key-institutions. (See also Erica Chenoweht’s TED talk on the subject.)

To be effective, one needs a strategic plan and to mobilize people to implement this plan.

People who say nonviolent action doesn’t work probably lack information about the history of nonviolent action, or are equating the whole of nonviolent action with symbolic protests and petitions. That’s indeed what George did. And it’s definitely not uncommon, as most people could probably not give you many examples of nonviolent action. Of course nonviolence is more than nonviolent action, and its personal benefits are also a motivation to walk this path, but that is the topic of another article. For now, let’s dig deeper into political nonviolent action.

Gene Sharp documented 198 methods of nonviolent action, which he categorized into protest and persuasion, non-cooperation and intervention. Two well-know methods that fall into the non-cooperation category are strikes and boycotts. Others are removing/changing road signs and work slow-downs, like the Danes did during the German occupation of World War II (during which no war ship was ever finished). Intervention methods are teach-ins, sit-ins, defying blockades or the creation of alternative communication systems — a popular action during the Palestinian First Intifada (or Uprising). Especially in an occupation where nearly all authority is in the hands of another group, activist have to work on independence. Guerrilla gardening is one example, others are creating a local currency, a shadow government, and rain water harvesting practices as alternatives to pipelines controlled by the occupier. As you can see, there are quite a few options.

Freedom street in Bil’in (Campaign Nonviolence/Nina Koevoets)

The problem is lack of education and training is. To be effective, one needs a strategic plan and to mobilize people to implement this plan. There are of course many practical as well as psychological obstacles to overcome. When I was in the West Bank, although I could feel a fighting spirit in some people, I also observed a lot of feelings of victimhood. Logically, when everything is decided by Israel, changing reality is always preceded by changing the way of thinking.

Surveillance is another problem. Israel’s Intelligence Service uses Facebook for example to monitor the Palestinians. Technically outwitting a very tech savvy country like Israel could thus prove to be challenging. And since movement is quite restricted in the West Bank (through moving check-points or roadblocks for example), online communication is important for activists to organize and exchange. 

However, there is hope: when I was in Palestine again in 2015 I saw with my own eyes how the fences in Bil’in, the village that I visited in 2008 when I got into the argument with my flatmate, were taken down. The village had succeeded to get back two-thirds of their land. The village even became famous with the documentary film “Five Broken Cameras,” made by local activists, which received an Emmy Award in 2013.

We can thus conclude that nonviolent actions can be effective, but aren’t easy. There is no recipe for activists to follow, but there is certainly a lot to learn from movements that have successfully created change. Few people know, for example, that Gandhi required people to follow training sessions before they could participate in his movement, and that King had the same requirement and learned many other things from his visit with Gandhi. The movement that ended the dictatorship in Serbia also learned from the American scholar Gene Sharp, as well as the protesters of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Nonviolent movements give us hope that we as citizens can shape our future, and we should firmly hold on to those examples if we don’t want to lose our voice, because that happens in democracies as well, not only in dictatorships or occupied territories.

Another misperception about nonviolence is that it takes longer. That too was refuted by Chenoweth and Stephan’s statistical comparison: the average overall duration for nonviolent conflicts is about 2 years. For nonviolent anti-government campaigns the average duration is 16 months, while for nonviolent territorial campaigns (expelling a foreign invasion or ending an occupation) it’s 4.25 years. This compares with over 6 years for violent anti-government campaigns and about 8 years for violent territorial campaigns. The overall average for violent campaigns is about 7 years: Nonviolent struggles are thus more than three times faster than violent ones!

Another widely held belief I heard in Palestine was that violent actions were what actually made nonviolent movements successful. A remarkable belief, given that the First Intifada turned violent after a few years, when some leaders were effectively locked-up or banned from the territory (like Mubarak Awad, who now runs Nonviolence International in Washington DC and NYC) and although the Oslo Accords were signed after that, most Palestinians now think this agreement made things worse instead of better. Generally, in predominantly nonviolent struggles, organized violence lowers the likelihood of success, because it shifts the campaign to a battlefield on which the state (or sometimes companies) has much more competence and far more resources.

It is sometimes argued that violence can bring more attention to the campaign, but often the violence makes the movement less legitimate and therefore loses support from the citizens that aren’t involved directly. You could say that using nonviolent methods gives the movement a moral advantage in the struggle, by which it increases its influence. Gene Sharp called using such a moral advantage “political jiujitsu,” a term that suggests that training is indeed needed. We can also see that the most successful movements all trained people to remain nonviolent. In fact, isn’t it naive that we all agree that soldiers need training before they are send into a battle, but activists do not? 

I would like to leave you with this thought. 

And George, if you ever read this, I want to thank you for your questions back then. I can imagine it may not answer all of the questions you have right now, but I do hope that it gave you at least a few new ideas.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.