In the decades since the death of Mohandas Gandhi and of his student and successor in the art of nonviolent struggle, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the understanding of how civil resistance can be effective has expanded. New ideas and practices have emerged in societies that Gandhi could not have foreseen as venues for people’s movements, targeting forms of oppression that he had not encountered and which have been able to succeed against brutal regimes and dictators. The social science of nonviolent action has also deepened, showing among other findings that while violent campaigns have achieved their goals in roughly one-quarter of all cases, civil resistance has since 1900 succeeded in more than half of all such campaigns.
So the question posed by Rabbi A. James Rudin — whether “Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance” could be used to oppose Islamic State atrocities — sidesteps the greater reality that today, it would not be Gandhi’s notions, but a more advanced form of nonviolent conflict, burnished by the collective experience of hundreds of social movements in Gandhi’s wake worldwide, which were predicated in no small part on his experiments and practices.
One of the most common and misleading criticisms of Gandhi that Rudin invokes is when he says that Gandhi was either “naïve” to believe that nonviolent action could work against the Nazis or was indifferent to their atrocities. Self-educated and relying on newspapers for foreign news, Gandhi was doubtless not well briefed on the implications of Hitler’s rise. Yet as the French scholar Jacques Sémelin documents in his classic study Unarmed Against Hitler, effective nonviolent resistance in nations under Nazi occupation was able to thwart some of Hitler’s aims.