Albert Einstein Executive Director Jamila Raqib (Oslo World)

Can there be democracy without nonviolence? A conversation with Jamila Raqib

Jamila Raqib, executive director of Gene Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution, joins "Nonviolence Radio" to discuss the power and impact of nonviolent action.
Albert Einstein Executive Director Jamila Raqib (Oslo World)

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On our latest episode of “Nonviolence Radio,” Michael Nagler and I explore the ever-creative topic of democracy and nonviolence — specifically the relationship between the two and how we can use the tools and the skills of nonviolence in order to strengthen democracy. We are joined by Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, which was founded by the late nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp. What follows is a short excerpt of our conversation.

Jamila: The Einstein Institution was founded in 1983 by the scholar Gene Sharp, who you just mentioned, who’s really the, sort of, father of the field of strategic nonviolent action. And so, the organization was established to do a few things, specifically in the field of strategic nonviolent resistance. And that was to conduct research on the topic with the understanding that there’s a lot we don’t know about the operation of the technique.

And that it really is a technique that it has requirements for effectiveness, that has particular dynamics, and that understanding those dynamics can be really important for social and political movements. So, research was a really key aspect of the organization’s work. And then the idea was that that research wouldn’t, you know, sit on library shelves. It was really meant to be disseminated and used by people who were really seeking this knowledge, who themselves understood that their own movements could be more effective when accessing this knowledge.

So, the research was shared in a variety of ways including in publication form and books and articles. And also, through workshops and consultations. So, Gene Sharp and other colleagues have over the years met with various groups from around the world to conduct these educational workshops about how nonviolence resistance might be applied for diverse causes. That’s sort of, in a nutshell, the work of the Einstein Institute.

Stephanie: And there’s a very famous book that Gene Sharp wrote, “From Dictatorship to Democracy.” Can you summarize how the Albert Einstein Institute (and yourself and Gene Sharp) have conceived of the relationship between democracy and nonviolence, in particular, from that?

Jamila: Sure. Yeah, that book has a really interesting history. It’s probably, maybe the most widely disseminated of our material. And it was written in the 90s for Burmese dissidents who contacted Gene Sharp and asked him to write, you know– kind of offer some guidance on how they could, you know, undermine their military dictatorship and replace it with a democratic system.

So, Gene said, “I don’t know your situation, but I do know authoritarianism and dictatorship, and also how it could be undermined by an organized and deliberate effort of a population.” And so, he wrote this book. It’s around 100 pages. It’s gone on to be translated into more than 40 languages and kind of become a guidebook for people who are looking – who are kind of exploring nonviolent resistance for their situations.

It heavily deals with how nonviolent resistance can be used through simultaneously these two things – undermine authoritarian oppressive system while empowering regular people to take action powerfully and effectively. It’s been used in a variety of places, obviously beginning with Burma, but also later on in the Serbian movement against Milosevic and Indonesia and the central Asian republics and Russia and Belarus. In an Arabic form, it’s been disseminated in, you know, Palestinian territories, and North Africa, Egypt, and on and on.

And now, increasingly, here in the United States which, I think, is for some, would have been kind of counter-intuitive. How could a sort of anti-dictatorship analysis be found to be relevant here? But I think the basic principles are really important for any society, which is that abuses against our communities are possible when people are weak, and in an empowered population who knows their rights and knows what to do if those rights are violated is really the best kind of protection against democratic breakdown.

We also discussed creating a shared understanding of nonviolence in relationship to democracy.

Jamila: I think nonviolent resistance or nonviolent action is a set of tools, you know, social, political, economic, psychological tools that communities and societies can use to both defend systems that they value and also undermine oppressive ones in order to both, protect and defend communities and also to bring about changes. So, I think it’s the two pieces.

Again we’re often talking about what it’s not. It’s not inaction. It’s not passivity. So, it’s not “doing nothing.” It’s actually doing that which is forbidden or refusing to do what’s required and doing it as part of a strategy.

Michael: As you’ve been speaking, I’ve been thinking about the critical question of means and ends because I’m always haunted by something that Gandhi said during WWII, which is he was asked, “Do you think the allies will win?” And he said, “Yes. I think they will.” But then he said something very harsh. He said, “In order to win, they’re going to have to be more brutal than Hitler because they have chosen his methods.”

So, it’s always seemed to me that one of the great strengths of nonviolent resistance against dictatorships, or really in any other context, is that it doesn’t use the wrong means. Can you comment on that? I’d love to hear your views on that.

Jamila: That’s a very interesting quote that I hadn’t heard before. I think nonviolent resistance, because of how it operates, I think really makes it more possible for a certain type of society. One that’s really based on the values of large numbers of people. And therefore, you know, often more democratic, more – again, really participatory. And so, I think, you know, in that way the ends and the means are connected.

But I think increasingly we are seeing the way in which nonviolent resistance is a tool that can be used for a variety of purposes including ones we don’t agree with. And so, the lesson there for me is that we need to make this knowledge very widely available. We need to present this as a serious policy option for all kinds of groups so that it’s not in the hands of those who would want to use it for particular ends that are not really in the best interest of our societies.

It’s something I think about a lot and a struggle with a lot. And you both may know that – and your listeners may know that Gene Sharp’s approach was a very distinct one. And it was really based on the understanding that if we want to reduce violence in the world and that we have to make this knowledge available to all kinds of groups, including ones that may be struggling for objectives that are – that we don’t agree with.

Stephanie: How do you understand the role then that nonviolence plays in resolving conflict? That the more that we can use the means of nonviolence no matter whether what I think is more true or less true, more democratic, less democratic? Because as long as I renounce the means of violence, I’m not going to hurt anybody when I’m trying to figure out my way to what is true or what is not true.

Jamila: That’s a great question. I think it’s increasingly obvious that we really need to consider this a powerful tool for the good of our communities increasingly as our institutions and norms are, we’re realizing they’re not foolproof. They really depend on an engaged citizenry. And so, I think people are kind of exploring and trying to better understand what their roles are in preventing crisis and also in kind of developing the kind of societies that we want.

And so, the role of nonviolent action is, I think, becoming more clear for all of us in every part of the world. And I’m seeing that in terms of the kinds of requests for our work that, there’s really a proliferation of movements around the world. We’re seeing that. We’re seeing that constantly on our television screens here in the U.S. I think people are realizing that democracy is not just a constitution and a piece of paper and voting every four years, that democracy is a process.

That nonviolent action is a very, very important piece of that process. That it really ensures that it’s a recognition that our systems are not self-enforcing. They’re not self-correcting. They really depend on us.

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