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Nonviolence Interview for La Onf with Michael Nagler

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JASON: Hello, my name is Jason Ahmadi; I'm a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and I'm here with Michael Nagler, talking to him about Nonviolence in Iraq. JASON: Hello, Michael. MICHAEL: Hello, Jason. JASON: Thank you so much for your introduction talk about Nonviolence in Iraq it was really helpful; and we have some questions here to get you more specific. So we'll just start off with the first question: How can we use - or how can Nonviolence be used in Iraq, to deal with the spreading of extremism, especially the use of religion as a political tool in Iraq? MICHAEL: Naturally, Jason, I know a lot less about the situation on the ground than Iraqis themselves, so I only want to share with you some of the general principles. In a way, extremism, by itself, is not a bad thing. It means a very intense commitment, and it means the ability to take a risk to do what you need to get done; I'm going to come back to that later. So, to take extremists, and challenge them to be nonviolent, is something that might very well succeed. Gandhi used to say: I can make a Satyagrahi - a nonviolent person - out of a violent person. I cannot make a nonviolent person out of a coward. I cannot make a nonviolent person out of someone who doesn't care who sits on the sidelines. See, if someone cares enough to be an extremist, you may feel that they're wrong, but they've got the raw material to join you. What you then have to do is, first of all, respect their extremism, even though you disagree with it. It's kind of tricky, you know what I mean? You don't push them out because they're extremists; You don't say "I can't talk to you." You don't say "The only language you understand is force, because you're an extremist." You say, "I understand the pressures that you've been up against, and I appreciate the reaction that you've had, and I respect it; but I want to help you to see an even more effective way to get this done." Now, as for the cleavage along religious lines, that is a very difficult issue; we know that it cancelled out a lot of the good work that Gandhi did in India. But I think it should be possible, especially by trying to worship together. Maybe I have no right to say this, but I think if peoples of various sects of Islamic worship within Iraq could find maybe a neutral space where they would worship the same God together - after all, everyone in the world is worshiping the same God, only under different names. If they could try to find the things that they have in common, instead of the things that divide them, so that they create their identity through this common bond of understanding, rather than looking for the things that make them special and different, I think even these very grievous, painful differences can be overcome. And, Jason, with everything that I'm telling you, there are good examples of how this has been done in other parts of the world. So, I can't go into details on each one right now, we haven't enough time; but with a little research, you could find people who have done things that are at least as difficult. JASON: Great! Well, the next one's a little more of a serious question: How can we stop - or deal with - revenge killings? MICHAEL: Wow. Well, here I'm thinking of very heart-rending examples that have happened, and I'm going to mention two areas: where individuals have done it, and one area where it's been done by the government. The individual areas are: in this country, the United States, we still have the death penalty. And of course, that's one of the things that we here at the Metta Center are working against - is to have the death penalty not be part of the judicial system. But there is a group in the United States, called "Families of Murder Victims Against the Death Penalty." So these are people who have had their son, or their husband, or their father has been murdered, and instead of saying "Hey, we want revenge," they say "It will not help me to get closure emotionally, it will not help the killer understand anything, it will not help society to go and kill that person." I have a very good friend here in California, his name is Azim Khamisa, whose son was murdered in a gang-related act. He went and - He practiced meditation 5 times a day for months to get over the grief and anger; and when he felt he had it under control, he went and found the guardian of the 14-year-old boy who killed his son, and they started an organization together to keep other children from joining gangs. So, one approach would be to locate, identify individuals who have a reason for revenge, but have been so mature and so brave that they've said "Revenge is not our way." Another place this has been done, of course, is in the conflict in Palestine. There are groups both in Palestine and in the United States of Israelis who have lost family members, and Palestinians who have lost family members; and they've come together - and I could tell you some very, very moving stories about what they've overcome, and what they've done together. So you can start off that way at a very small level And then, as I think we mentioned in our other discussion, Jason, there are ways that the state can create institutions for reconciliation; they're what we call "Post-Conflict Peace-Building." JASON: Great, that's great. So, I guess my next question is kind of similar, but How can we overcome the internal clashes going on in cities - especially the ones that started after the Samara bombing - between Sunni and Shia? MICHAEL: Yeah. Uh, I think the general idea is to first be strong in yourself; I know that there are some groups in Al Mesalla that have both Sunni and Shia working together. My own spiritual teacher came from a Hindu family, He was teaching in central India his best friend, Naimudin, was a Muslim; they used to appear everywhere in public. This requires courage. There are - when people get very angry and full of hate, they think that people who want to make peace, who want to bring groups together, are the enemy, and often, their violence turns against those very groups. So, I'm not saying this is going to be easy, but when individuals from the two groups get together, and they can form some interest, gather a few others, then you can start bringing people together for discussions and then, as I mentioned in our other talk, if they had a common project that they were working on, it's a very powerful way to bring people together. I'm not saying that any of this is easy, but you know, if we do nothing, it won't be easy either. JASON: Okay. So, my next question has to do with the IDP, or Internally Displaced People. So the question is about what to do with over 200,000 people who have lost their homes and are now displaced in Iraq. Well, my very good friend Mubarak Awad- and I know that some of the people in LaOnf know him very well - when he was doing Obstructive Program against the Israelis in certain villages, he was also doing Constructive Program among the Palestinian communities; and one of the main things that he did was to bring families together. And I think that, even though LaOnf has been organizing very well, it has to do this slowly, on a small scale - start on a small scale. Once it gets known that you have this capacity, to resettle IDP's, to do anything for them, you're going to be mobbed with requests. So try to build up an infrastructure where you can do this. I want to emphasize this: that the more you can do to help rebuild Iraqi society yourself, not only will you have a better future for Iraq, but in case there is a residual presence trying to exploit the weakness of the country, wherever it is, you'll be in a much better position to protect yourself against that. JASON: So, another question I have is: How can we fight for recognition from the current Iraqi government for an independent civil society here in Iraq? MICHAEL: At this point it becomes a kind of advantage that the government of Iraq is not yet well-developed. It's not very strong. Now, they're having a lot of trouble from militias, and from armed groups. And that trouble is going to get much, much worse, if and when - Inshallah - we have a rapid draw-down of American forces. Now, Mahatma Gandhi had a scheme in India, for exactly this problem, and I think it worked pretty well over there and I think it could work very well in Iraq; and that is - he called it "Shanti Sena", which means "Army of Peace". So, when you're training people in nonviolence, you could also be organizing them into groups that would work in a particular neighborhood, which would get the trust of the people in that neighborhood, and you'd be recognized as people of peace. So that even when you're attacked, you will not fight back. when others are being attacked, you will go and interpose yourself to protect them. it requires a lot of courage; it's going to require sacrifice, and it's going to require risk - but, to repeat, unless we do these things, the future will be much worse, and we'll suffer much more. So, if you had these Shanti Senas, you would be extremely useful to the government. We've even had examples of that at the campus of the University of California. There is conflict on that campus, as I think you may be aware, yes? It's not exactly as serious, in terms of life and death, but in many cases, the University was not able to handle that conflict, despite the skill of Victoria Harrison (the chief of police) and some of those other people. So one of our friends, Matthew Taylor, started a mediation group, where he can bring conflicting parties together. Immediately, he became very useful for the campus. So, if you had these Shanti Senas, and they had the trust of people - and I believe that there are institutions for this throughout Islamic societies. of trusted individuals - counsels - who can adjudicate cases, who can act as judges, who can mediate, and if necessary, keep the peace by interposing themselves, I think you'd have a much quicker and more rapid path to introduce the idea of nonviolence to the government. Now, what's happened in Western Europe is that groups that have started civil society nonviolent mechanisms of one kind or another; civilian-based defense, they have done that alongside of military defense. So they have not said to the government: "Give up all your weapons, we'll protect you" - though, as a matter of fact, I think it would work. But the government would not believe them. So they would say: Okay, let us have some resources, let us do some training, give us some problems to work on, and just watch what we do. And I think that is slowly starting to spread. We have a very militaristic culture in the West - otherwise, it would spread very quickly; but I think that would be a useful model for Islam, also. And then there's some of the great saints of Islam: there's a woman saint from what is now Tunisia, I believe, from the 15th century, went and stood between two armies and prevented them from having a war; there are great traditions within Islam for even one individual doing this. but I think that a trained group, coming to the attention of the government, and giving them an opportunity to make a transition, I think that that's one good way to do it. JASON: Well, I just wanted to say thank you so much for all your words and all your knowledge about nonviolence, and, like you said before, we aren't in Iraq, but I'm sure everybody who watches this can hopefully use it with your experiences to more effectively struggle and improve lives in Iraq. But I want to end with one last question: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the situation in Iraq for offering nonviolence? MICHAEL: Ah, yes. Whenever you want to have a nonviolent program, whether it's short-term or long-term, you do have to analyze the situation that you're in, and you have to know what the strengths and the weaknesses are. So, interestingly enough, one of these strengths is the extremism that we started talking about earlier. If people are willing to get in a car full of explosives and drive into a crowd and blow themselves up, that requires a kind of courage. Now, I'm not in favor of that mechanism; I think the strategy is totally wrong - it makes things worse - But you have the raw material, out of which you can make a nonviolent person. See, if I go to a group of people and I say, "I want you to risk your lives nonviolently," most of them will say, "I like my life - I'm afraid, I don't want to risk losing it." I can try to convince them that nonviolence is safer than violence, but still there will be a lot of fear. But if you have someone who says, "I'm going to lay down my life for this cause," You go to them and you say, "Congratulations! That's wonderful, that's just what we need, but I'm going to show you a better way to use your life." So suicide bombers, believe it or not, are a great strength, a great advantage in Iraq. Again, so you could turn them into those Shanti Sena groups that we were talking about before. And now, it's also good to note that when there have been societies that were absolutely torn apart by violence, Usually, they don't destroy themselves. Usually, something happens where the people wake up, all together. We don't know how this happens. But they wake up and they say, "Wait a minute, this is ridiculous; we're killing each other; why don't we just stop? So today, one of the groups that we think of as the most peaceful in the world is the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, wherever you go in the world, wherever there's peacemaking, they're there! They have the most resources, the most courage, they're wonderful. But until the year 1805, they were bloodthirsty Vikings, they were killing each other! And they just decided one day, "The heck with it, this is silly, it doesn't work! There are other examples, too, in New Zealand, in the Dominican Republic, and I feel that the Iraqi people are really finished with the violence. They know that it's destroying them, and they do not want it anymore, it doesn't fit their image anymore of what it means to be an Iraqi, or an Islamic person, a good Muslim. And if you remember, this is what happened in the 1980's with the Palestinians: They used violence, and used violence, and used violence, and finally, they said, "Look, this isn't working, it's not getting us anywhere," and then Mubarak was able to go in and start the center for nonviolence in RamAllah. So I have a feeling that the dynamics - even though it doesn't look very good on the surface, and I'm not saying there isn't going to be more killing - there could be a spasm of horrible killing - But I think it's reaching a point where the Iraqi people want to stop. And then, if Al Mesalla is there with an alternative, it could be very, very powerful. So that, again, is a strength. And now, in terms of a weakness - I wouldn't exactly call it a weakness - but the need, the need is for tremendous courage and tremendous faith. But, I think everybody needs that, in whatever situation you're in. I know sometimes, even the lack of communication technologies have made it difficult for people to organize in Iraq, as they have been in the West Bank, for example, in Palestine. It's hard to have a demonstration when you can't even call people and say "Come to the demonstration." But I wouldn't exaggerate that, and I'm impressed with the way that LaOnf has been able to start getting organized already. So, I wish the Iraqi people the best success from the bottom of my heart, and if there's anything that we at the Metta Center can do to help you, please know that we will be here for you. Thank you very much.

Video Details

Duration: 19 minutes and 29 seconds
Year: 2008
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: Metta Center for Nonviolence Education
Views: 700
Posted by: mettacenter on Sep 27, 2008

Six questions for Michael Nagler on how to apply the principles of nonviolence in Iraq.

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