How to Beat the Islamic State Through Non-Violence
Guns and bombs aren’t the only way to beat the jihadists.
Can nonviolent methods work against one of the most violent organizations in recent history? Since the Paris attacks, the question of how to best respond to a totalitarian group like the Islamic State has been on everyone's mind. Pundits and policymakers have tried to broker a cease-fire in the Syrian war, discussed expanding military operations, and even considered sending in ground troops. As happens all too often, however, the potential of nonviolent resistance has been left out of the discussion.
Can nonviolent methods work against one of the most violent organizations in recent history? Since the Paris attacks, the question of how to best respond to a totalitarian group like the Islamic State has been on everyone’s mind. Pundits and policymakers have tried to broker a cease-fire in the Syrian war, discussed expanding military operations, and even considered sending in ground troops. As happens all too often, however, the potential of nonviolent resistance has been left out of the discussion.
All authoritarian governments or occupying powers, even the most ruthless, need the consent of the population they intend to control. This consent is manifested through obedience, passive support, or active cooperation with the rules, laws, and norms enacted by the ruler. Gene Sharp, an early theorist of strategic nonviolence, wrote that “by themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow.” If people refuse to obey, rulers cannot rule. Contrary to the popular view that the population depends on the goodwill of the ruler, it is in fact the ruler who depends on the consent of the population to carry out his or her political project.
In its goal to establish a state based on a brutal interpretation of sharia law, the Islamic State is no exception: without local support, even passive, the regime cannot survive. There is evidence of this in the organization’s inability to grow beyond Arab Sunni areas. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the beginning of the civil war in Syria, these populations have been, at best, politically marginalized and humiliated; at worst they’ve been targets of brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. It is the Islamic State’s effort to provide them with some degree of security and basic public services that allowed the group to enlist the support of local tribes and gain some popular legitimacy.
But in places where local populations do not share these grievances, the Islamic State has been unable to convince them to consent to its rule, and as a result, the organization has been unable to govern durably. In short, even the Islamic State is dependent on the population it controls, and is thus vulnerable to disobedience by that very population.
The recipe for destabilizing an oppressive regime — whether it be a foreign occupier, an authoritarian regime, or a hybrid organization like the Islamic State — is always the same. Activists must identify the tactics and strategies that will effectively produce shifts in allegiance away from the regime, turn silent opponents into active dissenters, and weaken the rulers’ hold on power through disruption and defection.
So what would a nonviolent campaign against the Islamic State look like? How do you hit the Islamic State where it hurts? The first step in any campaign of nonviolent resistance is to counter the narrative that allows the oppressor to draw support from the population. Only after people are exposed to the regime’s abuses, and only once its image of invincibility is broken, can they be mobilized to take action against it.
Propaganda has been central to the Islamic State’s success, whether in recruiting new supporters (especially abroad), ensuring continuous support of the populations it rules, or keeping potential dissenters fearful and obedient. Instead of over-emphasizing violence and playing into the Islamic State’s propaganda, Arab and international media should focus on resistance, both online and on the ground, of which there is no lack of examples: despite the repression, journalists in Raqqa are informing the world about life in the Islamic State’s capital and have even printed magazines to counter its propaganda. Mocking the Islamic State through videos or photoshopped images has been an effective way of ridiculing the group and breaking its image of an all-powerful and fearless force that so appeals to foreign youths. The many groups and activists fighting the Islamic State on the battlefield of ideological propaganda should be embraced by the media and given the exposure they deserve.
Beyond the battle of narratives, recognition of the power of nonviolence by media and governments could inspire local populations to get organized against the Islamic State. The potential for civil resistance against the Islamic State is great. It relies on thousands of fighters to defend its territory, on tens of thousands of civil servants to raise taxes and operate its court system, power plants, and sewage systems, and on thousands of workers, farmers, and engineers to generate revenue from its wheat and barley fields, phosphate mines, chemical plants, and oil fields. Without their cooperation, the Islamic State’s political project would, quite simply, collapse.
The challenge, then, becomes identifying ways of resisting without endangering one’s life. Public demonstrations and strikes are, of course, out of question. There are a number of well-known, low-risk methods of protest, such as work slowdowns, nonviolent sabotage, or the development of parallel underground institutions, such as alternative media, schools, or religious organizations. Activists could also encourage tax dodging, since tax is a key source of income for the Islamic State, and develop support networks for defectors.
But it is up to the activists themselves to devise safe tactics: they are the only ones with enough knowledge of the situation on the ground and the inner workings of the organizations or factories in which they work. Activists should work not only to prevent the Islamic State from gaining the funds it needs to keep the machinery of state running but also to make its occupation as costly as possible. That was the great success of the campaigns of civil disobedience against Nazi occupation in Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands: acts of defiance and disruption — including sabotage, work slowdowns, and social and economic boycotts — forced the occupier to divert resources from the battlefronts to keep order.
In South Africa, despite widespread repression and extreme state violence, the apartheid government could not quell the consumer boycott of white businesses — a boycott that pushed white business owners to call on the government to accept the demands of black South Africans. The threat of violence can prevent citizens from doing many things, but it can hardly force them to buy products in certain shops. Similarly, well-thought-out tactics of noncooperation could make the territory under the Islamic State’s control ungovernable.
Though civil resistance is first and foremost an indigenous matter, external actors can also contribute to a coordinated nonviolent campaign against the Islamic State. First, they can encourage defections, for example by offering workers better jobs abroad. Highly skilled technicians who operate chemical plants and oil facilities are particularly difficult to replace, and they could be offered better paying jobs in foreign companies. Large-scale defections — whether of fighters, civil servants, or workers — will have a devastating impact on the Islamic State’s ability to generate revenue, and they are far less destructive than airstrikes.
Second, as we’ve seen, the media has a critical role to play. Publicizing acts of defiance is essential to show that resistance is possible. Outside media can also provide activists with key information about which resistance tactics have been attempted in other cities — what has worked and what has not.
Finally, international organizations can train activists on the methods of nonviolent action, strategic communication, and mass mobilization. Mobilizing the public and undertaking nonviolent actions, especially under repressive circumstances, require knowledge and skills. Though resources to learn these things are available online, training programs are much more effective and have proved crucial in the past, whether in Serbia, Georgia, or across the Arab world. Training workshops can take place in-country, in neighboring states, or even online when conditions make it impossible for activists to travel safely. Against the Islamic State, the situation on the ground and a limited access to the internet suggest that it would be safest to bring activists to Turkey or “liberated areas” in Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State’s propaganda has been extremely effective. It has convinced the world it was so ruthless that only massive armed campaigns could defeat it. But this is a myth maintained by all authoritarian governments. Like all ruling powers, the Islamic State is dependent on the consent of the population it intends to rule. Most importantly, this consent can be withdrawn. Committed activists, thinking and acting strategically, can turn local populations against the Islamic State and effectively dismantle its sources of power.
In the photo, Iraqi women hold pictures of their relatives, who are believed to have been killed by the Islamic State, during an April 27, 2015 protest in Baghdad.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
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