Challenges and Lessons for Western Peace Activists
by Matt Meyer
In a week of bombing and bloodshed, I have been amazed and saddened at the amount of confusion, arrogance, and paternalism from supposedly progressive people of the so-called global north. Perhaps I should not be so surprised: the US “left” is an under-developed country, and we would all do well to take some serious lessons — in democracy, nonviolence, and revolution — from our counterparts in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps the silver lining is to learn from the lessons of Libya:
On Revolution and Nonviolence
The good news, of course, is that these two concepts, so often pitted against one another as opposites — the false dichotomy of our era — have, in 2011, been rehabilitated. Revolutionary Nonviolence, written about so eloquently half a century ago by the likes of Barbara Deming and Dave Dellinger, and acted on so courageously by Dr. King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others, has been spotlighted around the world by the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere. Some of us are not at all surprised that we would find leading examples of the bright future in our midst on the broad shores of the African continent. Pan African peace efforts have been inspiring a growing number of us for some time now — and make no mistake about it: Egypt and Tunisia are as much a part of the African experience as they are a part of the Arab world.
It may sound simplistic, but (in the words of noted Syracuse University Professor Horace Campbell) “it is time for the rest of the world to acknowledge and celebrate Africa’s friendliness and warmth.” There is more to this than simply joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” in some superficial unity. Basic competence in understanding and appreciating one another’s cultural richness, especially those of regions still-caricatured by “darkness” or the horrors of unending war and poverty, is nothing less than a pre-requisite for understanding and fully developing our own humanity. This concept is the essence of the notion of “Ubuntu” so often referenced in the reconciliation efforts led by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Cultural competence is also, in the words of Burundian scholar and George Mason Professor Elavie Ndura-Ouedraogo, “a corner piece in the puzzle of [building] a culture of nonviolence.” We cannot have a meaningful commitment to nonviolence, much less a revolutionary one, if we do not overcome the racist notions which separate most northern scholars and activists from a deeper grasp of the true issues taking place on southern ground.
Reading Myth vs. Reality
It was a breath of fresh air to read the recent writings of pacifist elder David McReynolds, a veteran of the War Resisters International, and a leader of the Socialist Party, USA. Despite his decades in politics, McReynolds has continued to state that he simply doesn’t know enough about the nature of the Libyan rebellion to pass judgment on the internal affairs of that country. On several occasions this past week, in his Edgeleft column and elsewhere — and despite the fact the he was on a high-level Fellowship of Reconciliation trip to Libya some years ago — he has boldly admitted his own limitations, and in so doing has called to question all the quick and glib analysis which too easily flies out of the pens of overnight experts.
McReynolds has written: “Qaddafi himself may be mad (an easy charge to make, a hard one to prove), but if so he is also very committed to his sense of Libya’s mission. I would say his foreign policy has been appalling but while there is no political freedom in the sense that we understand it, I have not seen credible documentation of the kind of widespread torture of which Egypt was guilty under Mubarak. And our tax money funded Mubarak — not Qadaffi. (And when we talk about prisons, I think the US, with the largest prison population in the world, is skating on very thin ice).”
“My problem with the response to the current crisis,” McReynolds continues, “is that everyone seems to bring their own view of the world to Libya.” Some, he writes “have been swift to see in the opposition to Qaddafi the same kind of opposition we saw in Egypt. The problem for me is that I really do not know much about the Libyan opposition — while we knew, very early, a good deal about the Egyptian opposition.”
Herein lies a key series of issues. Some basic statistics suggest that Libya had the lowest infant mortality rate in all of Africa; less than 5% of the population was undernourished. In response to rising food prices around the world, the government of Libya abolished all taxes on food, on January 12, 2011. Libya had the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of all of Africa. The government took care to ensure that everyone in the country had a relative share of the wealth, with the highest Human Development Index of any country on the continent. In Libya, a lower percentage of people lived below the poverty line than in the Netherlands.
Even Lee Smith of Tablet Magazine, certainly no friend of the nations of North Africa in general and no admirer of Qaddafi in particular, nevertheless raised the correct questions when he wrote, on March 23, that “no one really knows” exactly who the Libyan “rebels” are. It seems most likely that at least some of them are of the same fundamentalist ilk as those who have made their way into Iraq to kill American soldiers. We can figure out why fundamentalists would use the opportunity of mass regional uprisings to target the Qaddafi regime. We can appreciate why an empire such as the US would vacillate regarding which violent side to take, in a power play where billions of barrels of oil are involved. But why would the US left race to support either side?
Self Determination and the Do-It-Yourself Ethic
In part, the instinct to “do something — anything” makes sense on a humanitarian basis. But true anti-imperialism calls for a careful self-examination of how one’s position and prejudices can contaminate many of the “somethings” we can imagine, and how a basic principle of “do no harm” needs to be factored before taking rash action. On the one hand, progressives in the US can look to the recent speeches by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been supporting Qaddafi based on his anti-colonial past and the fact that he is now facing off against the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Immanuel Wallerstein argues sharply, in Libya and the World Left, that the last ten years of Libyan collusion with Western capitalism makes Chavez’ argument moot. Of course Wallerstein, writing just days before the Western bombing began, also incorrectly predicted that the US would never allow significant military involvement. Nevertheless, radical elements who have had some first-hand contact with recent Libyan society, such as Helena Sheehan of Ireland and Gilbert Achcar of Lebanon, speak clearly of both Qaddafi’s corruption and of the genuine progressive character of at least some of the Libyan youth, calling for increased political freedoms and human rights. The Congress of South African trade unions, while acknowledging the social achievements which have marked Libya’s post-colonial history, state that these gains “in no way excuse” the killing of protesters by a dictatorial regime.
On the other hand, calls for foreign intervention seem to conveniently avoid the basic principle that people have the right to determine their own histories and futures. Even if outside militaries in general, and the US military in particular, could play “humanitarian” roles in international conflicts, it is rare (if not impossible) that such interventions result in anything other than a greater loss of innocent lives and a less democratic, people-centered outcome. That some US progressives, including pacifist academic Michael Nagler, have gone so far as to suggest that now “military intervention is the least bad solution” shows how far we have come from a commitment to (or faith in) grassroots peoples’ power. Part of the problem is one of identification: when one writes about Libya in terms of “bloodbath,” and “extreme violence” — without also commenting upon the simultaneous violence taking place within Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Cameroon, and elsewhere — it becomes clear that one has been successfully oriented in the direction put forth by the US/multinational media machine. Even US anti-militarists, while carefully distancing themselves from militarized solutions, are susceptible to thinking from a US (rather than an internationalist) perspective.
Ali Issa, the new War Resisters League program staff member with substantial links throughout the Middle East, has noted: “From Morocco to Iraq — and, indeed, around the world — where revolts against repression and silence are catching fire, the single most important achievement that people keep talking about is: They’ve Done It Themselves. A deeper solidarity,” Issa believes, “would center upon this spirit, when we think creatively about how to support these growing movements.”
Do we need to be reminded, by legal scholars such as National Lawyers Guild president Marjorie Cohn, that the US-British-French bombing campaign goes well beyond the wording of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, under whose auspices those bombs began to fall? In addition to violating the basic principles laid down in the UN Charter, the current campaign goes well beyond the newly-framed, post-Rwandan genocide principle of “the responsibility to protect.” It is, at best, an intervention taking place within a situation of domestic civil disturbance— what Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized before the bombing as “an act of war.” These “human rights missiles” are being deployed against broad sectors of humans, and are unlikely to ensure the safety of civilians. Former Congressman Alan Grayson, no pacifist, stated that the “no fly zone” concept fundamentally feeds a dangerous fantasy that “every problem has a military solution.” And Israeli journalist Yitzhak Laor, writing in Haaretz, noted that the military campaign against Libya — not just about oil, but about the West picking and choosing whomever they want to lead one country or another — is evidence of a return of “colonial theology.” Complaining that the West’s war against Qaddafi reeks of a double standard is like complaining that a cruise missile has a warhead and a tail.
What Can Be Done?
But the arguments about what not to do still fail to address a question appropriately posed from an internationalist solidarity perspective, namely whether there is anything positive we can do to support popular movements once war has broken out. When I traveled to Libya a few years after Ronald Reagan’s bombing campaign, with Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) and other leaders of the Black liberation movement in the US, the situation was somewhat clearer. The killing of Qaddafi’s young daughter was commemorated by a wide variety of human rights activists, condemning Reagan’s aggressive interventionism. At that time, and in the years since, Qaddafi certainly used Reagan’s bombs to bolster his own domestic standing as a freedom fighter against Western incursion.
Solidarity today may mean a different set of initiatives altogether. Marc Pilisuk correctly points to the fact that “the Middle East has spoken, and people will protest despite all the weapons and the imposed fear. But will they be heard?” Pilisuk believes that this “will depend upon a major cultural transformation toward active nonviolence, and a dissolution of the power of a small elite to grow their wealth and protect their privilege.” We must all — activists and academics, north and south — work together for the justice which requires not only an end to war but also an end to the causes of war which manifest as much violence and death as war itself.
Yet north-south solidarity may, indeed, need to flow in a different direction than those of us from the “privileged” north have become used to. Palestinian human rights organizer Omar Barghouti wrote an Open Letter to all of us, with a simple but powerful wish for the people of conscience of the West. Barghouti, author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, sweetly said: “I Wish You Egypt.” Given the state of economics and politics within the nations of the crumbling imperial powers, those wishes go well beyond the hopes that we may see two, three, many Wisconsins (to paraphrase Che). Barghouti implored: “I wish you Egypt so you can decolonize your minds, for only then can you envision real liberty, real justice, real equality, and real dignity.” May we quickly work to make this wish our collective reality.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.