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Lecture on Nonviolence to the Suzanne Mubarak Women's for Peace International Movement

Il Cairo, 24 February 2004

Dear friends, thank you for having invited me to this meeting, on the theme of nonviolence. “Women International for Peace” takes an active interest in the problem of peace, and you have asked me to consider this as the essential theme of women’s commitment, in this part of the world too. There is no doubt that peace is the final objective to which we must turn our efforts. A word of warning, however: I believe that in this commitment we must resolve and clarify several preliminary questions in order to avoid dangerous and irreparable delusions and frustrations. Peace, as we well know, is not a neutral concept, it is not valid for everyone in the same forms. All belligerents, at least if we are to believe what they say, want peace. But if we question them more closely we realise that each of them understands peace in a different, often opposite way. In the concrete reality of politics, the term has different meanings and contents: even, alas, when women are involved. In the Chechnya-Russia conflict, for example, the Chechen women very probably want “peace, plus independence or autonomy”, while the Russian women want “peace, plus security, plus…Chechnya”; the women of Kosovo wanted “peace plus autonomy”, while the Serbian women wanted “peace plus Kosovo, the native land of Serbia”, etc. In Northern Ireland for half the women it meant “peace plus Catholicism” (Mairead Corrigan), while for the other half it meant “peace plus Protestantism” (Betty Williams). Both of them won the Nobel Prize, for Peace, of course: not because they managed to convince each other in terms of content, but because they got together and agreed on method: and the method was nonviolence. In short, we must set out from the fact that there always have been and always will be different interests in the world, competing if not conflicting: between countries and governments, and also between people and organised groups; and that often this “competition” is actually positive (take, for example, the conflict of interests between public and private business, or between “the bosses and the workers”), provided that the interests in conflict are supported - even obstinately - with legal and - I insist - nonviolent methods. Because nonviolence, strangely enough, makes them tough and combative, yet also reconcilable. What do we mean, then, when we talk about nonviolence? Nonviolence can mean very different things, although they may be historically related. For example, I am always asked whether nonviolence is simply a “technique”, or whether it is a conception of life, a “philosophy”, or even a religion. In Gandhi there are elements of a full-fledged unitary philosophical vision, if not of a religion: nonviolence here appears to be related to well-known Hindu or Buddhist ideas, such as not using violence towards living beings, including animals, etc. In this sense, it may not be of interest to us: but Gandhi was also a politician, and if we examine his nonviolent initiatives carefully we will find that they were deeply political. We cannot easily separate this part of his message from his Hindu background and see if it is still suitable and useful for our needs. At the origin of Gandhian nonviolence, however, there are also the teachings of a secular Europe, or rather Great Britain, imbued with humanitarian socialism, libertarian rather than Marxist, the socialism that flourished in London and Manchester at the end of the nineteenth century, which led to the great social, political and economic reforms. This was also, more or less, the age and the intellectual climate of Emmeline Pankhurst, that is of the first women’s emancipation movement. This was the atmosphere that the young Gandhi, having come to England to free himself of Hindu and Oriental “prejudices” and to become a modern lawyer steeped in British civilisation, met in London amidst the swarm of young intellectuals and politicians who were debating and fighting to carry through social and cultural innovations. Among these young people there was widespread interest in Indian culture, and it was they who began to reconsider nonviolence, reading it through European eyes, and perhaps also through the eyes of their creative socialism. In short, Gandhian nonviolence also shows traces of a political influence of a humanitarian, activistic, non-religious and extremely pragmatic type, part of the culture of democratic Europe. This is the nonviolence that played a leading role in the battles of the civil rights movements during the 1960s - the decade of the Vietnam War, that is - which left such a deep mark on America. Martin Luther King and the “hippies”, who were responsible for promoting great battles for civil rights, those of the blacks, of women, of homosexuals, of outcasts, etc., dusted off Gandhian nonviolence, including its British characteristics, and turned it into an essential instrument of struggle. An instrument of struggle, and of initiative, that when possible does not replace other more commonly used instruments: conferences, meetings, discussions, etc. Quite the contrary, in fact. The nonviolent initiative often involves many of these activities. First of all, then, nonviolence is not waiting passively, it is not resignation. This aspect, of a religious nature, has been replaced by the awareness that the exercise of nonviolence - in other words of civil disobedience, where civil does not mean polite, but civic, regarding the laws, which is completely different - requires courage, sometimes physical courage, but also political intelligence, a deep knowledge of law and of the laws, and even a touch of shrewdness, of flexible shrewdness: because the nonviolent activist must be skilful enough to deceive his adversaries, that is those who will attempt to prevent him from acting (and this is an essential aspect, as I will try to explain), as to his moves. In short, it is not an easy instrument to use, for “the good-hearted”, as they say in Italy, and as people say everywhere when they want to deride nonviolence. I am not fond of certain rather “discriminatory” arguments, but there are those who say that nonviolence can be seen to be founded on the concept of “endurance”, which seems to be quality typical of women. Another point that needs to be clarified is that nonviolence is a very specific form of struggle. There are many weapons or instruments of struggle and intervention available to the nonviolent activist. There are also manuals which list the various forms of struggle, those which are defined as “passive resistance” (which I do not much like) or “civil disobedience”: from hunger strikes to sit-ins and conscientious objection. I believe, however, that nonviolent struggle should find its own instruments for each particular battle, by adapting old ones, those which are well-known to the political and social reality in which we operate, or even by inventing other, more suitable ones. For the search for the right instrument, for the right initiative, is a fundamental element of growth of the nonviolent conscience, without which the struggle is not even conceivable. For example: a certain number of people who demonstrate in the streets waving placards and singing slogans, even though they may be acting in a peaceful manner - without throwing stones, for example - are not carrying out a strictly nonviolent initiative or demonstration. A nonviolent demonstration can involve many people, but not necessarily. A traditional street demonstration is more successful the more people it involves. Demonstrations held by the political parties are judged and “weighed” according to the number of people who attend them. A nonviolent initiative can be carried out by a small number of people: sometimes even just one person is ideal. The essential thing, what makes it different from a normal political demonstration, is that it should entail a “breach” of the law, of police regulations, for example, however insignificant. This is “civil disobedience”, or “passive resistance”. A group of people, however small, who sit or lie on the ground with the precise intention of blocking the traffic, for example, are carrying out a nonviolent initiative: they expect and provoke the police to come along and drag them off in order to get the traffic moving. They also expect to be taken to a police station in order to be identified and perhaps to be held for a few hours, even a few days. Some demonstrations can even lead to arrests and trials. We have faced dozens of such trials in Italy. Another premise is necessary. The breach of the law or of regulations is a risk that entails the responsibility of the individual demonstrator. For this reason not many people are willing to undertake this form of struggle, which involves more than just a few hassles, or even, as in traditional demonstrations, a police charge. Breaching the law or regulations means that the person responsible really puts himself on the line by challenging the law, and states openly that he is ready to pay a certain “price” for this. Nonviolence is founded on this risk, often very costly, and therefore requires a degree of inner strength. From these considerations it is clear that the nonviolent initiative is a highly political thing, very much part of the reality of our times, played out against the background of our societies and their relations with the civil liberties, with the liberties of the individual. Through his initiatives, the nonviolent activist tries to attract the attention of the general public. The public must be not only curious, but also drawn to wonder why people who are quite clearly peaceful, quite clearly not rowdy, perhaps even women no longer particularly young, should place themselves at risk in this way. Curiosity must arouse sympathy. The nonviolent activist needs the sympathy, the solidarity of the public. People must understand, without the slightest doubt, that the nonviolent activist is performing a “positive” action, positive also for those who are present or who hear about the initiative from the media. The nonviolent activist needs and must gain the “complicity” of ordinary people. Someone who takes part in a normal political demonstration can throw sticks and stones, causing passers-by to scatter. The nonviolent activist must avoid this at all costs, he must attract above all the sympathy of the passer-by. This explains the need to be able to identify initiatives that “speak” in a positive way, in everybody’s language. Nonviolence must also be “effective” as a symbolic language, otherwise it is useless, and even counterproductive. You can see, therefore, that deciding to practise nonviolence is a difficult, complex and politically serious decision. You can see, what’s more, that great leadership is necessary to organise these initiatives, and that the nonviolent activist must have an intense relationship with civil society. Nonviolent action must be able to count on people’s awareness, and therefore on news coverage. This is extremely difficult to obtain, because the authorities involved will try to prevent the news from getting out. Before undertaking a nonviolent initiative, therefore, it is necessary to work out the channels through which the news can and must be spread. At a time when the Italian media system was characterised by a very small number of newspapers - not widely read, moreover - and by a state broadcasting company strictly controlled by the government, when our initiatives might have seemed to be eccentricities imported from abroad, from America (because we, too, have had these difficulties), we tried to warn a few journalists and a few photographers - photographers are extremely important - a few foreign TV channels. The news that ten Italians had been dragged away by the police (and maybe roughly treated) because they were demonstrating in favour of divorce went round the world. It bounced back to Italy from abroad, vastly increasing the strength of our initiative, at least among the ruling and political classes, who began to fear us. The next time Italian journalists began to show up. Perhaps only to lampoon us, to make fun of us, to say we were eccentric “Americans”. When we began the battle for divorce, only the mass parties, the Marxist left, used to hold demonstrations. It was a shocking event, and a shocking media event, to see the pro-divorce campaigners taking to the streets with their placards drawn by hand (and therefore clearly not expensive), with imaginative slogans clearly not penned by the party bureaucracies. These things may seem to be insignificant, but I believe they are essential to understand the logic of nonviolence. The people taking to the streets were not members of any political party, they were good, ordinary people who had never taken much interest in politics and had no desire to do so in the future. Very often they felt a sense of shame when they had to confess to their neighbours that they were not actually married, but living together illegally (at that time if a spouse reported this situation to the police it could lead to a trial and a sentence). Suddenly, these people plucked up courage and took to the streets, exhibiting what until then had been their “shame”. It was a truly memorable event from the point of view of media coverage. But it was a shocking event also, and above all, because it triggered a growing sense of civil and democratic responsibility among ordinary people. The mass “democratic” parties flew into a rage, they began to say we were “exploiting” people’s suffering. The demonstrators were mocked, they were called “cuckolds” (a term of offence in Italy) and other such things. In actual fact they were developing an awareness of themselves and of their rights, perhaps for the first time. This was their strength, their revolutionary force. And I believe that every civil rights movement must go through this experience of active nonviolence if it really wants to be successful, especially in terms of rights. To demonstrate for peace often doesn’t cost very much, you might end up in prison for a few hours, but the action does not entail an immediate problem of individual rights that can cause serious embarrassment for the structures and the conceptions of the government. From individual rights, the rights of every man and woman, to individual responsibility, to the calling into question of the law, and then to the creation of a new law: this is the path of the nonviolent initiative. Breach of the law, but also respect for the law. The nonviolent activist demands above all that the government must respect its own laws. And therefore asks to be brought to trial. He knows that a trial is an event that will attract public interest, also at international level, if the initiative is well planned. At this point it is the authorities that shrink from holding trials. In Italy many Radical activists, or simply supporters, are currently awaiting trial for the possession of small quantities of hashish or marijuana. Some of them have been awaiting trial for as long as ten years, if I am not mistaken. But these trials are NOT held because the authorities know that they are risky, from their point of view. The public would be on our side. This shows just how important news coverage is for nonviolent initiatives. In Italy, especially in the last few years, nonviolent initiatives have actually concentrated mainly on this factor, which has become a major priority. News coverage is not only a “means” to be employed, it is an “objective”, if not the primary “objective”, of the nonviolent initiative. We all know that in modern society news coverage is everything: it shapes and creates, it mobilises but also “hides”. By creating difficulties for the media, forcing them to report on alternatives to the official line, it is possible to strike the powers-that-be, and to ensure they are unable to strike back. All this without any recourse to violence. It is easy for governments to punish demonstrators who have performed acts of violence or reacted with violent resistance to the orders of the police. But they are powerless and embarrassed when demonstrations are held in strict keeping with the logic of nonviolence. It may not be easy, but it is essential. Nonviolence, I repeat, is a full-fledged strategy, which entails courage, but also intelligence and shrewdness. There is, however, a nonviolent “technique” that never ceases to arouse criticism and to meet with difficulties, that risks being completely misunderstood, perhaps deliberately, merely to discredit those who practise it. I am referring to the fast or, if you prefer, the “hunger strike”. The most common objection is that it is a rather masochistic practice, which involves a risk of suicide, and is thus a form of blackmail. One example often cited is the Irish republican Bobby Sands, who died in prison as a result of an extended hunger strike. We have never accepted this suicidal logic. The fast, or hunger strike, is not, and must never be, a self-destructive, tendentially suicidal process. The nonviolent activist who begins a hunger strike does not wish to die. On the contrary, he wants to live, having won an extra inch of justice and rights, for society rather than for himself. There is an element of risk, of course. There are many difficulties. For this reason hunger strike techniques try to support the nonviolent activist, so that he is debilitated as little as possible. For example, we recommend - and we say so publicly - that the hunger striker should consume two or three cappuccinos a day, the Western equivalent of Gandhi’s bowl of milk. This is sufficient to delay weight loss, etc., and allows the hunger strike to continue for many days. This, however, is not the problem. The problem is that the nonviolent hunger strike must be accompanied constantly by a powerful series of initiatives, carried out by the hunger striker himself and by his companions and friends - even in other places - so that the hunger strike does not remain a “private” affair, ignored by or hidden from the general public. We have carried out our hunger strikes in the streets, sometimes next to a caravan parked in a busy part of the city so that passers-by could follow the initiative hour by hour. In short, the nonviolent hunger strike is a technique with a powerful element of tension, collective work, involvement, etc. Press releases have to be issued continually, with reports on the state of health of the hunger striker (written by a doctor). Above all, however, there must be information about the aims pursued, which must be concrete, definite, and easy for everyone to understand: the approval of a law, intervention by the government, or by the relevant public authorities, etc. Nonviolence, as we can see, is linked to the body, that of the individual or of a small group. It calls on the individual to assume responsibilities, his own and not those of others. For this reason many people accuse nonviolence of “breaking up” society in the name of extreme individualism. This is not true. From our experience in Italy, we are convinced of this. In actual fact the assumption of responsibility by the individual reinforces social and communal cohesion. If by society we mean the amorphous unity that suffocates opinions and individual creativity, then this fear may be justified: but if by society we mean a harmonious, creative community of individuals who fulfil their own personality in common dialogue, and vice versa, then the accent on the individual responsibility that nonviolence requires becomes an instrument of growth for society, too. The accentuation of individual responsibility increases everyone’s sense of responsibility. The citizen who faces the direct confrontation with the police during demonstrations with nonviolence, or who accepts the consequent trial, arouses reasoned reflection in those who are watching and makes them more aware of themselves and of their own possibilities and rights. In traditional warfare the soldiers used to move together in serried ranks, elbow to elbow, in order to support each other, because they lacked an individual spirit of resistance: nowadays each individual soldier is called on to move autonomously in the conflict, and is responsible for what he does, for the tasks he has to perform. The comparison should not seem strange, because the nonviolent activist, too, is called to a sort of battle, conducted with different weapons, but no less effective if they are used well. Our societies - and here I am speaking of Italian society, too - are still not really capable of making the individual aware of his responsibilities. We need to wake them up, to give them a new conscience, and to shape them according to the needs of the contemporary world, if we do not want them to be overwhelmed by it. It is not a question of changing one’s self and losing one’s own identity, but of enriching one’s identity with languages suited to the times, to the global confrontation which everyone is required to face. Society can only benefit from nonviolent initiatives. Individual responsibility creates greater general awareness of the duties and rights of every citizen. In historical terms, nonviolence was born as a negative concept: the “non” signifies absence: the absence of violence. But in the positive reality of history, what must be upheld as the force that opposes violence is justice and rights. It is not enough to “abstain” from violence to carry out a nonviolent initiative: it is always necessary to bring justice and rights, the law, back into the foreground. The nonviolent activist stimulates the law, the law of the society in which he lives and acts, to reclaim its primacy. It is justice and rights, in fact, that bind society, appropriating violence and turning it into common “strength”, for the common good. So in opposing violence the nonviolent initiative seeks to restore justice, every time it is negated or violated. What sort of justice? I think you will all agree that the sphere of individual rights has changed enormously, expanding to an extent that until recently seemed inconceivable. We need only think of women’s rights, whose attainment is becoming central in every society, albeit with different forms and formulas, according to the different needs. What is certain, however, is that women in a country like Egypt and women in Western, or Hindu, or African countries now have much in common. The women in these different countries, with very different needs, problems and contexts, are united by the search for, the affirmation of rights that are similar or identical. The rights that we know as human rights and civil rights. Their forms are very similar even across frontiers. And it is not, as we often hear repeated, a case of rights claimed in the name of “Western” values, far from those that are perceived as rights in an Islamic country, for example. The West, too, has resisted the affirmation of women’s rights. In Italy many rights of women have been attained in the last few decades, and at the cost of efforts and struggles that we know well, from personal experience. Human and civil rights that are upheld across the various frontiers, then, can be defined as natural rights, whatever we ultimately decide to call them. This is why the instrument of nonviolence is now so relevant and has a potentially universal language. Because it does not belong to anyone in particular, but belongs to everyone. When we fight for civil rights, we are citizens of the world, not only and not so much of the Western world. The validity of the rights claimed is perceived in ways that are not dissimilar throughout the world, it speaks a universal language: to be able to understand this, to be able to shape the nonviolent initiative according to this universal language, is therefore essential to its success. Even here in Egypt, or - why not? - in Palestine (incidentally, are we really sure that the Intifada is the most suitable instrument for the struggle of the Palestinian people?). Just as it is essential to understand that this battle is a battle for life, with the weapons of life, and not of death. Because - and here I can use the words of Gandhi - nonviolence is also “love of others, love of life”. In the world in which we live, which is a world of change, it can also be the path to open up new democratic, interstate, transnational and international relations. We, at least, have understood and practised it in this way.

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