Three days of the candour

IssueJune - July 2023
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement rally in Bannu, 2018 Photo: Voice of America via Wikimedia commons (Public domain)
Feature by Milan Rai

By the end, my head was buzzing with new ideas, insights and possibilities. Should ‘care’ be the foundation for radical politics rather than ‘justice’? Is this another way of asking: aren’t relationships the foundation for (sustained and collective) action for change? (That made me wonder also about the relationship-based way of working common in community organising, and how much single-issue campaigning might have to learn from that.) How do submarines today seem normal when, at their introduction, they were greeted with horror as illegitimate weapons (which struck without warning and which were incapable of rescuing all their victims/the survivors if they sank a large warship)? Should we stop calling Gandhi a ‘pacifist’?

The Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence three-day online workshop in April was intense, with 18 papers being presented (including mine on ‘Revolutionary Nonviolence – Bolshevik-style’, about Russia in 1917).

The paper that I found most exciting was by Tracey Nicholls, who lectures in politics and international relations at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her paper was about online misogyny, but it also drew very fruitfully on research on both adult (workplace) and childhood bullying.

The way Tracey brought these different difficult topics together, in a very exploratory way, was thought-provoking and, to me, thrilling. It was a privilege to be allowed to see her thinking evolving on the page as she brought new insights to a complicated and painful subject.

During the first day, I felt that there had been a couple of important threads through some of the papers and some of the conversations, about nonviolence and what you might call ‘deliberate vulnerability’, and about working with power structures.

One part of the first paper, Astrid Heidemann Simonsen’s gender analysis of nonviolent resistance arguments, warned against the glorification of self- sacrifice, partly because of the risk that self-sacrificing frontline activists may reinforce sexist and hierarchical ideas.

This warning seemed in a useful and creative tension with a later paper about unarmed civilian protection, which focused on a particularly interesting example in the Global South. (Because it’s still in the process of being published, I can’t say more about the author or the study, but it was fascinating.)

According to Nonviolent Peaceforce, one of the leading groups in this area, unarmed civilian protection (UCP) is about using trained civilians to prevent violence, to strengthen local peace infrastructures and to provide direct physical protection to other civilians (‘accompaniment’, which used to be call ‘unarmed bodyguarding’). All of this is done in a nonviolent and nonpartisan way.

One important element of UCP, it seems to me, is using the power of deliberately being vulnerable, especially when providing an unarmed physical presence in the middle of a violent conflict.

Another aspect of UCP is that outsiders (especially internationals) only carry out accompaniment at the invitation of local groups. They work with local structures.

This ‘working with local power structures’ theme was picked up in another absorbing paper. As a South Asian myself, I was excited to learn about nonviolent resistance in Pakistan that is going on right now. There was an eye-opening paper on the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) written by Zulfia Abawe, Bilquees Daud and Farooq Yousaf – two of whom were able to join the workshop for the discussion of their paper.

The PTM builds on the legacy of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, ‘the Frontier Gandhi’, who led a nonviolent movement against British imperialism rooted in both Islam and Pashtun tradition (undermining the violent reputation that British colonialism had fastened onto the Pashtuns).

Initially focused on the need to remove landmines from their region, the PTM grew into a wider – explicitly nonviolent – movement demanding human rights for tribal Pashtuns and freedom for local people who had been detained without charge by the security forces. Because of its success in mobilising local people, and because of the power of its nonviolent way of working, the PTM is facing severe repression from the Pakistani government.

One interesting aspect of the PTM is that it seems to be rooted in the traditions and culture and institutions of tribal Pashtun society. It works with the grain of the society that it comes out of and that it seeks to defend, and this rootedness is much of the source of its (nonviolent) power.

Another participant made a comment about how she had made significant gains in her peacebuilding work, working with local power structures rather than challenging them head-on. (I can’t say more about that contribution here, but I hope we will be able to carry an interview in the future which tells this story in the detail which it deserves.)

I don’t have any specific conclusions to offer, but I was very interested in what we in the UK might learn from these stories of winning valuable gains by working with local power structures that might have oppressive aspects to them.

Returning to the vulnerability thread, one North American participant raised the issue of military courage. He said that in mainstream culture, within militarism, value is put on courage, where the soldier says: ‘I am vulnerable I can be killed but I will put myself in harm’s way’.

I’ve written about this in Peace News, drawing on the palaeoanthropological and other research in Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1997 book, Blood Rites: Origins and the History of the Passions of War (PN 2556 and 2662).

Ehrenreich pointed out that a vital part of ‘war fever’ was not: ‘Our boys are going off to kill the enemy’. The central appeal, she argued, is more: ‘Our boys are going off to lay down their lives to protect our community.’

Deliberate vulnerability, offering oneself up, self-sacrifice, risking harm to oneself for a noble cause or to protect others. This kind of action provokes a reaction of respect in most people. Ehrenreich argues that this reaction is programmed into us from our long experience, as early humans, of being prey rather than predator.

I suggested to the workshop that this is one important basis for the power of many forms of nonviolence as well as being a lot of the appeal of war. Nonviolence and war fever seem to draw from the same spring in human nature.

What was it like?

I didn’t exactly feel like a fish out of water, but I gradually realised that being a journalist at an academic event is sort of like being an engineer among theoretical physicists.

Halfway through the first day, I also realised I had misunderstood the event. It turns out that an academic workshop (of this kind, at least) is not much like a normal conference. For a start, the only people attending were people who were also presenting papers. This was more like a writers’ group than any conference I’ve been to.

The focus was not so much on the rights or wrongs of the arguments people were making, but on giving feedback that might help someone to improve their paper for publication.

Another way this was more like a writers’ group than a normal conference was that people were sharing papers that were often in the early stages of being written, looking for help in developing them.

What this meant was that the one-hour slots each paper got were more about one-to-one feedback from a queue of other participants, rather than group discussion, something it took me a while to get used to.

I was very impressed by the organisational skill involved in pulling the whole thing together. The editor of the Journal, and the workshop organiser, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, gave me this comment afterwards: ‘It took substantial effort to organise and run, not least because we used time slots from 9am to 11pm in order to accommodate people connecting in from time zones across the world, but it was worth it. The conversations were fascinating and truly interdisciplinary, and the feedback to one another helpful and constructive. Several papers from it have already been submitted for review to JPN, with several more still to come.’

Alexandre, who specialises in anarcho-pacifism and the thought of Leo Tolstoy, says: ‘The workshop was organised primarily to help generate potential research papers for the new Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence, which was launched earlier this year. It also helped forge links between researchers from across the world – from the USA and Mexico through various European countries to Pakistan and New Zealand.’

It was amazing to see people from right across the world, in very different time zones, taking part in sessions throughout the day. I myself could not handle the 9pm – 11pm sessions, so I was very impressed by folk who were getting up at 4am to be part of the conversations during our (UK) daytime.

I definitely learned a lot from the workshop, and I got a lot of ideas on how to improve and develop my work on ‘the Nonviolent Russian Revolution’. I also have lots of gripping leads for things that could be followed up in PN!