BY SEAN CHABOT AND MAJID SHARIFI
A new consensus has emerged about how to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Instead of supporting authori-tarian regimes, experts across the political spectrum now agree that nonviolent resistance by people in the region is the ideal method for achieving liberation. But what purpose does such nonviolent resistance serve? And who actually benefits from it?
Gandhi raised these questions over a century ago. In his book Hind Swaraj, he gave the following response to Indian nationalists suggesting that India will be free when it kicks out the British and takes over the current system of government: “[You] want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English…. This is not the Swaraj [self-rule] that I want.” He warned that replacing foreign with domestic elites would not lead to genuine freedom and democracy for oppressed Indians. If Indian nationalists did not confront the imperial logic in themselves as well as their colonizers, they would just substitute Indian for British tyranny. They would get rid of the tiger, but not the tiger’s nature.
According to Gandhi, the imperial logic of modern civilization undermined the Indian capacity for self-rule. Guided by the urge to rationalize, it infected India’s political, economic, cultural, and spiritual life. Liberal democracy institutionalized and legitimized government domination of civil society. Capitalism normalized exploitation of workers and banished morality from the production process. Individualism and consumerism equated fulfilling selfish desires with human happiness. And instrumental reason destroyed indigenous knowledge and prevented experiments with truth. What concerned Gandhi most was that Indian people had internalized this imperial logic, and that Indian elites tended to ignore the plight of the most oppressed in society.
For Gandhi, nonviolent resistance was only one means for achieving Indian self-rule. He favored the constructive program, which highlighted communal unity, removal of untouchability, control over addictions, economic independence, emancipatory education, gender equality, labor unions, and grassroots organizing. Indians were not ready for nonviolent resistance campaigns until they had gained a sense of autonomy through constructive work. “For my handling of civil disobedience without the constructive programme,” he wrote, “will be like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon.” The main aim was to transform the imperial logic into ways of life based on dignity, self-reliance, and well being for all.
We argue that most courageous activists in the Middle East are falling into the imperial trap identified by Gandhi. Like others, we admired people on the frontlines of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, Tunisia’s revolution in 2010, and Egypt’s revolution in 2011. But we now realize that participants in these movements are targeting the tiger instead of the tiger’s nature. Their purpose is to elect reformists and to gain the same freedom and democracy that people in the West claim to enjoy. Yet even when they successfully take over their governments, the most oppressed people in society continue to suffer.
We conclude with two important lessons. First, nonviolent resistance can either serve or subvert the imperial logic, either produce another tyranny or confront the oppression deeply rooted in each of us. Second, we should focus primarily on whether activists confront the tiger or the tiger’s nature, not on whether we should classify their methods as nonviolent or violent. The main force inhibiting lasting transformation of self and society—and preventing genuine freedom and democracy—is the imperial logic, not the people’s choice of tactics and strategies. If people do not attack the imperial logic itself, they are bound to repeat rather than make history.
Sean Chabot is associate professor of sociology at Eastern Washington University, and Majid Sharifi is assistant professor of government at EWU.