Volunteers of the newly formed "Peace Brigade" march in a demonstration in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, on June 21, 2014.
Volunteers of the newly formed "Peace Brigade" march in a demonstration in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, on June 21, 2014. // Karim Kadim/AP

How Nonviolent Action Could Thwart ISIL’s Advance in Iraq

In Moises Naim’s wonderfully provocative article, he argues that “today’s wars are fought by soldiers impersonating civilians” and that the advances of the militant group ISIL in Iraq confirms that that al-Qaida has emerged over the past few decades as the “most influential kind of NGO.” In other words, uncivil society is on the rise.  

Naim is absolutely right that governments are outsourcing repression, targeting domestic challengers by supporting and wielding non-traditional armed elements like the colectivos in Venezuela, the Basij in Iran and thugs on camels in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. But Naim fails to point out that the reason governments are delegating repression to GONGOs, Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations, is because organized civil resistance has proven to be such a powerful force — twice as effective as armed resistance, in fact — in removing incumbent regimes willing to use brutal violence to stay in power. 

Disciplined non-violent movements, when confronted with regular security forces, also have proven adept at prompting defections within the security force ranks. And soldiers who disobey orders to shoot at unarmed protestors are a dictator’s worst nightmare. So it is useful for regimes to diversify the ranks of their hired heavies.   

To be sure, agent provocateurs and regime-backed thugs are serious challenges to popular movements and to authentic “civil” society elements committed to advancing social and political change via active, non-violent means. But this does not mean that their violence is decisive. 

More than 90 percent of historical non-violent movements have faced various types of regime repression. Yet 53 percent of non-violent movements overall have succeeded, compared to a paltry 26 percent of armed campaigns. Unarmed uprisings defeated unsavory opponents like Mubarak as well as Pahlavi in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Nimeiri in Sudan, Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Milosevic in Serbia, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Yanukovic in Ukraine by involving diverse groups in society in organized acts of civil disobedience and non-cooperation that severed the dictator and his henchmen from their sources of political, economic and even military power. 

Not only have non-violent movements dislodged repressive regimes,  they have also tended to usher in more democratic, peaceful societies that tend to last longer than democracies that occur through top-down transitions or armed insurrections. Now that is influence.     

Against ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, it is unlikely that civil resistance could ever achieve a total victory. But organized non-violent defiance and non-cooperation could be a complicating factor for terrorist elements seeking to control territory in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Given ISIL’s predilection for public beheadings and crucifixions, mass street demonstrations or other tactics that concentrate people in public spaces hardly make sense. Such confrontations would just get lots of people killed. 

But there are hundreds of other tactics that local populations can use to create more dispersed disruption, in order to deny the terrorists some of the support they need to impose their will indefinitely. Colombians fought against paramilitaries by building parallel structures and institutions that buffered them somewhat from those armed groups. In Iraq, such parallel institution-building would have to be done extremely clandestinely in the areas that ISIL controls but could be more promising in other Sunni-dominant areas that wish to contest ISIL’s monopoly. 

To the extent that ISIL elements seize control of economic levers of power, it is conceivable that Iraqis could restrict their labor and consumption en masse, to the consternation of their terrorist overlords. The focus of non-violent action and strategic communications activities would be to strip Sunni support away from ISIL

While civil resistance in this context is hardly risk-free, armed resistance to such groups carries just as many—or more—dangers.

Challenging ISIL is admittedly difficult using non-violent means, but a more relevant question would be how non-violent resistance could be used to address the grievances that propelled ISIL’s quick advances in the first place. The same could be asked about the march of Boko Haram in Nigeria, which benefited from acute corruption and severe government neglect in the north and east. 

In Iraq, the Maliki government clearly failed to win confidence amongst the minority Sunni population. But there are ways for minorities to fight and put pressure on heavy-handed majority rule using means other than violence and terrorism. The East Timorese struggle against the Indonesian government and military is one case in point. 

The spectacular violence and military advances of ISIL have gained it widespread media attention, and the organization has created havoc in Syria and Iraq. But attention is not the same thing as power, and it remains to be seen how effective ISIL will be at actually achieving political goals beyond its operational successes. If it does, the historical record suggests it will be an exception to the rule.

Observers should pay attention to the real and durable ways that civil society groups build power from below. Organized citizen groups that use non-violent means to pressure abusive power-holders and to advance changes without exploding themselves or cutting off heads will continue to outperform these militarized NGOs into the foreseeable future.  

Dr. Maria J. Stephan is a Senior Policy Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  She is the co-author, with Erica Chenoweth, of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011). The views expressed here are her own.

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