In the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, commentators on this blog and elsewhere have been exploring more broadly the connections between grievances, ideology and violent action. Too often there is a tendency to see a certain inevitability in processes of violence, to believe that people with particular grievances will inevitably be tempted to engage in or at least support violent acts. I thought it might be interesting to look at a case that disrupts these assumptions.
A very fine organisation that I used to work for in Washington, the Middle East Institute, is hosting its annual conference this week. At the opening session, an award was presented to Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, for his efforts in promoting peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. An obstetrician who worked for many years in both Israel and Gaza, he continually engaged people on both sides in projects that would deepen understanding (such as joint research on the effects on conflict on children in Gaza and in Israel) and in humanitarian efforts, including bringing desperately ill Palestinians into Israel for treatment.
His commitment to peace is made even more remarkable by the events of 16 January 2009. Dr Abuelaish lost three daughters and a niece when an Israeli shell hit their home in Jabaliya, Gaza. He was at the scene and saw with his own eyes the blown-apart remains of his daughters. (The Israeli army said it was returning fire after being fired upon from the area.) A Reuters TV report on the incident can be seen here.
Despite this personal tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish has not forsaken his efforts to build peace and understanding. At the MEI conference, he explained his thinking thusly:
For me the 16th of January, 2009, is the day when my three precious daughters and niece were killed by Israeli shells. It is hard to describe the dreadful scene and events of that day. The body parts of those beautiful girls – each of them was a special world – spread over the ceiling and were drowning in a pool of blood. I do not want anyone in this world to witness or see what I have seen.
But we are all human and we all make mistakes and commit sins from time to time. As a believer with deep faith as a Muslim, I fully believe that what I have lost – what was taken from me – will never come back. I need to go forward and be motivated by the spirit of those I lost and do them justice…
We need to discover the humanness inside all of us and adopt it as our pathway. We have to defend loudly the humanity that we all belong to and in this way we defend ourselves. Willingness and talking is not enough. It is a matter of action. As Martin Luther King said, our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends…
What do we need to understand and respect each other, and that the dignity of all is equal and live in collaboration and partnership? We need to smash and destroy the mental and physical barriers within each of us and between us. Let us build a new generation who believes that advancing human civilization is a joint project and that the most holy things in the universe are humankind and freedom. Instead of building walls of separation, let us build a bridge of understanding, respect and love, and restore the trust we need to activate our big open minds, hearts, eyes and arms.
The personal experience of losing family and friends to violence is often cited in studies of radicalisation within conflict zones. It is perhaps one of the more easily understood factors – after all, feelings of loss and the desire for revenge are not ideologically dependent but emotionally and psychologically resonant across wildly varying human societies. But the story of Dr. Abuelaish – and the many other Palestinians who support peace and reconciliation efforts – reminds us that any investigation into the sources of political violence must also consider those upon ‘the path not taken’. To engage in violence is a choice – not a predetermined outcome – and a choice made at the expense of alternative paths. Understanding why people with similar grievances make divergent choices is a complex field within the broader political violence literature.
Finally, I would call attention to Dr Abuelaish’s evocation of Dr Martin Luther King. When we talk about global ideologies, we tend to think of those that advocate extremism and/or violence; we equate the term with threats. It is worth remembering the vast, cross-cultural influence of ideas and ideologies that promote non-violent activism, pacifism and transnational cooperation in pursuit of peace. In most conflict zones, peace activists get little support or attention and it is all too easy to dismiss their efforts, or conflate genuine peace activism with political efforts of a more dubious nature.
Nevertheless, the global network that rests upon the ideas of people like Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi, and that endures in the same political and military space as global networks of jihadism or other violent tendencies, offers an interesting counterpoint to many of the ideas now circulating in media and policy circles.