Syria: Islamic history provides clues on how nonviolent means can end conflict

The other day, I got a ride from a very nice Syrian man. We discussed the crisis in Syria and its complexities. He explained to me that there are many factions, each fearing what will happen to them if one of the other factions seizes control. Their assumption is retribution and repression by the victor.

Let me say from the outset that I’m not a pacifist; the Quranic injunctions provide the right to self-defense.

2:178 retaliation has been prescribed …

“O you who believe! Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain, the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female, but if any remission is made to any one by his (aggrieved) brother, then prosecution (for the bloodwit) should be made according to usage, and payment should be made to him in a good manner; this is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy; so whoever exceeds the limit after this he shall have a painful chastisement.”

2:216 though you dislike it …

“The life of this world is made to seem fair to those who disbelieve, and they mock those who believe, and those who guard (against evil) shall be above them on the day of resurrection; and Allah gives means of subsistence to whom he pleases without measure.”

This does not mean that armed resistance or kital (armed physical Jihad) is the only Islamic method to conflict resolution. I pray that the opposition calls for an immediate end to violence against the defenseless civilian population and they should use the power of nonviolent popular mobilization and noncooperation with the Syrian regime as the core tool of the revolution.

The goal of this strategy is to eventually secure broad, democratic power-sharing among the factions in a new Syria. It will also lead to the further international isolation of the current Syrian government and the eventual establishment of a government-based consultation and representation from its people (Shura).

A call for the de-escalation of violence in Syria will ultimately save innocent lives, as it isolates and delegitimizes the Assad government that continues to use violence against the largely civilian population. Many Americans feared that the “jasmine revolutions” (not Arab Spring) would become protracted civil wars, yet to our surprise this generally did not happen.

While Syria is the exception, there is a Syrian Nonviolence Movement that is trying to gain support and is taking lessons from the nonviolence in Islamic history. The example of the “Treaty of Hudaibiyyah,” in which the prophet Muhammad signed a 10-year peace treaty, provides a powerful precedent for Muslims in the region. The companions of the prophet also doubted this wisdom, yet that peace treaty created the social and political space for dialogue and ultimately served as the turning point for the prophet’s ministry.

Some may devalue my perspective simply because it comes out of the African American civil rights tradition. Yet I am not invoking Ghandi or Dr. King blindly. My most powerful lessons of nonviolent resistance for social change come directly from the tradition of the prophet Muhammad, and I believe that nonviolent resistance is ultimately the most effective weapon to resolve the conflicts of today.

While armed resistance may be a possible tool to use against repression and violence, such tactics will ultimately lead to an acceleration of the spiral of social violence as well as create space for terrorist elements that seek to further destabilize the region.

In contrast, a mass-based nonviolent resistance movement, while it may bring about suffering and a loss of life in the near term, would ultimately reduce sectarian violence in the longer term, save from destruction much of the social and physical infrastructure of Syria, and demonstrates a positive and religiously acceptable alternative to violence for resolving conflict within the society.

“When the power of love overtakes the love of power the world will know peace.”

— Jimi Hendrix

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