M.J. Stephan – Nonviolent Strategies

« Nonviolent Strategies to Reduce Terrorism and Violent Extremism »

by Maria J. Stephan

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Pope Francis, in his 2017 World Day of Peace (WDP) message entitled Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace, called on people everywhere to practice active nonviolence, noting that “the decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence has produced impressive results.”[1] His address highlighted the destructive nature ofviolence, even when ostensibly used for just causes, and emphasized that these negative effects often persist for generations. The Pontiff listed terrorism among the global scourges that have caused particular suffering, destroying innocent civilian lives and wreaking havoc in placesincluding Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Europe and the United States.

The Pope’s message, and the Church’s longstanding commitment to the centrality of gospel nonviolence, raises an obvious question: how effective can nonviolent approaches be against non-state actors who deliberately target civilians with horrific violence, including beheadings and suicide bombings? An extreme variant, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has used brutal tactics including summary executions, beheadings, and the genocidal targeting of a minority group, the Yezidi of northern Iraq. Other groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, a non-state terrorist group active in northern Uganda, and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab group in East Africa, have been responsible for scores of deaths while tearing apart social cohesion.

While the vast preponderance of US and international resources are dedicated to combatting terrorism and extremist violence using military means, including controversial drone strikes, even top U.S. generals acknowledge that military force alone is insufficient to degrade, much less defeat ISIS.[2] Military strikes do nothing to address the underlying grievances, including systemic corruption, repression, and exclusion that give rise to terrorist organizations and fuel recruitment. For example, in northern Nigeria, the terrorist organization Boko Haram exploited government corruption and brutal tactics used by the Nigerian security forces to rally civilian supporters.

In his WDP message, Pope Francis reinforced  the importance of these realities: “Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world.”[3] Even when military strikes successfully eliminate leaders of terrorist groups and destroy parts of their infrastructure, they cannot address the injustices that promptsupport .Violent responses to terrorism are insufficientat best, and are more often counter-productive.  

Addressing the root causes of violent conflict is an up-stream approach to challenging the scourge of global terrorism. A 2015 Mercy Corps study of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia found that “injustice”, not unemployment or poverty, was the most significant driver of youth participation in violence and violent extremism.[4] Noting that over half the world’s population is youth, the report urged new collective approaches to deterring youth engagement in political violence. 

There are important roles for nonviolent solutions, including civil resistance, in dissolving the causes of terrorism while denying terrorist organizations legitimacy and support. Nonviolent resistance, a method of struggle in which ordinary people apply social, economic, and political power without the threat or use of violence,has been successful in very divergent contexts.For example, the coordinated use of strikes, boycotts, protests, collective noncooperation, and hundreds of other nonviolent tactics has been successful in popular struggles againstdictatorships in South Africa, the Philippines, and Tunisia; in campaigns targeting systemic corruption Egypt, Guatemala, and Romania; and in campaigns targeting non-state armed groups Columbia, Syria, and Afghanistan. By denying opponents needed consent and obedience, while driving up the costs of maintaining and expanding power, nonviolent resistance can challenge even the most formidable opponents. 

Terrorist leaders justify their actions and win recruits by claiming, as did ex-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, that oppressive governments (including Western-backed Arab dictatorships) can only be removed through violent force. Their claims are false. Civil resistance has been ten times as effective as armed struggle in toppling dictatorships, according to a major empirical study of 330 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006.[5] Nonviolent campaigns attracted significantly higher levels of participants from diverse groups in society (not only able-bodied young men) compared to armed campaigns, augmenting their strategic success. 

What happens when the opponent is not a repressive regime but a non-state actor like a terrorist organization? Much of the same logic applies. Terrorist organizations require legitimacy, funding, and human resources (technical experts, propagandists, recruiters, service providers, foot soldiers, etc.) to consolidate and expand their power. The loyalties of these individuals are neither monolithic nor unchanging. While mass non-cooperation may not be possible in areas directly under the control of terrorist groups, citizen organizing can exert pressure and influence behavior, including their ability to attract new recruits.[6]

Recent research onnonviolent collective citizen action in Columbia, the Philippines, and Syria found that local communities that strategically organized autonomous institutions were able to deter and mitigate violence from state and non-state armed actors, including militia groups and paramilitaries who employed terrorist tactics.[7]In certain cases, nonviolent action has thwarted ISIS aims in Syria and Iraq. For example, women’s-led protests in Raqqa, Syria, which is ISIS’de-facto capital, resulted in the release of political prisoners.[8]  The prisoner release happened afterwomen carried signs and demonstrated outside ISIS’s offices, denouncing their tactics as anti-Islamic. 

In Iraq, ISIS’ attempted demolition of the Minaret Mosque in Mosul was thwarted when the adherents of a popular imam surrounded the mosque, locked arms, and refused to leave until ISIS’ demolition unit left.[9] There have also been a number of documented cases of individuals defecting from ISISin Iraq and Syria, after concluding that the resistance was not as advertised.[10] Working with and through defectors and their families, and amplifying their voices, is one of the most powerful nonviolent tools in the fight against extremist groups.  

Collective non-cooperation was also used effectively against al-Shabaab militants. In 2015, after a group of al-Shabaab boarded a passenger bus in northern Kenya containing mostly Muslim and Christian women, they demanded that the Christians separate from the Muslims. This was a tactic that the terrorist group had used repeatedly as a precursor to mass killings of Christians. This time, however, the women refused to obey orders. The women reportedly said, “you will kill us all or you will leave us all alone”.[11] Meanwhile, the Muslim women hid the Christians and put hijabs on their heads. The al-Shabaab fighters left without killing any women. 

This isolated incident demonstrates the power of collective stubbornness even when used against non-state actors known for their brutality. Realistically, however, direct confrontation with terrorist actors won’t work in many cases, particularly when attacks are imminent. In the case of the Yazidis, whom ISIS fighters have kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered since 2014 in what the UN referred to as “genocide”[12], nonviolent direct action by Yazidis is unlikely to stop the slaughter. 

Still, the strategic utility of identifying ISIS’ and other terrorist organizations’ sources of moral and material power and targeting them with collective nonviolent action remains relevant. This is particularly true in the case of ISIS, whose ultimate strategic goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate. This requires taking and holding territory, which, in turn, requires significant amounts of material and human recourses to perform basic governance functions. ISIS relies on religious organizations, financial institutions, and businesses to provide the organization with goods and supplies. All of these institutions are potential targets of noncooperation. ISIS’ inability to provide basic services and governance could prove its Achilles heel, particularly if entire communities turn against them.  

To the extent that ISIS combines ideological indoctrination, terror, and a sophisticated bureaucracy to maintain total domination over populations, it resembles a totalitarian regime. In her extensive writings on totalitarianism, German philosopher Hannah Arendt concluded that the biggest threat to totalitarian regimes is autonomous, independent citizen activity. One form of self-organization is the ability of local communities to resolve disputes. In Iraq, a trained network of Iraqi facilitators successfully mediated a major dispute between Sunni and Shi’a tribes, divisions ISIS had exploited in its divide-and-rule reign of terror. The mediation effort that followed a 2014 ISIS-led massacre of Shi’ite military officers in Anbar provinceresulted in a mixed-sect group of tribal leaders publicly condemning retaliatory violence and agreeing to jointly facilitate the return of internally displaced Iraqis.[13] This was a successful, locally-led nonviolent intervention in a territory where ISIS wielded significant influence. 

Meanwhile, satire targeting the hypocrisy and immorality of ISIS actions has proliferated on Arab media outlets.[14] Such humor, when developed by respected Arab and Muslim leaders, challenges the legitimacy of ISIS words and deeds while breaking down the barriers of fear. Humor gives people (outside of ISIS-controlled areas) the means to dissent without directly challenging the terrorist organizations. Of course, those responsible for producing such programs are vulnerable to attacks, repression, or worse. Amplifying their voices and satirical talent in sensitive ways is a powerful form of nonviolent resistance to ISIS and other terrorist groups. 

Another nonviolent response includes developing effective counter-narratives to those of ISIS, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups. Such narratives, developed by respected local leaders, should recognize the legitimacy of fighting injustices and oppression while critiquing the futility of terrorist methods. A counter-narrative would emphasize an alternative method of struggle that has deep roots in Islam and has proven to be effective.[15] These include Egyptians’ nonviolent resistance to British colonizers in 1919, Palestinians’ mass nonviolent resistance during the first Intifada from 1987-90 which pressured the occupying power in unprecedented ways, the Sudanese people’s two successful nonviolent revolutions against military dictators in 1964 and 1985, and Tunisians’ successful ouster of an autocratic ruler in 2011, paving the way to a promising democratic transition. It is particularly important for youth to be exposed to this nonviolent history, so that it is possible to refute terrorist groups’ claims that violence is the only way to resist injustices and oppression. 


While there is no silver bullet solution to the scourge of global terrorism and violent extremism, there are nonviolent approaches that are both effective and exponentially less costly (in lives and treasure) than military responses. Supporting locally-led conflict resolution, investing in counter-narratives in media and educational systems, supporting nonviolent resistance to injustice, and bolstering the resilience and self-organization of local communities are a few possibilities. 

The final declaration of the April, 2016 Vatican-sponsored Conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace in Rome called for greater Church investment in practical tools and responses to prevent, mitigate and transform violent conflict.[16] The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, a project of Pax Christi International that grew out of that conference, is dedicated to that goal. Educational and training materials are now available in at least 55 languages.[17] The U.S. Institute of Peace, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Nonviolent Peaceforce, the American Friends Services Committee, and Christian Peacemakers Teams are organizations that specialize in nonviolent conflict transformation. Grassroots organizations like PaxChristi, Mercy Corps, Caritas Internationalis, and Catholic Relief Services are in a position to disseminate training and educational materials about nonviolent organizing in conflict zones around the world.  Through its advocacy and support for peacebuilding and social justice endeavors globally, the Catholic Church shepherds manifold moral and material resources to challenge the injustices that give rise to terrorism. By advocating for dignity, rights, peace and nonviolent resistance through its teachings, education, policy influence, and field-based programs, the Catholic Church can provide concrete ways to dissolve terrorism at its roots.

[1] “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace,” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace, 1 January 2017.

[2] James Fallows, “On the Impossibility of Fighting ISIS,” The Atlantic, February

[3] http://www.iustitiaetpax.va/content/giustiziaepace/en/social-magisterium/wdp/nonviolence–a-style-for-politics-for-peace—message-for-the-50.html

[4] Mercy Corps, “Injustice, not Unemployment, a Key Driver of Youth Participation in Violence,” 17 February 2015.

[5] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press, 2011.

[6]Maria J. Stephan, “Civil Resistance vs. ISIS”, Journal of Resistance Studies, Vol 1, Number 2, 2015. 

[7] Oliver Kaplan, Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves, Cambridge University Press, 2017. 

[8] Julia Taleb, “From Assad to ISIS, a Tale of Syrian Resistance,” Waging Nonviolence, August 22, 2014. 

[9] Maria J. Stephan, “Resisting ISIS,” Sojourners, April 2015.  

[10] Kimiko De Fraytas-Tamura, “ISIS Defectors Reveal Disillusionment,” New York Times, 20 September 2015. 

[11] BBC, “Kenyan Muslims Shield Christians in Mandera Bus Attack,” December 21, 2015. 

[12] Patrick Wintour, “UN Condemns ISIS Genocide Against Yazidis in Iraq and Syria,” The Guardian, 16 June 2016. 

[13] Viola Gienger, “In the Shadow of a Massacre, a Peaceful Return in Iraq,” U.S. Institute of Peace Olive Branch, July 16, 2015.

[14] Associated Press, “One Weapon Against ISIS Brutality Emerges in Arab World: Satire,” September 1, 2014.

[15] Maria J. Stephan (Editor), Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[16]Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” April 2016.

[17] See, for example, the resource libraries of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (www.nonviolent-conflict.org) and the Albert Einstein Institution (www.aeinstein.org). 

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