Martin, Mandela and the Mahatma in Tahrir Square

The two most astonishing features of the altogether astonishing Tahrir Square uprising, as well as of the protests it has catalyzed around the region, are the role of the Internet and the prevalence of non-violence. I want to suggest these two characteristics of the new Middle Eastern street politics that once would have been considered wholly atypical and utterly improbable are closely related. In combination they smash the stereotypes about Islam and the Arab street as being preternaturally inclined both to anti-modernism and to violence.

Keep in mind this was not a secular uprising. Muslims protected Christians and Christians Muslims as they prayed. The suicide bombers notwithstanding, Islam is no more inherently violent than Christianity. Just as Christianity -- the Crusades and the Inquisition aside -- afforded reasons to Martin Luther King to resist segregation peacefully, Islam affords reasons to Muslims to struggle for freedom non-violently. The very term jihad, though it has been hijacked by warriors, has non-violent inflections focused on a struggle for purity and spiritual clarity. Anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood led some American politicians to malign the initial protest, forgetting not just that the uprising was about much more than the Brotherhood, but that the Brotherhood had itself eschewed violence for decades.

The Brotherhood is the least of it. The lion's share of credit for non-violence goes to the young, educated acolytes of modernity -- note I say modernity, not secularism -- who were comfortable with technology and the uses of civic speech and hence seemingly immune to the seductions of violence, even when violence was thrust upon them by secret police hooligans. These young men and women were non-violent by demeanor and upbringing, pacifists by education and inclination. The web has many defects, but it kills (if at all) only metaphorically. Virtual violence is an oxymoron. Netizens have little choice but to use their words, and Cairo saw what may be the first netizen revolution. As if Google executive Wael Ghonim, who organized the early protests online before being arrested, was channeling Howard Dean channeling Nelson Mandela.

None of it was easy. Non-violence is by no means an obvious tactic in the Middle East where the authoritarian rulers are themselves so comfortable with violence. In Tahrir Square, the restraint of the demonstrators was matched (or perhaps reciprocated) by that of the Army. But in other countries like Bahrain, Yemen and Iran, demonstrations have been met with deadly force, yet without luring resisters across the threshold of violence. A matter of prudence? To be sure. Insurgents are outgunned and outmanned by the military and police forces of the repressive autocracies they oppose, and they know it. But the commitment to non-violence has been proactive not reactive, a decision to make peaceful street politics a form of revolution. This civic restraint bodes well for the future of the insurgents as they work to organize parties, establish bottom-up civic institutions and make themselves into responsible citizens.

I wrote last week that protesters make revolutions but only citizens can make a democracy. I also wrote that making a revolution is one way of acquiring civic experience. What I failed to write is that making a revolution non-violently is already a powerful and mature civic act -- that netizens have a head start on the road to citizenship. If democracy is defined by the power of words over brute force, a revolution resting on words is far more likely to issue in democracy than one resting on force (Paris in 1789, Moscow in 1917 demonstrate the point).

Not to say there will be no blood spilled by demonstrators in one or another Middle Eastern city in the coming weeks. Yet the courageous women and men who faced down President Mubarak with the cry "peaceful! peaceful!" on their lips, proved there is an alternative. They will now have to show a similar restrain in facing down the military regime that has replaced Mubarak and that may or may not really want to grease the way to popular sovereignty. But they are clearly not alone. If they walk with Abraham and Mohammad, whose spirit invigorates their righteousness, they also walk with Martin, Mandela and the Mahatma, who help steer them to the path of non-violent resistance.

The new Muslim netizens who are making a new politics in the Arab street still have a great deal to learn about what it takes to make a democracy. Their success is by no means assured. But they also have shown they have something to teach the old democracies in Washington, London and Paris, whose own democratic revolutions were marked by costly civil strife and violence, and who still imagine today that the only way to bring democracy to nations like Iraq and Afghanistan is through invasion, war and occupation.