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Is There a Nonviolent Response to ISIS?

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Alarm and outrage has been growing over the mounting humanitarian crisis in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Christians in the region are being forced to convert, pay tribute or die as the al Qaeda-breakaway group sweeps into predominantly Christian villages and Hamlets in Iraq, sending tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. Other non-Muslim groups, in particular the Yazidi, who practice a faith that predates Islam, are reportedly considered as infidels by the fanatic Islamic State and targeted for extermination in what many are calling a genocide. The UN is still gathering numbers but it believes that hundreds of Yazidis have been killed while others, primarily women, have been abducted and taken into slavery. Around 40,000 Yazidis have fled into the mountains of Northwest Iraq where they face the prospect of starvation on mountain or massacre by the Islamic State militants below.

The news is devastating and overwhelming. The suffering and acts of brutal violence staggers the imagination. What would a nonviolent response look like?

Traditionally the question has been to ask under what circumstances war and violence are "justified." From such questions comes what is known as Just War criteria. The problem is that Just War often focuses on justifying violence, when what we should be focusing on is asking how we can work to reduce violence in our world, rather than justifying it.

On the flip side are those who argue for pacifism, taking the stance that they cannot participate in war or killing, regardless of the consequences. However, in light of what is happening in Iraq it is understandable that many insist that we have a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable from harm, and cannot simply stand idly by with a clean conscience while others suffer.

Let me therefore begin by saying that I agree that we cannot stand by and do nothing. The practice of nonviolence and enemy-love cannot entail accepting abuse. It cannot entail neglecting to protect ourselves or our loved-ones from harm. This is where we must begin. The goal of nonviolence is to stop violence and abuse, not tolerate it.

What's crucial to understand is that nonviolence is not simply a refusal to add to harm (whether that harm is physical or spiritual/emotional), but more importantly it involves acting to restore, heal, and make things right. So in the case of the Islamic State, the question we need to ask is: What can we do to make things right? What can we do to protect the vulnerable? What can we do to stop the violence?

Jeremy Courtney, who started the hashtag #WeAreN -- which became a symbol rallying cry worldwide for Christians to express their solidarity with their brothers and sisters in suffering Iraq -- had this to say in an interview with with Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Rauschenbush:

We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.

The fact is, there may not be a good short-term solution to a situation that has gotten so out of hand that people are describing it in terms of Frankenstein monster, but what we need to face is our complicity in creating that monster. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. Violence does not stop violence, instead it causes it to escalate like a wildfire burning out of control.

So what can we do? In some ways, the situation is perhaps comparable to a person who has been chain-smoking for 50 years, and is diagnosed with stage-four terminal cancer who asks how doctors can help them. The answer is: They probably can't at this late stage. That does not mean that medicine does not work, it means it needs to begin earlier. If we truly wish to find a way out of the escalating cycle of violence we are caught in, we need to start at the roots and we need to think long-term. We need to deal with our complicity in creating the mess, and work towards making it right. Not with bombs and drone strikes, but by working long-term towards humanitarian goals such healthcare, poverty, and education which work to create stable and safe societies.

So thinking long-term, what can we do to prevent the next ISIS or al Qaeda from being born out of the soil of violence? Erin Niemela proposes these three commonsense pathways to peace:

1) Immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties. This is the easiest of the three. Ten years of terrorism-making and we still think our guns aren't going to fall into the "wrong" hands? The hands they fall into are already "wrong." If you need a good example, take a look at our darlings, the Free Syrian Army, and their blatant human rights violations, such as using child soldiers, documented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 and 2014.

2) Fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged. In his 2004 book, Nonviolent Response to Terrorism, Tom Hastings, Ed.D., professor of conflict resolution at Portland State University, questions: "What if the terrorists - or the population base from which they draw - had enough of life's necessities? What if they had secure jobs, decent living standards, drinkable water and healthy food for their children? Do we seriously think they would provide a recruiting base for terrorism?"

ISIS gained some of its current strength from economically providing for the families of fallen fighters, promising education to young boys (and then handing each a weapon), and capitalizing on grief and anger in Syrian communities. If we want to weaken ISIS and any other group engaging in terrorist activities, we have to start focusing on the needs they fill in those communities. Local communities in the region should be self-sustainable and civilians should feel empowered to provide for themselves and their families without taking up arms or using violence.

3) Fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left - give them whatever support is needed the most. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, in their 2011 groundbreaking study on civil resistance, "Why Civil Resistance Works," found that "between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts." In addition, successful nonviolent resistance campaigns are less likely to descend into civil war and more likely to achieve democratic goals.

We should have fully supported the nonviolent Syrian revolution when we had the chance. Instead, we gave legitimacy to the violent rebel factions -- those same groups now fighting alongside al Qaeda and ISIS. If we send our unconditional support to whatever nonviolent civil society actors are left on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we might just find that the best remedy for terrorists has been right in front of us the entire time -- civil society.

As Niemela concludes, these above three steps represent a sensible path to decreasing hostilities, preventing the emergence of new terrorism recruiting environments, and empowering local communities to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution strategies. This is not to categorically rule out the use of violence in the short-term, although we certainly do need to be careful that in using violence we do not act to make things worse than they are. The U.S. has begun sending heavy weapons to Iraqi Kurds to fight the Islamic State, uncritically repeating its longstanding policy of arming groups that often become the terrorists of tomorrow (it's worth noting the irony that the reason the U.S. needs to arm the Iraqi Kurds is because the Islamic State is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it).

Thinking in the long-term however, it is high time that we explored other options, rather than repeating and cheer-leading for the mantra of the war-culture of our country that violence is the only option, the only response to evil. It's time that we all became aware of other solutions to resolving conflict besides immediately and only resorting to violence, and calling that "good."

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Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod and on Facebook