I still remember that sunny June morning when I sat transfixed in front of a television in the lobby of my hotel in Denver, Colorado. It was my cousin's wedding, but I could not get very excited about it, because on the hotel's giant projection television screen, was a young man, about my age, standing in front of a column of tanks, risking his life in defense of the non-violent struggle for democracy that had rocked China during the previous two months. I stood breathless, my body every bit as tense as when I'd find myself in the midst of violence in Baghdad or Gaza years later, until "Tank Man" was dragged away by onlookers from the main boulevard of Tiananmen Square.
The young man standing against those tanks (also known as the "Unkown Rebel" because his identity was never discovered) became a symbol for heroic non-violent protest in the face of extreme government oppression. In the United States, he inspired a generation of college students, like me, to become involved in organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and to use our education to work for peace, human rights and democracy across the globe.
But while I and millions of other Americans and Europeans hoped Tank Man's courage would spark a democratic transformation in China, in the Occupied Territories, which I would visit not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre, things looked quite different. Already in its second year, the Palestinian intifada had been marked by innumerable incidents that were equal in their bravery, and foolhardiness, to the actions of the young man in Beijing. Men and women, young and old, regularly stood in front of Israeli tanks and bulldozers that came to destroy their homes or orchards as part of the deepening Israeli occupation of the Territories.
Much of it was caught on film; some episodes were even broadcast on American television. Which is why my Palestinian friends didn't hold out much hope for China's Unknown Rebel. They knew exactly how events would play out. No matter how peaceful and courageous the protests, they almost never dissuaded the tanks and bulldozers from completing their tasks or crushing opposition to government policies.
While the Palestinian intifada was symbolized by the violent images of young men slinging stones at soldiers, it was for the most part a non-violent resistance, comprised of dozens of marches, sit-ins, strikes and similar acts of mass civil disobedience every day, that together fostered the emergence of what would become the Arab world's most advanced civil society.
Sadly, this dynamic would change as the uprising wore on. The lack of success from the largely non-violent strategies adopted by the intifada's leadership emboldened more militant groups, such as Hamas, to make violence (although not yet suicide bombings) the dominant method of resistance. This was precisely what Israel wanted, because it allowed the IDF to hit back with even more violence, beating the Palestinians into submission by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
At least in China, the death of the democracy movement was accompanied by a decade of economic and social opening. Realizing the precariousness of their position, the country's leaders embarked on a path of development that, whatever the environmental and social costs that have become apparent in recent years, brought hundreds of millions of people into the middle class while offering unprecedented personal and social freedom to the average Chinese citizen.
For their suffering during the intifada Palestinians got a peace process, Oslo, that only worsened their economic, territorial and political situation. The Muslim world at large saw continued authoritarianism, topped by unparalleled American power after the first Gulf War. In good measure -- but not solely -- feeding off this reality, globalized terrorism as epitomized by al-Qa'eda took root and and spread, weed-like, across the Muslim world and beyond.
At the same time as extremism grew, however, the image of Tank Man, and of the many brave Palestinian peace activists and Arab democracy activists who were standing up to the force of their rulers or occupiers inspired a generation of intellectuals and political activists to lay the foundation for the civil society movements across the Arab world. But it was hard to break the cycle of violence that took root in the failure of non-violence to achieve real change. As a senior Hamas official explained to me when I challenged him on the usefulness of terror as a method of ending the occupation, "We know the violence doesn't work, but we don't know how to stop." Nothing else worked, either.
Today, at a pivotal moment in the war on terror, the Buddhist monks of Myanmar provide a much needed example to the Muslim world of how concerted, well-organized non-violence can shake even the most despotic political system to its roots. Political and social activists across the Middle East are as inspired by the bravery of the red-robed monks as television-viewers in the U.S. or Europe. But equally important, they're waiting to see if the West actually does something more than offer empty words of support for the Burmese people in their time of suffering.
Unlike Islam, Americans and Europeans have few, if any, negative stereotypes to overcome when engaging the Buddhist world of Southeast Asia. If we can't translate sympathy into political action in Burma, if Chinese, Indian and European investors continue to scramble over the bodies of the hundreds (if not thousands) of dead protesters and President Bush once again backs enlightened rhetoric with toothless policies, what chance is there that the West, or the world more broadly, will do anything to support democracy or peace activists in Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine and other Muslim countries?
From his cave in the no-man's land of the Hindu Kush, Osama bin Laden is surely cheering on the generals in Rangoon. He knows that the monks are a far greater threat to al-Qa'eda than the CIA. Across the Middle East and Africa, al-Qa'eda is regrouping and growing, fed not merely by an irrational hatred of the United States and the West more broadly, but by the rational assessment by millions of Muslims that they will never win freedom or justice through non-violent means, because the world's powers will continue to put their economic and strategic interests -- which are tied to the existing system and its local leaders -- ahead of supporting the systemic transformation of the world's economy and political system that would be necessary to bring about real democracy and peace.
As so many Muslim friends have complained to me, "The U.S. talks the talk of supporting democracy and peace, but you never walk the walk." The Burmese monks are walking the talk, and in doing so offer a direct and poignant example to followers of Hamas and other militant Muslim groups that violence is not the only or even the best way to win freedom.
But they'll only succeed with our help. The question is, What are we, all of us, in Karachi and Dubai as well as London and Seattle, willing to sacrifice for the monks of Rangoon, and their comrades across the Muslim world? The fate of the war on terror depends in good measure on how we answer this question.