THE BLOG
07/31/2013 11:43 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

The M.B. on the Edmund Pettus Bridge

The mounting carnage in Egypt is alarming, especially given the role of the army and its purported mandate to protect the country from terror. But the gory details that assail the eyes of even the most casual observer don't seem to produce enough international outrage to stem the killing. This is almost certainly connected with the identity of most of the victims: Morsi supporters who hail from or sympathize with Islamist ideals and movements. While not all of Egypt's Islamists support Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, they are all viewed through a prism that casts them as hate-filled, hell-bent purveyors of violence. As such, few are able to see them as innocent victims of violence. And even fewer are able to recognize, let alone empathize with, the human tragedy they now confront.

To make matters worse, the Muslim Brotherhood is poorly positioned to do anything about the situation. As one analyst pointed out, "They can't really resort to violence. They don't have a militia and it runs against all their rhetoric and recent history." They are clearly in a desperate situation. And as desperate times are known to bring about desperate measures, one can only cringe at the thought of where this situation might be going.

But this might also be a singular opportunity for the Brotherhood -- and Islamic movements in general. This might be their biggest chance to change their image and deny their opponents the uncritically assumed moral superiority of their anti-Islamist animus. By refusing to meet violence with violence, they might be able to throw their attackers off balance, force them to face their prejudice and cause them thus to lose moral confidence in the righteousness of their cause. MLK characterized this non-violent approach as "moral jiu jitsu," and he gave a vivid example of it in his depiction of a 1963 march in Alabama: "Bull Connor's men, their deadly hoses poised for action, stood facing the marchers. The marchers, many of them on their knees, stared back, unafraid and unmoving. Slowly the Negroes stood up and began to advance. Connor's men, as though hypnotized fell back, their hoses sagging uselessly in their hands while several hundred Negroes marched past them without further interference." For King, non-violence actually demanded a kind of courage routinely lacking in violent protesters: a unilateral willingness to lay down one's life. Its successful execution required attacks by whites, non-retaliation by blacks, full media-coverage and subsequent national outrage, all of which would ultimately lead to government action.

This strategy was on clear display on "Bloody Sunday," March 7th 1965, on Alabama's famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. In fact, many have attributed the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act soon thereafter to the moral victory won by despised, persecuted blacks that day. Can the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters find in the events and aftermath of Bloody Sunday an appropriate and effective response to the massacre of "Bloody Friday" on Cairo's 6th of October Bridge?

Of course, this is Islam, not Christianity. And given the identity of most of the fallen and the gruesomeness of their deaths, this turn-the-other-cheek mentality will likely rub many Islamists the wrong way. But as the famed Abu Hamid al-Ghazali once reminded us, "There is no god but God and Jesus is His messenger," is an authentic expression of Islam, even if it does not capture its fullness. Likewise, to recognize non-violence as an authentic expression of Islam is not to claim that it captures its fullness. Meanwhile, it must certainly be significant that the Prophet Muhammad chose non-violence over violence in his confrontation with the Meccans when they refused to allow him to make pilgrimage. And it was the peace-treaty that resulted from this confrontation that the Quran is said to refer to as a "manifest victory."

Clearly, Islamist movements of all stripes have a global image-problem. And this may be, ironically, their moment of truth, their chance to put into practice -- and reap the benefits -- of what years of experience have taught them: violence is a means, not an end, and not always the most effective means at that. As one of the men convicted in the assassination of Anwar Sadat declared decades later from his jail cell, even as he remained a staunch advocate of the Islamist cause, "non-violence may now be the greatest source of Islam's strategic power and among the most important means of advancing the Islamic awakening." Of course, given the bitterness of the circumstances on the ground in Egypt and the seeming erosion of its "cohesive sentiment," this is all much more easily said than done. In the end, therefore, one can only wonder -- and worryingly so -- if this opportunity for the Brotherhood and its supporters to practice and benefit from non-violent moral jiu jitsu will ever return, should their ongoing afflictions push them to reject it today.