The idea of violent resistance

Martin Kramer delivered this address on a panel on “The Idea of Violent Resistance,” at the University of Chicago’s International House on November 17, 2003. Co-panelists: Martha Nussbaum, Nathan Tarcov, and Paul Breslin. A report on the panel from the Chicago Maroon follows the text of the address. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

This past Saturday morning, suicide bombers attacked the two major synagogues in Istanbul as Jews were assembled for prayer. You have seen the details in the media: over twenty dead, several hundred wounded—a third of them Turkish Jews, two-thirds of them Turkish Muslims, although the Jews were obviously the prime target. We don’t yet know exactly who committed this act, but we can know one thing for certain: those who planned it and carried it out regarded it as a legitimate act of resistance, presumably against the U.S. and Israel.

How so? If you believe that the Jews of the world are loyal only to world Jewry; that their leaders plan the world policy of the Jews, as implemented by Israel and the United States; and that this Jewish-driven policy is directly responsible for the oppression of Palestinians, Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims—if you believe these things, what happened in Istanbul could well seem to you a form of legitimate resistance.

The assumptions I just cited are not at all rare. In fact, last spring, some professors on American campuses were insinuating these very things. The war to remove Saddam, they said, was being driven by a Likudnik cabal in Washington, acting on behalf of Israel. (Likudnik is a transparent codeword for Zionist American Jew.) It’s easy to see how some people in the Arab or Muslim world, overhearing this claim, might conclude that attacking synagoguges full of Jews—outposts of the cabal—could constitute legitimate resistance to Israeli or U.S. policies.

Now I imagine and assume that all of you would find the notion preposterous. But in some parts of the world, all of you would be in a clear minority. For example, even statesmen in these parts have been equivocal about what happened on Saturday. The Arab League secretary-general, Amr Musa, was quoted yesterday, to the effect that the Istanbul bombing was “unacceptable”—not reprehensible, or despicable, or barbaric, but “unacceptable”—and then he went on to add this: “Responsibility for all this comes back to Israeli policy.” If this is what the head of the League of Arab States is saying, imagine what is being said in coffee shops and mosques.

Now the word “resistance” is ubiquitous in the Middle East. The region, and particularly the Arab lands and Iran, constitute a zone that professes itself to be in continuous resistance. It resists Western hegemony; American power; consumer culture; Israel and Zionism; regime oppression; religious skepticism; the scientific spirit—I could go on and on. It’s a region that actively defines itself in terms of resistance. There is resistance in Lebanon, and there is resistance in Palestine, and now there is resistance in Iraq. In these places, it’s actually called resistance, or muqawama in Arabic, which usually refers to armed or violent resistance—to military occupation; elsewhere it’s called jihad, which can be parsed as resistance to the “enemies of God.” How are we to approach these many forms of resistance? Is all of it legitimate? Is none of it legitimate? Is some of it legitimate? Is some of it so illegitimate as to constitute terrorism, against which we are waging a war? And what are our criteria for making our determination?

There are three ways to approach the dilemma. The first is to assume a completely relativist position, and effectively endorse whatever is done in the name of a cause perceived as legitimate to be ipso facto legitimate. The pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has taken the position that “we recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggle.” Since the movement has never defined legitimate armed struggle, or never condemned any Palestinian armed act as illegitimate, and since its numerous spokespersons have said that the Palestinians have the right to resist in any way they deem appropriate, the ISM has effectively absolved any Palestinian for any act against any Israeli Jew. The International Solidarity Movement refuses to draw any lines for the Palestinians—this is its definition of solidarity, which is unquestioning. Having made just one moral choice against occupation, the ISM is on automatic pilot; it accepts whatever moral and strategic choices are made by any Palestinian decisionmaker, down to the Hamas cell leader preparing a suicide belt. After all, who are we to judge them? Who are we to impose our categories on them?

The second approach is to contextualize the violence in such a way as to legitimize it, or diminish its illegitimacy. This is what I would call the “yes, but” approach—yes, those who committed this particularly unsavory or indiscriminate act of violence crossed a line, but they were pushed or pulled across it. It’s not legitimate resistance, but it’s not terrorism either. There is a rule, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t apply to this special case, which is exceptional. There are many ways to contextualize violence or cast it as a legitimate exception; the usual one is to underline the violence or humiliation inflicted by the other side.

Academics can give this approach a very interesting twist. For example, there is a professor of cultural anthropology who has written an article for a scholarly journal on how suicide bombings in cafes are reported in the Israeli press. The article is sanitized of any mention of the blood and glass; it’s all post-modern analysis of the discourse of the Israeli daily press on the “emptiness” of public places created by fear, relating this to the “emptiness” of Palestine assumed by Zionism, etc. The ultimate point is to suggest that Israelis, by these bombings, have been denied their pursuit of leisure, whereas the Palestinians have been denied their very freedom. The whole purpose of this exegetical exercise is to diminish or mitigate the illegitimacy of suicide bombings of cafes and restaurants. And in case the point is missed, the author studiously avoids the word terrorism, instead calling the blowing up of cafes acts of Palestinian “militarism.” The author seems to be unconcerned that the semantic space of the word “militarism” is already occupied—the dictionaries already define it. But why submit to the hegemonic authority of Merriam-Webster, when you can make it all up to suit yourself?

The third approach is to try to formulate something which I would dare to call a standard—that is, a set of general principles, against which to measure and judge specific cases. This is the most rigorous of the three approaches. It doesn’t simply accept the other’s choices, like the relativist “solidarity” approach. It doesn’t treat its favorite case as unique, like the “yet, but” approach. It requires the full integration of moral, analytical, and political factors. It is a calculus. It shouldn’t be value-free, it can’t be culture-free, and it’s rarely interest-free. The extent to which such a standard becomes universal reflects the extent to which it appears to be one standard, as opposed to two or ten or a hundred.

The essence of this approach is that it distinguishes, in situations of conflict, between legitimate resistance and terrorism, and does so down the line, according to a set of coherent principles. That is, it acknowledges that while there is legitimate resistance, there is also illegitimate resistance, which is tantamount to terrorism. The core of that standard is self-evident to us. The experience of total war in this century has created a strong disposition in the West to affirm that it’s never legitimate to deliberately target non-combattants.

Now we’re painfully aware of the imperfection of this effort at consistency, and we understand that its achievement is ever a work-in-progress. But at least we attempt it. And now I come to the most controversial part of my presentation. The very discussion we’re conducting here, the striving for a universal standard, is a defining characteristic of the West and the parts of the world that have incorporated its values. In most of the Middle East, the discussion we’re having would be impossible to conduct on a public podium, and it wouldn’t matter. Because in this part of the world, there is only one approach to violence against the “other”: the “solidarity” approach. And because of that, because the Arab and Muslim world is retreating from its past moral, ethical, and legal engagement with the West, because it is even retreating from its own moral, ethical, and legal legacy, the scope of violence is expanding almost faster than we can document it. It’s not just that every form of resistance is evolving inexorably toward terrorism; it’s that this evolution can always find some justification from public figures, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders. People of this caliber, who act in our societies as brakes on the exercise of the almost limitless power we command, in those societies advocate the erasing of one red line after another.

Let me show how this works in the case of the suicide bombings. The first ones took place in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the most important were conducted by Hizbullah. Back then, I published an article called “The Moral Logic of Hizbullah,” in which I discussed the way Shiite jurists debated the permissibility of this tactic. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of debate over whether such acts constituted suicide, which is expressly forbidden in Islam. After considerable back and forth, it was deemed permissible, but only if it inflicted massive casualties on the enemy. When this couldn’t be guaranteed, the act was not permitted. And the operations were conducted only against occupying military forces in Lebanon.

After the successes registered by Hizbullah’s resistance against Israel, the Palestinians imitated the technique, but gave it a new dimension. Whereas Hizbullah was highly discriminating in going for “quality operations,” in their phrase, the Palestinians have essentially released a suicide human wave some 700 persons in three years. Almost all of them have bypassed Israeli military personnel in order to target non-combattants. In other words, the Palestinians took forward the precedents of Hizbullah, but crossed many of the red lines set by Hizbullah.

But the Palestinians, from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, did have their own red lines. They didn’t operate outside of Israel and the territories; and they made an effort, in their targeting, to kill primarily Jews.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have gone even further than the Palestinians. They’ve built on the Palestinian precedent of deliberately targeting non-combattants with suicide bombers. But they’ve erased two more red lines: they operate internationally, they’ve expanded the targeting to anyone anywhere, from office workers in Manhattan to tourists in Bali, and they are entirely indifferent to how many Africans they killed when they bomb two U.S. embassies in 1998, or how many Turks died when they bombed two synagogues, as happened this weekend. Indeed, to undermine a regime, as in Saudi Arabia, they are perfectly willing to bomb a residential compound full of Arabs, as they did two weeks ago. The debate I chronicled, less than twenty years ago, about whether a bomber detonating himself was a suicide or martyr, now looks quaint. Once there were qualms about the death of one Muslim in such bombings, the bomber himself. Now there are no qualms even about killing dozens more Muslims. It’s just “collateral damage.”

What is tragically obvious is that the Arab and Muslim world—its intellectuals, its philosophers, its poets, its politicians—don’t have the authority or the courage to stop this downward spiral into nihilism—a nihilism that accepts or contextualizes or legitimizes every form of violence that bombers produce. There are no brakes; this has become the heart of darkness, comparable in its despair to Europe in the 1930s, a part of the world that has progressively abandoned its own philosophical, historical, and religious concepts of the permissible and the forbidden.

Surely, you say, there is a great debate raging. I think you would be surprised to find how little debate there really has been, and how denial has come to replace it. 9/11 is a case in point. Instead of a debate, opinion rallied to this position: America certainly deserved it, though the innocents in the Twin Towers did not, but in any case none of us did it; it was a plot by the Mossad to discredit the Muslims. They do not debate or denounce the acts; they deny them.

Why is this happening? The slide towards nihilism, the prevalence of denial, are inseparable from post-colonial decay. Because masses of the disaffected have failed to find an avenue to modernity, they’re in a rage against its representatives. And there’s no one point from which to lever a change in this situation. It isn’t in a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the removal of Saddam, or regime change elsewhere. It’s a condition that’s endemic and profound.

Does that mean that there is nothing to be done, except to fight, as Yeats wrote in 1919, like “weasels in a hole”? Certainly there is a fight here: the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates won’t end in a peace agreement. Al-Qaeda has never made a demand, it’s following a path of jihad to erode and destroy the power of the West. There are some in Palestinian ranks, in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose declared goal is the erosion and destruction of Israel. Theirs isn’t resistance to occupation, it’s resistance to Israel’s existence. In these cases, there must be a fight.

But parallel with that battle, there’s a struggle for hearts and minds. We’re losing that battle in part because there are those among us who have accepted the redefinition of legitimate resistance made by the planners of suicide bombings. There are those among us who, rather than adhere to a definition of terror that emerges from our own terrible history, are willing to accept one that accommodates theirs. There are those who, in the name of the right to resistance, are prepared to accept a double standard, or to say that they have cultural norms that diverge from ours, and that must be respected.

Now there is nothing static about cultures, and certainly not in the way they conceive force. American society, nearly sixty years ago, embraced the use of nuclear weapons against civilians as a shortcut to ending a war it was winning. That would be unthinkable today. Now we face societies that are abandoning their own traditional constraints, that are building intellectual constructs that will allow even more killing. Does anyone here doubt that the 9/11 hijackers, and the Palestinian suicide bombers, would use weapons of mass destruction if they had them? We have entered a very dangerous moment. But there is nothing inevitable about the slide toward an Armageddon in the name of resistance; and that slide needs to be resisted—yes, resisted especially by those of you who share the political aspirations of these peoples.

Let me give an example of how that could be done. In July 2002, Amnesty International issued a report entitled “Without Distinction: Attacks on Civilians by Palestinian Armed Groups.” The report noted that Amnesty had made many criticisms of Israeli policy over the years, and it noted the right of peoples to struggle against foreign occupation. But it then emphasized: “The attacks against civilians by Palestinian armed groups are widespread, systematic, and in pursuit of an explicit policy to attack civilians. They therefore constitute crimes against humanity under international law. They may also constitute war crimes, depending on the legal characterisation of the hostilities and the Palestinian armed groups under international humanitarian law.”

This is the message that has to go forth from those who see themselves as friends of these causes. Israel and the West do not lack outspoken domestic critics of the way they use force. This is not so on the other side of the divide. Those critics, who now lay low, have to be emboldened. That is best done by holding this part of the world to the minimal standard we would wish to see diffused through all humankind. Anything less will enshrine two different kinds of warfare as legitimate, establish two radically different codes of conduct. There have always been descrepancies of power among states, but that doesn’t mean that there should not be one code. Indeed, without one, we will soon find ourselves on an irrevocable course to a war of civilizations.

Here follows a news item entitled “Panel considers violent resistance,” by Isaac Wolf, Chicago Maroon, November 18, 2003.

In the last three years, international relations have been dominated by news of violent attacks related to the Muslim and Arab world: the continuous bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians; the explosive terror of 9/11; and the recent intensification of attacks on Western targets in Iraq.

On Monday, the moral implications of these acts were evaluated through the lens of academics, who drew on varied fields of expertise to explore recent developments in a panel discussion entitled, “The Idea of Violent Resistance.”

With special attention given to addressing the ethical question of suicide attacks on civilians in Israel, three of the four panel speakers elaborated on specific topics of theory and then teased out insights into the arena of current events.

The event drew a crowd of 300 students, professors and community members, with attendees spilling into the upper deck of the International House auditorium. Presented by the Student Committee on the Middle East, the lecture was co-sponsored by a broad base of student groups.

The first speaker was Martha Nussbaum, a professor in the Law School. She attempted to frame the current conception of international law in terms of the Western philosophical tradition. She drew first on Cicero, the Roman philosopher who espoused the view that acts of violence should exist solely in the framework of a long-term plan for peace.

“To assault someone aggressively is to treat them as a tool,” Nussbaum said with reference to Cicero.

Relating these ideas to the world’s present situation, Nussbaum said that few clear conclusions regarding the moral guidelines for violent resistance could be drawn from the canon of Western philosophy. One thing that can be said with clarity, Nussbaum said, is that civilians are being abused “in ways that threaten life.”

Nussbaum’s comments contrasted with those of Nathan Tarcov, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, who used the Declaration of Independence, a landmark document of resistance, as a baseline for discussion.

In his analysis of the Declaration, Tarcov balanced the idea that the document called for immediate action as a “fundamental statement of resistance” with its invocation of “prudent judgment.” He said that the Declaration embodies the notion that all people have the right to resistance, but it doesn’t demand that they actually act on that right.

Martin Kramer, the third speaker, repudiated the idea that violent attacks on civilians are legitimate. He rejected the relativism and contextualization that, he believes, often occur in the adjudication of violent attacks. To believe that the American or Israeli targets deserve to be bombed, he said, is to sincerely believe that the two nations are run by an “American Jewish cabal” of Likudniks that specifically dictate a policy of repression and hatred against Muslims and Arabs.

“All of you would find this notion preposterous,” he said. “But in some parts of the world, you would be the minority.”

Kramer then attempted to link the lack of public debate in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence, showing that a decrease of public discussion has created an environment ripe for attacks. He mentioned a case 20 years ago when Lebanese clerics debated the permissibility of suicide bombings, and said that this is a “debate the Palestinian resistance has not had.”

Kramer’s viewpoints were originally supposed to be refuted by Mark Wegner, a professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. But Wegner, citing personal reasons, did not speak on the panel, and was replaced by Northwestern University English professor Paul Breslin.

Breslin drew on his background in post-colonial theory to describe the work of Franz Fanon, the 20th-century writer who championed violence as a means of repelling colonialism and developing a new societal identity.

Rejecting the importance Fanon ascribed to violence, Breslin conceded that he could make little connection between the post-colonial theorists and the morality of violent resistance.

“Speaking as a human being to a group of human beings, there are different kinds of violence and these distinctions and circumstances matter,” he said.