Palestinian Nonviolence: The January 2015 Peace Magazine Interview with Mubarak Awad

by Meir Amor

Meir Amor: About 15 years ago you and I had a discussion that was published in Peace Magazine. The editors of Peace think it would be good to have another talk. So let me ask you first: Does your approach to nonviolence have a religious basis? Do Jewish or Muslim religious authorities consider it compatible with their teachings?

Photo of Mubarak Awad, 2014, by Meir Amor; courtesy

Mubarak Awad: Personally, I do it from a Christian perspective. For me, it’s time for us all to learn not to kill or destroy. But I did not push that belief on any Israelis or any Muslims. However, I did study Islam and nonviolence a lot, and I thought it would be great to have a Muslim who was interested in nonviolence so we could have a strong campaign. At that time I was interested in Faisal Husseini (1), a great Muslim who believed in nonviolence. I bought a lot of books about a Muslim who had been with Gandhi — Abdul Ghaffer Khan (2), who said that Islam is a nonviolent religion. I was doing that because the majority of Palestinians are Muslim. We held conferences studying Islam and nonviolence — discussing what jihad really means and Sufism in Islam. Sufis are like the Quakers in Christianity; they believe in peace.

There are many Sufis in Islam, who accept the challenge of nonviolence. It’s a big struggle for them — not only between the Palestinians and Israelis or Arabs and Israelis, but also between themselves, for them to be nonviolent at home and active in nonviolence in their community. They can see that we human beings have brains, not just guns, and can resolve any conflict, however big, by debating, by forgiveness, by conciliation.

But in the past twenty years the world has moved toward radical religion in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. That allows a minority within each religion to start dictating what religion means in a fundamentalist way. Many Muslims want to go back to a caliphate or to Mohammed. Some of them want to be more fundamentalist or more conservative.

Amor: Does conservative also mean opposing nonviolence?

Awad: Yes. Being radical, insisting that Islam has to be exactly like the time of Mohammed, discriminating against women and against others who don’t believe in their tradition. They see killing as an honor instead of using an ethical or secular way of discussing issues within civil society.

Amor: Nonviolence has trouble, not only with the religious authorities, but also with existing political institutions. In Israel I’ve been advocating refusal to serve in the occupied territories, but it is a tiny group of people who do that. And within the Palestinian community too, there is political opposition to nonviolence.

Awad: In the past twenty years, to be fair to the Palestinians, nonviolent activities have increased, especially at the separation wall. Nearly every Friday a group meets, Israelis, Palestinians, and people from everywhere. They come and protest about the wall. But this nonviolence is by individuals. We don’t see thousands or millions of people coming together for it. We haven’t recognized the strength of nonviolence by a majority of the people who are willing to sacrifice.

Amor: Why is that? Why is it hard for Palestinians and Israelis to accept the nonviolence option?

Awad: Because they don’t see it as a way of life, or think that the government will listen to them and make changes. Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments are stuck in their way of thinking. Both of them think it is “not the right time” for it. And they both think nonviolence is a weakness.

Amor: When it comes to individuals, it seems that your approach to nonviolence is based on cooperation between “enemies” — that nonviolence requires a courageous, humanistic approach to cooperation across the lines, not only within your group.

Awad: Right. Look at what has happened. The Soviet Union is gone — nonviolently. We had the problem with South Africa; it’s gone—nonviolently. We had the Berlin Wall. It’s gone — nonviolently. We had the Catholic and Protestant fights in Northern Ireland. It’s gone — nonviolently. We had the civil rights movement against segregation in the United States. There are still difficulties in it but it’s gone. We have equal rights. So with any conflict, a time will come for it to solve itself. The question is how we can push it to solve itself without a lot of killing in the meantime. To have fewer people killed, fewer refugees, widows, and orphans.

Amor: But it is hard to transform a person from perceiving another as an enemy into perceiving him as cooperative. How do you do this?

Awad: A big example of that transformation is in Israel. Anybody who goes to Haifa can see that the Israelis and Palestinians live together with each other. They have Palestinian and Israeli policemen, judges, schools, everything. It’s a small area but it works. Unfortunately, it cannot work in Jerusalem because each religion there says, “God is on our side. God is ours, not theirs, and we have to ask our God to destroy them.” In Haifa they don’t have that notion, so it can happen.

Amor: I agree. I taught for two years at Haifa. I used to write in journals that Haifa University is the most Israeli-Palestinian university you can find. Half of my students were Palestinian (Israelis) and we had to understand the sensitivities.

Awad: I gave two lectures at Haifa University and they were full of students. I was impressed with them. They did not ask the weird questions that we are often hearing from both sides. They think in a positive way about how to live together. It was a great experience for me.

Amor: You have written that, “Nonviolence is non-acceptance of the authority of the subjugator.” You said that there is a need to overcome the fear of the subjugator. My question is, how do you teach political courage?

Awad: Recently I have been speaking with the leadership of Hamas about why Hamas has refused nonviolence. It has to do with ethics, with human rights, and with how they could approach the international community. For example, a Palestinian went to a synagogue in Jerusalem just a few weeks ago and killed someone. It would be good for Hamas to say, “We will not accept that.” That would help Hamas’s image with the international, the Jewish, and the Arab communities. Say that they are not interested in this killing — that there are other ways of dealing with problems.

Amor: Did they accept your opinion?

Awad: Yes. And regarding the Israelis, more than 75 percent of the Israelis at one time were accepting a two-state solution. Now I don’t know whether it reaches 20 percent. At one time they were in the streets asking for peace. Now it’s much less acceptable to ask the Palestinians for peace — to the point that it would be to the interest of the peace process to have a nonviolence centre in Tel Aviv, run by Israelis. The education would have to do with the Jewish concept of nonviolence. It would have nothing to do with religion but with Israeli ways of accepting peace, because people are only getting the army’s perspective.

Amor: War is managed by men. How does your nonviolent approach relate to the gender issue? Do women find it easier to do nonviolence?

Awad: It’s partly about equality. Men hide behind religion to oppress women. As long as we don’t have gender equality in the Knesset or Palestinian parliament, men will still dominate the whole arena. Even in a democracy such as the United States, it’s not fully democratic when there is not equality in the Senate and the House between men and women.

Amor: So the nonviolent approach is also feminist, calling for equality. Now let me ask you how you’d solve the refugee problem. That’s the heart of the problem between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

Awad: I don’t see it as much of a problem if you accept the two-state solution. Those Palestinians who lived in Palestine are welcome to come back. Those who want to stay where they are outside of Palestine, they should have the right to citizenship in any country where they are. They have to make that choice themselves. The Palestinians in Syria, Iraq, and other places where there is war, they need a place to call home. For them it has become a sacred question. That can be handled very well.

There is no way that Palestinians in the West Bank or in Gaza could destroy Israel — “push Israel into the sea.” Israel has all the power. They can move the United States in whatever direction they want, so Israel’s fear of us is not realistic. Don’t take the acceptance of refugees as a sign of weakness; take it as just something that will be accepted by Israelis and Palestinians alike. Somebody will also have to pay them and there’s a lot of money around to pay for houses or to move settlers from some areas. But in Jordan I don’t think more than 20 percent — maybe only five percent — of the refugees want to go to the West Bank or Gaza.

Amor: I say to my Israeli friends that we should address the refugees not as a threat but as a hope.

Awad: Yes, it’s a positive approach. If those people are welcomed, they will not fight against the people who welcome them.

Amor: You know there is a debate about the one-state or two-state solution, but it seems that the nonviolent approach is not only a peaceful and feminist approach but suggests that if there is a state at all, we have to share the place.

Awad: Yes, those people who were there in 1948, or who had difficulty (as I had when my father was killed when I was five years old), they are Palestinians. How can you make them feel at ease with their environment and with their neighbors? When I feel at ease, that nobody is going to harm me, then I can stretch my hand out to an Israeli. That’s no problem. But he has to accept my hand. And if both accept it, then we have to show that people can eat together, that what we both need is for our children and grandchildren to have a good society. Let’s work on it.

Amor: You mention South Africa. Some people, such as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, recommended ways of forgiveness and sharing. However, it seems that they did not actually do so much sharing, although they made significant efforts. Are elements of sharing necessary for achieving forgiveness and reconciliation?

Awad: Yes. It takes leadership to accept that challenge. Tutu is excellent in dealing with reconciliation. He’s a teacher. We have lots of Jews who have been helping in South Africa. They can help the Palestinians and Israelis. But peace will not happen all at once. In South Africa and the United States there are still problems.

Amor: Mainly on the issue of redistribution of resources?

Awad: Right. But nonviolence is mostly a spiritual attitude.

Amor: The late Professor Edward Said, in his book on the Palestinian question, cited Hannah Arendt on how the Jewish refugee issue was solved at the expense of creating refugees on the Palestinian side. In other places she writes about the inability of most people to deal with cohabitation. Your approach of nonviolence is infused with this notion of accepting cohabitation.

Awad: This is related to segregation in our education. Men and women are educated separately, Palestinians and Israelis are educated separately. We have no sports together, no activities together. I have a friend, Eddie Kaufman, who is a Zionist who comes to teach here [in Washington, D.C.]. He wants peace. When we bring his grandchildren and my grandchildren together, they play together and he says, “Look, they don’t understand that in a few years they will want to kill each other.” We put hatred in their minds.

Amor: About fifty percent of the Israeli Jewish population are Jews from Arab countries. Many of them became refugees as a result of the creation of the Jewish state and the conflict. And, in a strange twist, many of these people are seen as right-wingers, entrenched in opposing Palestinians. Tell me about the Palestinian approach to the issue of Jews who were moved out of Arab countries by Arab regimes — which in fact cooperated with the Israeli project of evacuating Jews who had lived in peace with Arabs for centuries. This complemented the Jewish project of pushing Arabs from Palestine instead of accepting their cohabitation. How do you view the dominance in Israel of Jews of European descent, and the subordination, not only of Palestinians, but also of Jews who came from Arab countries?

Awad: It is to the advantage of Arab countries to have Jews as neighbors and business people in their countries. They know then that there’s nothing imaginary about Jews. Here they are — human beings just like us. People have to know each other, shake hands, do business with each other. It would be to the advantage of those Arab countries to bring back more Jews. I was discussing this with Jewish groups in Morocco. They are Moroccan. They are happy there; they don’t feel discriminated against because of their religion. That’s fair. They can run for a position in the government. If they are qualified, why not?

In a village where the people are all of the same religion,
whoever comes to visit is a stranger.

Israel is making communication difficult between Palestinians and Israelis by building that wall, by not allowing Israelis to go to Bethlehem, Ramallah, or Gaza. Then it becomes, “Those people over there are devils.” That’s the danger — the danger of not knowing. In a village where the people are all of the same religion, whoever comes to visit is a stranger.

Amor: Recently there was an initiative in the Israeli government to disallow Arabic as a formal language of the state, though many Jews’ first language is Arabic. Politicians build walls but life builds bridges.

Awad: We have to continue supporting Israeli and Palestinian people to get together to push hard against unjust laws. The people can do it.

Amor: Dr. Awad, you are a humanist, a feminist, and a cosmopolitan. So your nonviolence is a very hopeful approach. Thank you.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Faisal Abdel Qader Husseini (1940-2001) was born in Baghdad during his family’s exile from Jerusalem. In 1944, the family moved to Mecca where they lived for a year and a half, and thence to Cairo where Faisal received his elementary and secondary education. In 1979, upon moving to Jerusalem, he co-founded the Arab Studies Society and in 1995 was given the Jerusalem Portfolio by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). A year later he was elected by the Palestinian National Council as a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO. He led nonviolent demonstrations to defend Holy Muslim sites such as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, and opposed settlements in Abu-Ghneim (a.k.a. Har Homa) and other areas. He founded Orient House in Jerusalem, effectively making it the functional Palestinian capital. He is buried beside his father and grandfather in Jerusalem, in the courtyard of Al-Haram Al-Sharif (The Temple Mount), one of the most sacred sites of Islam.

(2) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988), was a Pashtun, Muslim nonviolent activist against the rule of the British Raj, in the Northwest Frontier area that spans modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although the Pashtuns were considered among the most warlike peoples of the region, Khan was renowned for his unstinting support of Gandhi and Gandhian nonviolent resistance. He was nicknamed the “Frontier Gandhi” and founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement in 1929, whose success triggered a harsh crackdown and some of the most severe repression of the Indian independence movement. Khan did not support the splitting up of India, or the formation of a separate, Pakistan state. His career and influence remain controversial in modern Pakistan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mubarak Awad is Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. He is the Founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem, and was deported by the Israeli Supreme court in 1988 after being jailed for organizing nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. Dr. Awad has since formed Nonviolence International, which works with various movements and organizations across the globe, and is also the Founder and national President of the Youth Advocate Program, which provides alternative foster care and counseling to “at risk” youth and their families.

Meir Amor is an Israeli-Moroccan sociology professor teaching at Concordia University in Montreal. Article courtesy Peace Magazine (January-March 2015).

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi