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ISIS: Nonviolent resistance?

Anything sound familiar to the recent grumblings about war? Most of Congress appears to simply be debating the parameters of an AUMF rather than alternatives. 

After 7 months of bombing, 1) recruitment has increased significantly, 2) blowback is spreading, and 3) we are becoming less and less attentive to human dignity and the value of life, as we waive our human rights laws restricting who we give military aid to, and as we drop our “near certainty” standard for ensuring civilians are not harmed by our bombing. 

I along with many other religious leaders have identified specific ways to engage this conflict, including a recent webinar and action alert. Members of ISIS are still human beings. I want to focus on a key method which is not getting adequate congressional debate, and should become a central part of the overall strategy.

Nonviolent Resistance

Research shows that nonviolent resistance can be effective even against the most ruthless, because it doesn’t necessarily require the oppressor(s) to have a “change of heart.” Not only is nonviolent resistance over 2x’s more successful than violent revolution, it is also much more likely than armed resistance (10x’s or higher) to cultivate a society that can form a durable democracy.

We need to provide funding and training for local civil society actors so they may decide what tactics would most likely be effective and illuminate human dignity. It will be incredibly challenging, as some dissenters have already been killed. But there is hope as Iraqi and Syrian civil society groups have already built a base of such strategic actions, ex. local ceasefires even with ISIS, on which to build.

Some general examples of tactics could be:

a.      Diminish human resources: This could include local efforts to encourage people not to join ISIS and to offer opportunities to have their needs, such as jobs, education, respect for religion, political influence, trauma healing, adventure, etc., met in other ways. This could also include creating lines of communication with members of ISIS at various levels in order to build relationships that can lean members toward lowering their support or leaving ISIS to get their needs met in other ways. For example, many former Baath party members or Sunni’s have particular needs, such as a job, respect for religion, political inclusion, trauma healing, social reconciliation, which could be better met outside of ISIS. The reality is that lines of communication have already been happening but in a minimal and peripheral way.  

b.     Diminish human persons with key skills/knowledge: This would be a more focused effort on peeling away persons within ISIS who have key skills, such as Baath leaders, technology experts, financing experts, mobilizing experts, outreach experts, women, etc.  

c.      Diminish their capacity for sanctions: This would include local direct engagement with armed police or soldiers in ISIS to continuously encourage them to harm less as a way to better maintain their order. They fear losing control, so initially there needs to be willingness to work within the system to defuse this fear and thus the hostility. This could also include creating neighborhood monitoring teams as an alternative that ISIS may permit and which would gradually lower the harm done to persons in the community, and thus, creating more operating space for civil society to organize. 

d.     Diminish the intangibles: This could include acknowledging legitimate grievances and trauma that many in ISIS have, but also challenging the elements of their narrative that are incorrect. For instance, this could include the use of Islam, the unsustainability of violent revolution and control, and their treatment of women and other minorities. Providing educational material, social media, and key thinkers to influence key actors within and around ISIS would be examples. 

e.      Diminish material resources: When the timing is right and the locals decide, it could include strategically delaying payment, paying only a portion of payment of any tax/fee to the oppressor. Locals could also restrict their labor and consumption to disrupt ISIS’s economic levers of power. The international community should continue and increase efforts to stop the flow of money to ISIS, particularly those buying oil from them.     

See here for a broader list of 198 methods, such as alternative institutions and dispersed disruptions, which are spelled out in the longer version.

Broad or limited war is not the only relevant debate, nor our best options. ISIS remain human beings and we need to respond in a more effective, healthy, and humanizing way, less we repeat the damage of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs.

McCarthy is director of Justice and Peace at the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.


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