Beyond Violence and Non-Violence: Resistance as a Culture

Resistance is not a band of armed men hell-bent on wreaking havoc. It is not a cell of terrorists scheming ways to detonate buildings.

True resistance is a culture.

It is a collective retort to oppression.

Understanding the real nature of resistance, however, is not easy. No newsbyte could be thorough enough to explain why people, as a people, resist. Even if such an arduous task were possible, the news might not want to convey it, as it would directly clash with mainstream interpretations of violence and non-violent resistance. The Afghanistan story must remain committed to the same language: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Lebanon must be represented in terms of a menacing Iran-backed Hizbullah. Palestine’s Hamas must be forever shown as a militant group sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state. Any attempt at offering an alternative reading is tantamount to sympathizing with terrorists and justifying violence.

The deliberate conflation and misuse of terminology has made it almost impossible to understand, and thus to actually resolve, bloody conflicts.

Even those who purport to sympathize with resisting nations often contribute to the confusion. Activists from Western countries tend to follow an academic comprehension of what is happening in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Thus certain ideas are perpetuated: suicide bombings bad, non-violent resistance good; Hamas rockets bad, slingshots good; armed resistance bad, vigils in front of Red Cross offices good. Many activists will quote Martin Luther King Jr., but not Malcolm X. They will infuse a selective understanding of Gandhi, but never of Guevara. This supposedly ‘strategic’ discourse has robbed many of what could be a precious understanding of resistance – as both concept and culture.

Between the reductionst mainstream understanding of resistance as violent and terrorist and the ‘alternative’ defacing of an inspiring and compelling cultural experience, resistance as a culture is lost. The two overriding definitions offer no more than narrow depictions. Both render those attempting to relay the viewpoint of the resisting culture as almost always on the defensive. Thus we repeatedly hear the same statements: no, we are not terrorists; no, we are not violent, we actually have a rich culture of non-violent resistance; no, Hamas is not affiliated with al-Qaeda; no, Hizbullah is not an Iranian agent. Ironically, Israeli writers, intellectuals and academicians own up to much less than their Palestinian counterparts, although the former tend to defend aggression and the latter defend, or at least try to explain their resistance to aggression. Also ironic is the fact that instead of seeking to understand why people resist, many wish to debate about how to suppress their resistance.

By resistance as a culture, I am referencing Edward Said’s elucidation of “culture (as) a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration.” When cultures resist, they don’t scheme and play politics. Nor do they sadistically brutalize. Their decisions as to whether to engage in armed struggle or to employ non-violent methods, whether to target civilians or not, whether to conspire with foreign elements or not are all purely strategic. They are hardly of direct relevance to the concept or resistance, itself. Mixing between the two suggests something manipulative or plain ignorant.

If resistance is “the action of opposing something that you disapprove or disagree with”, then a culture of resistance is what occurs when an entire culture reaches this collective decision to oppose that disagreeable element – often a foreign occupation. The decision is not a calculated one. It is engendered through a long process in which self-awareness, self-assertion, tradition, collective experiences, symbols and many more factors interact in specific ways. This might be new to the wealth of that culture’s past experiences, but it is very much an internal process. 

It’s almost like a chemical reaction, but even more complex since it isn’t always easy to separate its elements. Thus it is also not easy to fully comprehend, and, in the case of an invading army, it is not easily suppressed. This is how I tried to explain the first Palestinian uprising of 1987, which I lived in its entirely in Gaza:

It’s not easy to isolate specific dates and events that spark popular revolutions. Genuine collective rebellion cannot be rationalized though a coherent line of logic that elapses time and space; it’s rather a culmination of experiences that unite the individual to the collective, their conscious and subconscious, their relationships with their immediate surroundings and with that which is not so immediate, all colliding and exploding into a fury that cannot be suppressed. (My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story)

Foreign occupiers tend to fight popular resistance through several means. One includes a varied amount of violence aiming to disorient, destroy and rebuild a nation to any desired image (read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). Another strategy is to weaken the very components that give a culture its unique identity and inner strengths – and thus defuse the culture’s ability to resist. The former requires firepower, while the latter can be achieved through soft means of control. Many ‘third world’ nations that boast of their sovereignty and independence might, in fact, be very much occupied, but due to their fragmented and overpowered cultures – through globalization, for example – they are unable to comprehend the extent of their tragedy and dependency. Others, who might effectively be occupied, often possess a culture of resistance that makes it impossible for their occupiers to achieve any of their desired objectives.

In Gaza, Palestine, while the media speaks endlessly of rockets and Israeli security, and debates who is really responsible for holding Palestinians in the strip hostage, no heed is paid to the little children living in tents by the ruins of homes they lost in the latest Israeli onslaught. These kids participate in the same culture of resistance that Gaza has witnessed over the course of six decades. In their notebooks they draw fighters with guns, kids with slingshots, women with flags, as well as menacing Israeli tanks and warplanes, graves dotted with the word ‘martyr’, and destroyed homes. Throughout, the word ‘victory’ is persistently used.

When I was in Iraq, I witnessed a local version of these kids’ drawings. And while I have yet to see Afghani children’s scrapbooks, I can easily imagine their content too.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on July 16th, 2010 at 8:08am #

    The greatest resistance to the USrael in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic. Both Washington and Tel aviv claim Hamas and Hizbullah as “Iranian proxies”.

    Chomsky: The Iranian Threat

  2. Maien said on July 16th, 2010 at 9:08am #

    Resistance is a form of survival. When a body becomes infected (as earth has been) resistance does not guarantee survival. Cutting off the virus/rot/ ..from it’s own energy supply will help. This is happening. What remains to be seen is how much of this body will survive, after the current infection has been eliminated. After all, the infection has surfaced in nearly every part of the earth body.

  3. MichaelKenny said on July 16th, 2010 at 9:50am #

    There’s no reason to limit this to the Middle East. Even in what Americans still quaintly call “the West”, there is a long-standing culture of resistance. The Council of Europe, for example, has 48 members. 33 of them did not exist on 4 July 1776 and practically none of those has the same frontiers as then. 26 of them did not exist 100 years ago. 17 of them did not exist 25 years ago. And more states may yet emerge! All of that is the result of the inhabitants of those countries keeping their cultural identity alive over centuries. As always, it is not the Palestinians who are out of step with the rest of mankind!

  4. BartFargo said on July 16th, 2010 at 12:55pm #

    An excellent, forward thinking piece. If only politicians and the public would learn that understanding and respect do not equal sympathy and support. The violent/non-violent resistance distinction has been perpetuated, I believe, in part because once a resistance turns violent there is usually no going back. Of course few realize that resistance movements resort to violence usually only after being long-term victims of violence and oppression from the force they are resisting. The pen is mightier than the sword, but in these times too many are blind to the writing on the wall.

  5. Rehmat said on July 17th, 2010 at 5:51pm #

    Izzeldine: ‘I Shall Not Hate’

    Story of a Gaza doctor who cured thousands of Israeli Jew, who paid him back by killing his three young daughters and a niece.