Practical Pacifism: How We Defeat ISIL

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How can pacifists possibly defeat ISIL, the cruel Islamic State government that has taken violence to a horrifying new level in Iraq and Syria? This is the question we've been asked most urgently since we launched the fundraising drive for Pacifism21 three weeks ago.

We’re glad people are asking this question, because we have a great answer. How can pacifists defeat ISIL? Answer: carefully and slowly.

This response is sometimes met with howls of derision, possibly delivered at the level of a shout. "CAREFULLY AND SLOWLY? THEY ARE BEHEADING PEOPLE. DON’T YOU SEE HOW AWFUL THEY ARE?"

Yes, we see how awful they are, and we see that they are wearing black — evil! — and brandishing antique knives — barbaric! — and using social media to spread their message of hate — clever! Still, a pacifist will not tend to see ISIL as very different in kind from other military organizations. The evil of a military organization is measured not by the color of its clothing, its choice of weaponry and its marketing strategy, but rather by its actions.

In this sense, ISIL is a familiar kind of monster, and must be countered with a familiar approach: containment, infiltration, strategic planning, direct opposition. This is how smart non-pacifists (like many of our current world leaders, including US President Barack Obama) are combatting ISIL right now. Practical pacifists are likely to accept the sad truth that this frustrating but effective method is the best one available, and are likely to endorse it for lack of a better idea.

In other words, pacifists live in the real world, and make real world choices.

It’s weird that anyone would expect pacifists to have a miraculous solution to the problem of cruel organizations like ISIL. Pacifism is a powerful method, but not a magical one. How does a pacifist put on pants? One leg at a time, like anybody else.

Does this invalidate pacifism? Of course not. We see the difference when we look at the terrible decisions made by non-pacifists that empowered ISIL in the first place. ISIL was born in 2006 as the strongest surviving remnant of Saddam Hussein’s power base in Iraq, which had of course been removed from power by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the heavy-handed and badly misdirected response to Al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the United States.

Pacifists opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, of course, and here’s where we see the significant difference this philosophy can offer. Pacifism isn’t meant to be a form of military strategy, just as preventive medicine isn’t meant to be a form of surgery. Pacifism isn’t going to help win the current war, but it will help prevent the next war … and the ten or twenty or hundred or thousand wars that will follow the next war, just as the next war would follow directly from those that precede it.

How should the USA have responded to Al Qaeda’s 2001 invasion of Iraq? Carefully and slowly. Instead, in the years after September 11 2001 the stunned citizens of the United States of America tragically discovered just how weak, insipid and clueless its elected leadership was, as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld carried out a program of “bold, decisive action” that toppled Iraq’s Sunni-led government of Iraq and empowered its Shiite majority to form a new government, leaving a power vacuum among the Sunni base. The results include the breakup of civil society all over Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and the formation of ISIL.

It was during these years that a pacifist sensibility was most needed — and when a more comprehensive and vocal pacifist presence (like the organization we are working to build could have helped the most.

Pacifist voices were heard in 2003, but not loudly enough. By endorsing a strategy of hasty and openly aggressive intervention in foreign power struggles in 2003, the USA’s elected leaders did not act carefully and slowly. The result speaks for itself.

So: how do pacifists defeat ISIL today? Answer: Carefully and slowly. It won’t destroy our enemies quickly or easily, because pacifism is not a form of magic. But this approach will do a better job of destroying our enemies than any known alternatives, and it will avoid empowering the next army waiting in the wings.

Sometimes pacifism can’t offer a great answer, but only the best answer available. Paradoxically, these may be the times when this important philosophy can have the greatest impact on our future, and when it is needed the most.

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6 Responses to "Practical Pacifism: How We Defeat ISIL"

by Jim on

ISIL is the remnants of Hussein's govt, do you have a source for this? I don't mean to say you're wrong, I really have no clue on their genesis or of the bubbling cauldron that is Iraq's political scene. Other than an article in The Walrus by Patrick Graham ( which only gives impressions on where they are not how they got here), I'm finding very little written about them... probably because they're beheading journalists...

by Levi Asher on

Jim, I get my information secondhand just as you do, but I do think this explanation of ISIL's origin is generally considered reputable.

One thing seems clear: ISIL is strongly pro-Sunni and anti-Shiite, as Saddam Hussein's regime was as well. Whether ISIL has the same leaders I don't know, but ISIL does seem to represent the same populations.

Murder cannot bring peace. IS create violence for establishing Islam but In Islam murder is a sinful activity. We should need raise voice.

by Claudia on

Levi, I more or less agree with your analysis of how we botched up the intervention in Iraq under the Bush administration, killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were innocent victims, and don't even assume moral responsibility for this strategy. This did contribute to the formation of ISIL. But I don't think that pacifism is the right solution either, just as it wasn't in WWII. The truism about pacifism, in my mind, is "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

by Levi Asher on

Hi Claudia -- well, I'd like to discuss this further with you. I have a feeling that you are using the word "pacifism" to mean a rigid and strict belief system. I am using the word "pacifism" to indicate a broad and flexible set of practical approaches that have an excellent track record in the real world. I find it hard to believe that you would object to the idea of "pacifism" if you were using the word in the way I am suggesting it should be used.

As for World War Two, as I've said elsewhere, the main cause of World War Two was World War One. Many pacifist organizations and individuals tried their damnedest to stop the absolute disaster of World War One from happening, and in that sense, pacifism *was* the answer. By the time World War One was over, sadly, Europe was in such terrible shape that pacifism was no longer an option. We're trying to avoid repeating that mistake today in the Middle East.

by mnaz on

In many ways we just never stopped fighting the World Wars. The First begat the Second, which begat an age of almost continual global militarism and highly dangerous escalation in human capacity for mass-destruction. As we'd naturally expect, for such a sweeping phenomenon there are numerous causes to be identified-- everything from the rise of a large war-based economies, to Zionist beliefs concerning the Holy Land (this movement predated WW1 and 2, but only gained major steam post-WW2-- for obvious reasons), to the so-called "battle" between socialism and capitalism.

There is also the (self-perpetuating?) collective psychology or belief-matrix to consider as well-- a genuine BELIEF in war as not just a "necessary evil" at times, but simply GENETICALLY "WHO WE ARE," and not only that, but it's also an HONORABLE endeavor; it reaches near-religious stature at times. In the case of the USA and allies, also throw in American exceptionalism and the now globally-directed "manifest destiny" mindset.

What needs to happen is accelerated human evolution, with more of an eye toward collective versus individual survival. I'm not sure if the race can pull this off or not, because really, it will take some pretty significant changes. War needs to be phased out as a means of resolving world issues, mainly because more often than not it just doesn't resolve anything in the long run. Our population explosion also needs to slow down, and sustainable consumption of the planet's finite resources needs to come emphasized. Yeah, it's great if we "liberate" various economies to make them suitable for more efficient corporate extraction and consumerism (per the Reagan doctrine of several decades ago), but taken to extremes we end up with unsustainable planet rape. And religious belief needs to be ejected from politics altogether; it has no place there, especially fatalistic doctrines such as various End-of-Days schemes. The human race is far-removed from Biblical times; only the most universal truths need to survive.

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