Our Friend Gene Sharp: A Conversation with Jamila Raqib

For 17 years Jamila Raqib worked closely with the late political thinker Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of strategic nonviolent resistance and founder of the field. After Sharp’s death in January 2018, Jamila became director of the organization that he founded, the Albert Einstein Institution. Metta Spencer talked with her in November on Peace Magazine’s weekly Facebook show. This is an edited version of that conversation.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Jamila Raqib (interviewee)

SPENCER: Jamila, tell me about yourself. I hear that when you began working for Gene at age twenty you were skeptical about nonviolence.

RAQIB: Yes, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Afghanistan during the Soviet war when I was four. I was taught, as people in most societies are, that violence is the most powerful thing that you can do—that it might be terrible and undesirable, and destructive, but that it is necessary for so-called “good purposes.” I felt strongly that it’s not just a right but a responsibility to resist oppression using whatever means, including violence. Having personally experienced violence in war didn’t teach me that violence was wrong. It taught me that it was justified—destructive but justified. I was thinking a lot about these issues when I came to work for Gene as the person who oversaw the dissemination of his writings—including in translated form.

SPENCER: To translate into one of the Afghan languages?

RAQIB: No, I probably wouldn’t have been qualified to do that. He was particular about clarity. He and I came up with translation guidelines and I was hired to oversee the translators. There was a huge demand for the writings then and since then the demand has only increased. When I came on in 2002 the Internet was still new, so the writings were mostly distributed from activist to activist. From Dictatorship to Democracy is now in nearly forty languages.

SPENCER: In Poland in 1989 I talked to activists who had not been able to read Gandhi. I don’t think they even knew about Gene Sharp at that point, but they had seen the film Gandhi. They watched it over and over. That movie really changed the world. It informed the movements that took place in 1989 as communism was abandoned, and numerous nonviolent struggles that were elsewhere that year. Do you know how much was Gene Sharp’s influence and how much was shaped by the film?

RAQIB: No, but I was recently reviewing some of Gene’s handwritten notes from Tiananmen Square, where he was interviewing people in the days before the crackdown. He asked them: What resources are you using to figure out what to do? The film Gandhi was cited in that material.

SPENCER: I interviewed Gene for Peace Magazine shortly after Tiananmen Square. He’d been there a few hours before the massacre. The young people had tried a hunger strike, not only refusing food but any liquid. Of course, that meant that it didn’t last very long. He came back resolved to get information translated into Chinese and distributed there.

RAQIB: Yes, he said about Tiananmen, that although people had acted with great bravery, they didn’t have access to good information.

And that led to the tragic consequences. Much of our Chinese-language material was developed in recent years. Self-Liberation, and the accompanying readings of 900 pages, were translated by a Taiwanese group and brought to China in PDF format. In fact, there are a number of people serving very hefty jail sentences in China for distributing five books, three of them by Gene.

SPENCER: During the coup against Gorbachev, Gene was influential. A woman told me that they didn’t have photocopiers but they had fax, so they copied his “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” with the fax machines, and put them on telephone poles. They were quickly torn down, so they started putting them up in women’s washrooms. I also had a friend who was a member of the Moscow City Council. I had met him at one of Gene’s conferences. During the coup he walked in the streets, talking to the tank drivers, asking them not to attack.

RAQIB: Yes, that list of 198 methods of nonviolent action still gets the most attention. He started putting together that list in the 1950s and then published it in his 1973 book. People do like a good list! Gene’s list stopped at 198 methods, but potentially, there are thousands of methods.

SPENCER: We keep the list on the Peace Magazine website, along with some of the other key articles by or about Gene, such as one by Bob Helvey, whom I interviewed about the struggle in Burma.

I met Gene in Dubrovnik in about 1983. UNESCO had brought him and a number of other resource people for a two-week course. One was Narayan Desai, the son of Gandhi’s secretary. He’d been brought up as Gandhi’s grandchild. The people around him disagreed with Gene on one point. They regarded nonviolence as a spiritual matter, to be done from a “purified soul.” I think Gandhi actually underwent a period of self-examination before he’d lead a campaign, but here was Gene, saying: No, you don’t have to be a saint at all. You can be quite a bad person, in fact, and still use these methods.

RAQIB: Right. That debate has never ended. The idea that spiritual peace is a pre-requisite to using the technique is, in my mind, an obstacle. Gene discovered that nonviolent action could be used by people who didn’t share the same belief system, and initially he too considered this a liability. But he quickly came to see it as an opportunity.

My own path to this supports Gene’s view. My personal struggle to be a better person, a more spiritual person, is always in flux. It’s very personal for each of us. But being able to act with others for a particular objective, because I find an advantage to doing so, that I can do.

SPENCER: In fact, he said that sometimes people resort to nonviolent struggle just because they don’t have weapons. If they had them they would use them, so they can be surprised to find that nonviolence turns out to work better. As he put it, if you use violence against the power structure of your society, you’re picking the method where they possess all the advantages.

RAQIB: Yes, but nonviolent resistance is not just an alternative to violence. It’s also an alternative to doing nothing. Undeniably, some people use nonviolent means for spiritual reasons; they actually reject the use of violence because they believe it to be morally wrong. But to present that as a requirement is a problem. For an outsider to come in and tell others that violence is morally wrong is less compelling than for people to themselves understand that it’s a smarter way to conduct a struggle. We can divorce nonviolent action from “spiritual peace” in order to study how it works and how it can be applied as a political technique, rooted in an understanding of power and the matching of various capacities.

SPENCER: I was surprised once when Gene seemed to be distancing himself from peace activists. Maybe he was sort of joking momentarily, but he definitely had a point. He said that many peace activists just hate conflict, so they suppress it, whereas his work was to show people how to fight effectively. He mentioned having attended a meeting with some Quakers. A woman there exclaimed with indignation: “You’re just trying to take the violence out of war.” As if that’s a stupid thing to do! [We laugh.]

Well, yes, that’s the whole point! Can you fight a war without killing or injuring people? To her, the idea of fighting at all was anathema.

RAQIB: Yes, I’ve heard that story about “well, all you’re doing is taking the violence out of war.” And her idea was that it would be a bad thing! [We laugh.] It’s not about doing away with conflict. It’s about doing away with the destructiveness of war and violence. And increasingly people do understand that conflict itself is not necessarily undesirable. Anyway, it is inevitable, so we have to figure out how to wage it powerfully and without killing each other.

SPENCER: Gene began by writing a history of nonviolence and gradually he acquired a following. People would come asking how to overthrow their dictatorships. He never advised anyone whether to do something like that, but I did. There have been times when I’ve been impatient with people for failing to resist dictatorship. I now think that he was right and I was wrong. I shouldn’t tell people to do that. Anyway, he and the Albert Einstein Institution did become a main source of information about how to conduct civil resistance. He became famous in the late 1990s.

Since then there have been some real changes in public opinion about nonviolent struggle. My turning points followed the failed Arab Spring and the struggle in Burma. I had expected those movements to succeed but they didn’t. The action in Tahrir Square brought down Mubarak but failed because they had not planned the new democratic institutions.

I supposed that other people had also lost some faith in nonviolent action since the Arab Spring, but you say that Erica Chenoweth’s research proves that the desire for nonviolent resistance is continuing unabated?

RAQIB: Yes. the frequency of nonviolent action is increasing. There are more hits to our web site and requests for our material. People ask us: How does this process work in a democratic system? How can it be used against energy companies or to fight against climate degradation?

But we’re facing more sophisticated opponents who are using new means of repression to undermine these movements. The battlefield has changed, but the technique remains an effective way to wield power, provided that you think carefully and plan wisely. You need a strategy. You need to understand your society, your opponent, the availability of resources, and how to win over people to your movement. These basic principles remain as valid today as ever.

SPENCER: The book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, revealed new findings about the effectiveness of nonviolence.

RAQIB: Yes, they compared around 350 campaigns, both violent and nonviolent, as well as mixed campaigns, to see which type of action more often achieved their objectives.

The findings astonished people who believed in realpolitik.

SPENCER: Including Erica Chenoweth herself! She went into it not expecting to find out what she did.

RAQIB: Yes. They found that campaigns—whether violent or nonviolent—achieve their objectives about half the time. Many of them fail. But nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their objectives. And even the nonviolent campaigns that fail are more likely to result in a democratic society within five years.

SPENCER: And nonviolence is more effective because people just don’t want to get killed. The success or failure of the movement is determined mainly by the number of people who participate. If people know it’s going to stay nonviolent, they are more likely to show up. But unfortunately, things have changed. What was working so beautifully in the historical cases that Maria and Erica collected seems to be less successful nowadays.

RAQIB: Those of us working in this field are seeking to account for decrease in effectiveness. You’ve alluded to it. We see large scale mobilizations in the world without substantive achievements.

Massive numbers of regular citizens are highly dissatisfied and are making that dissatisfaction known, but their effectiveness is decreasing. There are two reasons that may be causing this. One is that the opponents are learning.

SPENCER: The bad guys are learning how to counteract what you’re doing?

RAQIB: Yes, they know more about how nonviolent resistance works then the opponents of the past. And they are much more proactive in learning to undermine these movements. They are using a variety of sophisticated techniques to do that, in addition to the technological monitoring of activists.

But the second reason we’re seeing this reduced effectiveness is due to people’s over-reliance on protests and demonstrations—large scale mobilizations without the institution-building and strengthening that is needed to enable movements to actually win. For many observers of the Arab Spring uprisings, just protesting in the streets somehow magically produced the outcomes we saw when in fact there was a lot of action, planning, and preparation, and other factors that the media failed to capture. It began long before the world started to pay attention.

If you look at the large scale mobilizations, like the World Cup protest or Occupy Wall Street, an observer would think that the huge numbers of people in the street would guarantee an impact. But in fact, opponents are very capable of withstanding such types of mobilizations. What’s actually needed is institution building, training, planning, and preparation. The successful movements of the past understood this well—that their effectiveness and ultimate success required time, resources, a structure for leadership, and a lot of expertise. Some movements bypass that now and the results are not good.

SPENCER: Bob Helvey uses the expression “having a vision of tomorrow,” meaning that before you start your action, you’d better consider what you’ll do afterward. You’d better consult the people who will be participating. You may need to create a new constitution and plan institutions. You need a consensus about the kind of society you are trying to build.

Actually—and I don’t even want to say this, Jamila—I’m not sure that even Gene Sharp himself paid enough attention to the preparations. When I interviewed Peter Ackerman a couple of years ago I began by sharing my new misgivings. I’d just been reconsidering whether just getting rid of a dictator is the real name of the game. In fact, I had decided that no, the Arab Spring had failed because people didn’t think through what they would do after Mubarak turned over the keys to the palace. When a dictator leaves, you’d need to have everybody ready to carry out the changes.

But when I spoke to Peter Ackerman, who was very much a follower of Gene Sharp in his thinking, he said something like: When we’ve ousted the dictator, we’ve done our job. I may be misrepresenting his ideas, but I think Gene Sharp had a similar attitude. I had asked Gene once whether to plan the next regime before starting a civil resistance movement against. As I recall, he said: No, that’s not my business. Please tell me that I’m wrong because that’s where I am hung up on that issue. Nowadays I consider it risky or even reckless to start a civil resistance movement without having planned for the subsequent changes.

RAQIB: From my conversations with Gene I recall two things. First, he said that effective nonviolent resistance requires institution building and strengthening. It requires an engaged civil society. So as a result, nonviolent resistance is more likely to produce a democratic society because people had become empowered in the course of struggle. And Gandhi said that as well. He said that if he was offered independence on a silver platter, he wouldn’t want it because people would remain as weak as they were before when dealing with future crises. So the idea is that nonviolent resistance, as opposed to war or terrorism, or some other type of political action, is inherently democratizing.

Gene’s second point was that nonviolent resistance is not a panacea to the world’s problems. It is a technique of struggle useful for particular objectives. It doesn’t solve every problem or produce perfect societies. No technique of struggle does that. So let’s be fair about the criteria we use for judging success and failure of some of the recent uprisings we’ve seen.

But the question of whether a movement should plan for what comes after a success is something Gene emphasized a lot. He said that the period of time following a revolution is a period of great uncertainty and that movements must be very careful that there is a plan in place to prevent a new dictator from taking power and “exchanging one set of shackles for another.” His publication Anti-coup is precisely about that—about how to strengthen governments and civil society groups to defeat and deter coups and other illegal takeovers of political power. It’s a clear message in Gene’s work but it has not been adequately followed.

SPENCER: Thanks for reminding me of that. I used to go to Russia often and tried to stimulate interest in nonviolent methods among my Russian friends who believe in democracy. They didn’t have much interest in it. They’d say: Russians have no experience with democracy and don’t know how to make it work. There’s no culture of decision-making by the population. If we got rid of Putin we’d just get an even worse guy tomorrow.

I didn’t listen to that argument much, but I now think there’s something to it. I remember speaking with Lyudmilla Alexeyeva in Moscow. She’s a human rights activist in her nineties who is a heroine of mine. She said: “Be more patient, Metta! It’s going to take time. When people have been in prison all their life and you let them out, they don’t know how to take care of themselves. It’s a terrible challenge. The government used to tell us what apartment we could have or what job, but suddenly Russians are responsible for making decisions about their own lives. Most don’t know how. It’s going to take us about fifteen years until we can actually have a working democracy.”

She said that about 15 years ago, unfortunately. Since then, I’ve started listening to the arguments against supporting “regime change,” which is what Gene Sharp had often been accused of doing. In fact, I’d been in favor of that. In this globalized world, we all have vital interests outside our own national borders, and I don’t believe that “sovereignty” is sacred.

But people have become more critical of that recently, largely because of Russia’s interference in the US election. Of course that’s wrong, but if the shoe were on the other foot I might not be as critical. So I think we have to figure out: What are the legitimate boundaries for people to try to exert influence in the political actions and decisions of another country?

RAQIB: Well, I am not a proponent of foreign interference, having come from a country that has had a very high level of it, very much to our detriment. All those countries and intelligence agencies have played a role in the mess in Afghanistan. My approach, and I think Gene Sharp’s, is that our responsibility is to develop this knowledge and make it as widely available as possible. We’re not prohibiting its use by anyone and not advocating its use by anyone either. We’re democratizing this knowledge so that people who need it have access to it—including people with whom we do not necessarily agree.

And another thing, Metta. We have to remember that democracy itself is also a process. Democracy here in the United States is backsliding. Democracy is only as good as our capacity to defend it. And our capacity to defend it really depends on understanding what our rights are and how we got them. They weren’t handed to us. People fought for them. So how can we defend them?

SPENCER: If we could continue this conversation for another hour, I’d discuss something else that bothers me more and more. I have to admit that democracy is not working—and maybe not just momentarily. Maybe democratic decision-making does not reliably produce the best decisions. What if, fundamentally, the citizenry just cannot make optimum decisions? What are our options then? I still want to believe in democracy, but what do we need to keep and what has to be fixed? Is there a special role for expertise? Some people do know more than others.

I hate to take this thought seriously, but I have to compare what is happening in the US today with China, which is absolutely not democratic whatsoever. There’s a series of articles right now in the New York Times about our assumption that China will stumble and fall in this ongoing transformation. In fact, they’re still forging ahead, developing just fine, whereas we expected them to run into great difficulty because of lacking democracy. What do we make of that?

I would never have broached this concern with Gene Sharp and I didn’t even think about it in those days. I still don’t like to acknowledge it. But I guess voters can reach catastrophically bad decisions because democracy just doesn’t necessarily work well.

RAQIB: Well, Metta, I’m going to be really careful about concluding that what we’re seeing in the world today is a failure of democracy. I do see some very troubling trends but what we’re seeing isn’t a failure of democracy as a principle but rather a failure in what we’ve been led to believe is our own roles in that system of governance. For too long we viewed democracy as something our founding fathers bestowed on us and that we now can sit back and reap its benefits. But it was not a well-functioning democracy when they founded it and it is not one now. We’re fighting to improve it in the United States today. Large communities feel disenfranchised and helpless, but democracy is not just elections. It’s the existence of engaged citizenry, and in that way, I think we’ve dropped the ball.

SPENCER: Okay, forty-five percent of the American population supports Trump. The great majority of the Russian population supports Putin. And Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and even Italy today, all support policies that are colossally stupid. I don’t know what to make of those facts.

Something must be fixed, but I don’t have a clue what to do. You’re right. There are lots of other institutions besides voting that matter. The rule of law. Human rights. Especially civil society. Probably the way forward is to give civil society organizations more influence in decision-making, but I don’t know how to do that.

We’ve turned to the hardest issues as we neared the end of our conversation but I’d like to wind up on an upbeat note. So tell me about MIT. You have support from a lab there?

RAQIB: Yes, I’m still working with the Einstein Institution but I’m currently housed at the MIT Media Lab, where I’m developing a curriculum that builds on the existing material and resources by incorporating information and insight about how people are using nonviolent action around the world and steps that can increase effectiveness of today’s movements.

SPENCER: Wonderful. I wondered whether the Albert Einstein Institution would be able to survive Gene Sharp’s passing but evidently you’re on the way. Bless you and the entire institution.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2019

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2019, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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