BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — Resistance is not a band of armed men hell-bent on wreaking havoc. It is not a cell of terrorists scheming on ways to detonate buildings. Resistance is a culture — a collective retort to oppression. Understanding the nature of resistance is not easy. Even if a newsbyte could explain why a people resists, it would directly clash with mainstream interpretations of violence and nonviolent resistance.
The Afghanistan story must remain committed to the same language: al-Qaida and the Taliban. Lebanon must be represented in terms of a menacing Iran-backed Hezbollah. The Palestinian territory’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 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 the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Thus certain ideas are perpetuated: suicide bombings bad, nonviolent 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 reductionist 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 nonviolent resistance; no, Hamas is not affiliated with al-Qaida; no, Hezbollah 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 how to suppress their resistance.
By resistance as a culture, I am referring to 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 nonviolent methods, whether to target civilians, whether to conspire with foreign elements are all purely strategic. They are hardly of direct relevance to the concept of resistance itself.
If resistance is “the action of opposing something that you disapprove of 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 other 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.
Here is how I tried to explain the first Palestinian uprising (1987), which I lived through 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 passes through time and space; its rather a culmination of experiences that unite the individual to the collective, their conscious and subconscious, their relationships with their immediate and not-so-immediate surroundings, all colliding and exploding into a fury that cannot be suppressed” (from “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”).
Foreign occupiers tend to fight popular resistance by including a varied amount of violence to disorient a nation and then rebuild it to a desired image (read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”). Another strategy is to weaken the components that give a culture its identity and inner strengths, thus defusing the culture’s ability to resist. The former requires firepower, while the latter is achieved by soft means of control.
Many Third World nations that boast of sovereignty and independence might in fact be 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 might effectively be occupied, yet often possess a culture of resistance that makes it impossible for their occupiers to achieve any of their desired objectives.
In Gaza, while the media speaks endlessly of rockets and Israeli security, debating who is really responsible for holding Palestinians in the strip hostage, no heed is paid to the children living in tents by the ruins of homes they lost in the last 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. While I have yet to see Afghan children’s scrapbooks, I can easily imagine their content, too.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story,” now available at Amazon.com.