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Professor Shares Theory on Political Violence

New book looks at why protest movements do or do not use violence

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January 4, 2012 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new book offers a provocative look at the history of the Palestinian National Movement to offer a theory about political violence that can apply to any movement. 

“Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement“ (Cambridge University Press, 2011), which was recently awarded “Foreign Policy Best of 2011 award -- Runner-up, Best Book on the Middle East,” examines why national or self-determination movements use violent or non-violent protest strategies and under what conditions.  

“When I looked at the Palestinian National Movement throughout history, I found times when Palestinians used non-violent protest. This reached its heights in the 1980s, for example,” said Wendy Pearlman, the Crown Junior Professor of Middle East Studies and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and author of the book. “At those times, they were united, and had strong leadership, organization and consensus on goals.”

But when the movement was most divided, with internal rivalries and institutions falling apart, protest was more likely to take a violent form, she said.   

The book gives a history of the Palestinian National Movement over 90 years, with its ups and downs and struggles with Israel. A work of political science, the book focuses on the relationship between internal unity and external strategy to offer a theory that can apply broadly to other nationalist and protest movements.  

“Movements must be internally cohesive in order to use non-violent protests, because nonviolence requires coordination and collective restraint that only a cohesive movement is able to provide,” Pearlman said. “On the flip side, the more that a movement is fragmented, the more likely that violence occurs.”

Below Pearlman continues the conversation about the book and the Palestinian National Movement with Hilary Hurd Anyaso, law and social sciences editor at Northwestern.

How does this book build on existing scholarship about national movements? 

There’s a large scholarly literature that tries to explain political violence. As I read these works, something struck me: many studies that ask why groups use violence do not ask why they do not instead use alternatives, such as non-violent protest. So I undertook to ask both questions together. I view violent and non-violent protest as two sides of the same coin and craft an argument that helps explain shifts between the two. That is one contribution that I’ve tried to make in this book.

I also found that many commentaries on conflict treat national movements or insurgent struggles as if they are unitary actors. People often say things like “Why do THE Kurds do this? Why do THE Shi’a of Iraq want that?” This views groups as if they were individuals, who have clear goals and make clear decisions to achieve them. But movements are much messier that that. They are collections of lots of different groups, with different agendas, strategies and competing ambitions. The degree to which movements reconcile those differences affects what they do in their conflict with an external adversary. This comes to light in the Palestinian case. You can’t understand the Palestinian struggle without taking seriously its domestic politics and its internal structure. 

Lastly, I wanted to examine the organizational influences on protest. We’re often quick to attribute political violence to culture, religion, fanaticism or stark calculations. It’s easy to overlook how the structure of political relationships within a movement also shapes the tactics it uses. I wanted to shine the spotlight on that factor. My book aims to retell the history of the Palestinian movement with a focus on the relationship between internal politics and external strategy. 

What would you say is the most misunderstood aspect regarding the Palestinian National Movement? 

I think people too rarely look at the Palestinian movement in its long historical context. People talk about what’s going on in the news now, responding to an event that just happened. It’s easy to forget that this is a national struggle that spanned nearly the whole 20th century. Its goal for self-determination has been thwarted again and again, and its internal structure has been shaped by those decades of struggle. You can’t understand why the Palestinians have certain political splits now, or why they use this or that strategy, unless you appreciate that historical context. That is why I chose to analyze the movement from 1918 until the present. I wanted to answer a pressing question that many people have about what they see in the news today, “Why do Palestinians use violent tactics or non-violent ones?” But I also wanted to show that people have been asking this question for nearly a century, and part of the answer lies in the past.

Topics: People