The Strategic Value of Forgiveness

A version of this essay appeared recently in the Jerusalem Report on November 21, 2011.

The Arab Awakening is facing serious challenges, and some new strategic decisions are required that will end up being good for all the revolutionary movements afoot this year, in the Middle East, in Israel and beyond.

The essential point is this: The Arab Street has demonstrated incredible heroism and nonviolent principles in the face of torture and death, and even Libya began as a very peaceful revolution, even if Libyans felt at some point that they had no choice but to fight. This is a paradigm shift of ethical and political values that will be remembered for generations. It may also signify a broad-based Middle Eastern democratic shift.

The going is tough, however, because no revolution easily dislodges corrupt structures of power. The temptation is just too great for those immediately below the revolution’s chosen enemy, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, to pounce on the power vacuum. Sometimes those lying in wait to seize power are neighboring countries and empires.

How can the revolutionary crowd protect itself from this long-established historical danger to revolutions? The answer is simple: Gandhi-King-Mandela. All three great men, from widely diverse cultures, understood that national/cultural/economic revolutions are terrifying affairs for the majority of citizens, and especially for anyone who was doing reasonably well in the status quo ante. How then to move forward in a way that does not create a dangerous power vacuum? The answer is attainable steps toward freedom combined with positive vision, inclusion, and no demonization.

The Middle Eastern Awakening got the method right, which is nonviolent resistance. This is especially true in Tunisia and Egypt, whereas the level of murder faced by Libyans and Syrians would test any nonviolent movement’s resolve. Thousands of Arabs have remained peaceful in the face of massive abuses. But the stated goal should not be negative, the removal of dictators. The goals should be positive and inclusive: equality, freedom, with completely retrained police, courts, and military. The chant should not be ‘Assad Leave’ but about a peaceful, democratic Syria for all Syrians, combined with clear attainable demands.

History never ends well when the goal of a revolution is revenge. The crowd should be led, Gandhi-style, to nonviolent, non-cooperative steps that openly welcome all groups to become powerful. This is the only way to convince frightened minorities and privileged groups to join your cause and not be manipulated by corrupt forces. The more nonviolent the more power accrues to the people, the more positive the harder it is to attack as a threat.

There is one more element in the astonishing success of Gandhi/King/Mandela: love and forgiveness of adversaries. Nelson Mandela could have nationalized all the white wealth in South Africa but he did not. Mahatma Gandhi could have easily demonized the British in India but he did not. Martin Luther King had good reason to hate America but he loved it instead.

Forgiveness originates in spiritual traditions, but its strategic value is paramount. Love and forgiveness open a historical door through which everyone, no matter their cultural, economic or ethnic status, can walk through. This invitation to the future is vital to the arithmetic of social paradigm shifts and successful revolutions. We see in Egypt, for example, a dangerous possibility of a military and economic elite continuing the corrupt structures and merely changing those on top. This can be avoided by the crowds focusing on attainable goals, one at a time, showing their power and capacity for leadership, without attacks.

The Syrian revolution could focus on attainable goals, but with a message not of hate but of love. There needs to be a message of invitation to every minority, less of a focus on Assad (which every Alewite may feel is an attack on them personally) and more of a focus on specific goals: general strikes in every city in which snipers and tanks operate, for example, or a surrender of phones or products controlled by corruption. Negative messaging, unattainable goals, will only drive everyone into their corner of a civil war.

Why is this good for Jews and Israelis? Because a set of Middle Eastern revolutions that are focused on positive vision cannot be easily hijacked by the manipulative blaming of outsiders. The same can be said for why and how to avoid civil strife or civil war in Israel. The demonization of settlers by the Left, lumping them all as criminals burning the mosques, is misguided, as is the demonization of the Left. None of it bodes well for Israel’s future, but if everyone focuses on an inclusive vision of the future, it is more likely that the Israeli street, both Jewish and Arab, will lead the society in a better direction.

Positive vision in all the Middle Eastern revolutions leaves everyone safer from political and economic manipulation by extremists inside and outside their society, and makes the message of the revolution more enticing to the middle class – easier for everyone to support. This requires skills of self-control, anger management, and compromise; this is the stuff of coalition-building for a democratic future. This is what Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Bahrain and Iran, all need right now. If the messaging is radically inclusive, more consciously positive, but strategically non-cooperative and nonviolent, we will start to see the masses of citizens join in a decisive historical shift.


© Marc Gopin