Gandhi vs Terrorism – by Mark Juergensmeyer

A review of an article published in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 2007

This issue of Daedalus features a number of articles on violence and nonviolence with one by Mark Juergensmeyer dealing in particular with Gandhi’s approach. The author wrote in 1984 an inspiring book, Fighting with Gandhi: A Step-by-step Strategy for Resolving Everyday Conflicts, which was republished as a paperback in 2002. The book shows how one can redirect the focus of a fight from persons to principles, determine the truth of one’s position in an argument, cope with a recalcitrant opponent, use the power of noncooperation, and know when a conflict is truly resolved.

In the article Juergensmeyer deals with the attack by an Indian student Madan Lal Dhingra on a British official in London in 1909. Gandhi blamed not so much the act as the “mad idea” that lay behind it. The strategy for confronting terrorism should consist of the following elements: 

  1. Stop an act of violence in its tracks
  2. Address the issues behind the terrorism
  3. Maintain the moral high ground. 

The author then questions whether these principles do work and uses the case of Northern Ireland. The situation of the two parties were extreme and uncompromising yet ultimately they were able to break through this impasse by employing several basic nonviolent techniques. These were: 

  1. Seeing the other side’s point of view 
  2. Not responding to violence in kind 
  3. Letting moderate voices surface
  4. Isolating radical voices
  5. Setting up channels of communication. 

He concludes that at least in one case in recent political history terrorism has come to an end through nonviolent means. But he adds: is it reasonable to conclude that this approach could work in other situations? Could it work in Kashmir, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which might be more complex, and what about jihadi war? In the latter, positions have been magnified into a moral contest of such proportions that it has become a sacred struggle. Is a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution relevant to the global jihadi war?

Juergensmeyer returns to the three principles of Gandhi outlined in the second paragraph above. The idea of war suggests an absolutism of conflict where reason and negotiation have no place and where opponents are enemies. For Gandhi the means used to conduct a struggle must be consistent with the goals to be achieved.

Piet Dijkstra

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Categories: Reviews & Arts, Terrorism


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