Seeking alternatives: Are nonviolent responses to terrorism possible?

By Jenn Wiebe, director of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office

MCC through long-time partner EYN (Church of the Brethren) in Jos, Nigeria, provided a relief distribution of food and clothing to displaced people from northeastern Nigeria. Over 400 people were able to run to Jos with the clothes they were wearing when the Boko Haram entered their communities burning and killing. These people found refuge with relatives and friends who are connected to the EYN church in Jos. Up to 35 people were squatting with any one family placing a real burden on the hosts. (MCC Photo/Dave Klassen) Background The EYN Church is located in the three states of Nigeria where the federal government has called for a “state of emergency” (May 2013) due to the increasing activities of destruction of the terrorist group, the Boko Haram – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States. According to a report delivered to CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria) on 29 Sept 2014 by EYN President, Rev Samuel Dali (“Newsline Special: ‘EYN is severely damaged’ Nigerian Brethren leader reports”, Church of the Brethren Newsline (29 Sept 2014), accessed 10 Oct 2014): 26 out of the 50 EYN District Church Councils, together with its 156 local church council or parishes, have been closed down. 70 out of the 156 local church councils and 21 local church branches have been burnt down completely. In addition over 2,287 houses belonging to our members have been burnt down included their properties such as food stuff. Also, we have on record: over 3,038 of our members have so far been killed and 8 pastors were also killed. In addition, 180 of our members have been kidnapped including a pastor and pregnant wife of another pastor with three of her children were kidnapped.  	It may also interest you to know that 178 out of the total Chibok school girls that were kidnapped are children of EYN members. As a result of this mayhem, 280 of our pastors and evangelists are now displaced without work and any sources of income to feed their families. Also, 96,000 of our members including women and children have been displaced from their ancestral native lands. The displaced members are now homeless, living as refugees in Cameroon and other parts of some States like Taraba, Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi, Plateau, Nasarawa and Abuja. 	Working through EYN LCC (Local Church Counsel) Jos, some 387 of these displaced people have been identified, living with approximately 33 household units of family and friends spread among the 6 EYN LCCs in Jos and Bauchi. The numbers of people living “squatting” with one host family range from one to 35 persons, averaging over 11 guests per host family. 	These displaced people, who are Christians (EYN, COCIN) and Muslims, ran from communities in the northeast due to the Boko Haram atrocities that were being committed. The majority were attacked in their communities and ran with a sense of urgency and desperation. Their possessions, clothing and food were left behind and will have been burned or looted. They do not have access to their homes because the insurgents are still there and will have occupied the houses that have not been destroyed. Returning is uncertain and may never happen. 	Some have been fleeing for the last 2-3 months. They thought they would be safe in neighboring villages but when these were attacked, they had to flee again. When attacks take place the displaced people will flee to neighboring communities and will be absorbed into the homes of others who were not affected. Some live in primary schools. Some take up shelter in abandoned houses or sheds. Most will have lost their homes, their food stocks (which they had planned to feed their families until harvest at the end of November), and other bare personal possessions. 	These displaced people will become an added burden on these other communities who will not be in a position to support the added demands for an extended period. New attacks on these host communities compound the suffering as the hosts themselves become displaced and they flee together. 	Some fled from communities to Yola and used public transport to transport themselves. There were many who fled at the same time so the transporters took advantage of their desperation and overcharged them, causing even more desperation and need when they finally arrived in Jos. Upon arrival in Jos, they were assisted by their relatives and friends as these host families were able, but that assistance was limited due to the limited capacity of the hosts. People have been arriving in Jos as families and at times in groups from the same communities. Jos is experiencing relative peace at the moment so they felt secure in this environment. 	The EYN Church is the largest Church in the areas affected by the activities of the Boko Haram, so even though they do not feel that they are targeted as a church, because the Boko Haram do target Christians, they claim to feel it the most. Other churches – COCIN, LCCN (Lutheran) and the Roman Catholics – have also been seriously hit. The EYN Church has traditionally been a rural church so because the Boko Haram predominantly operate in rural areas, the EYN churches have been hit badly.

This group of Nigerian women and children were displaced from their homes in 2014 when the extremist group Boko Haram entered their communities, burning and killing. MCC, though long-time partner EYN (Church of the Brethren), was able to provide a relief distribution of food and clothing. (MCC Photo/Dave Klassen)

We live in a context of growing fear—fear about terrorism.

Few terms have so furtively made their way into our daily discourse. Yet while the specter of terrorism has gained a sense of urgency in our homes, churches, and communities, most of us have only a vague impression of what it is.

The term “terrorism” has been used in distinct ways throughout the centuries to describe a wide range of actions and actors. First popularized during the French Revolution (1793-94) when it was used (rather positively, I might add!) to describe the methods wielded by the revolutionary state, the term “terrorism” has since shifted to describe actions against the government (such as the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s), and, more recently, nebulous movements that have political causes and networks beyond national borders (such as al Qaeda and ISIS).

Despite decades of formal attempts through the United Nations and other bodies, the international community has failed to come to a consensus on a universal definition for the word “terrorism.” Indeed, shifting terminology—such as “insurgency,” “terrorism,” and “violent extremism”—identifies the complex challenge of violence today.[1]

While there is no consensus definition, however, virtually all experts point to two identifying components of “terrorism:” the targeting of civilians and the cultivation of fear. One basic definition suggests that terrorism is violence motivated by political, social or religious ideology and used to invoke fear and bring about change.[2]

What can people of peace do to respond?

PSP cover

Packet especially for Peace Sunday and useful anytime.

MCC has once again produced a resource intended to assist Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations across Canada as they plan for Peace Sunday on November 8, 2015. Entitled “Crossing to the other side: Living as people of peace in a time of fear and terror,” this year’s Peace Sunday Packet does not provide easy answers to the complex questions of our time. But it does invite congregations and other groups engage in worship, reflection, and conversation about what a hopeful peace church response in a time of fear and terror might look like.

But are nonviolent responses to terrorism possible?

Beyond the worship resources and stories provided in the Peace Sunday Packet itself, we are also offering some suggestions for alternatives to violence. While not constituting an exhaustive list, these suggestions may provide a starting place for individuals, organizations, and churches to start thinking about nonviolent responses to the fear that terrorism creates:

  • Understand the root causes of terrorism: Seriously examining what terrorist groups are saying and doing—their histories, motivations, how they interpret and apply their ideas, what tools they use for recruitment, etc.—is vitally important work. Understanding the causes of violent extremism is the first step towards effective intervention, and critical to ensuring we do not respond in ways that make matters worse in the long-term. Read more (see p. 2)…
  • Support initiatives that restrict the flow of weapons: Given the ways in which widespread availability of arms serves to multiply the force of terrorist organizations, it is crucial that the international community stop flooding conflict zones with cheap weapons that only serve to fuel violence and prolong human suffering. Read more (see p. 3)…
  • Encourage inclusive political dialogue: Understandably, governments often are hesitant to engage in dialogue with terrorist groups for fear that doing so will serve to condone extremist positions and legitimize their tactics. As many experts are recognizing, however, talking to insurgent groups or terrorist organizations is not the same thing as agreeing with their aims. More to the point, dialogue is often necessary for achieving long-term peace. Read more (see p. 4)…
  • Invest in local peacebuilding initiatives: At a grassroots level, preventing violent extremism and building local peace requires addressing the push-pull factors that drive individuals to participate. In addition, community-based initiatives that mitigate and resolve inter-religious conflict, increase social cohesion, and enhance ethnic and religious tolerance are also vital for countering extremist ideology and fostering long-term peace. Read more (see. p. 5)…
  • Build relationships with the “Other” here at home:People concerned with peacebuilding can reach out in friendship to Muslim neighbours and other newcomers, contact local associations to learn more about their work; create forums for inter-religious dialogue our own communities; visit local mosques to learn about their faith practices; and work in partnership for common goals. Read more (see p. 6)…
Jennifer Wiebe, director of MCC Canada's Ottawa office.

Jennifer Wiebe, director of MCC Canada’s Ottawa office.

For the full Peace Sunday Packet, related stories, and this full supplementary analysis, check out MCC Canada’s Peace Sunday 2015 page.

 Lisa Schirch—Research Professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and Director of Human Security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding—describes these terms as follows: “insurgency” is an armed rebellion against a state or international authority such as the UN; “terrorism” is a tactic used by non-state insurgent groups or by states themselves; and “violent extremism” is a contagious, global movement that may have insurgent and terrorist characteristics. Schirch, Lisa, “Peacebuilding Approaches to Violent Extremism,” (2015 Draft). Forthcoming publication.

[2] Hoffman, Bruce, “Chapter 1: Defining Terrorism,” Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, New York: 1998).