Seeking alternatives: Are nonviolent responses to terrorism possible?
By Jenn Wiebe, director of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office
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.
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.
What can people of peace do to respond?
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)…
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.
 Hoffman, Bruce, “Chapter 1: Defining Terrorism,” Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, New York: 1998).