With the rise of Isis in the Middle East, what do pacifists make of the situation? Should foreign governments stop their force, or is such activity necessary for future peace? Feminist researcher and writer Cynthia Cockburn considers the dilemma

By the time Hitler attacked Austria in early 1938, the membership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was already deep in disagreement as to appropriate, and effective, strategies against such armed aggression. The dilemma had already been sharply posed by Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1934, and Japan’s incursion into China in 1937.

From its ninth Congress in 1937 WILPF had issued a statement that recognised the situation as involving aggressors and victims. Notwithstanding, it affirmed ‘neutrality’, and stated a ‘firm and uncompromising’ position against arming or financing either side. Instead it urged that ‘every moral, diplomatic, political and economic means – except a food blockade – be applied to the aggressor’. But what, exactly, many WILPFers were asking themselves, does that mean? Do we suppose that a reasoned appeal will succeed? Do we urge negotiation, and if so with what incentives? Should we call for sanctions – an oil embargo for instance?

Then came the Munich conference of September 1938, at which Neville Chamberlain, on Britain’s behalf, concurred in Hitler’s annexation of a slice of Czechoslovakia. Some WILPF members proclaimed Chamberlain’s concession ‘a chance for peace’, others called it ‘a sham peace’. On 1 September 1939 Germany proved the latter right by invading Poland, the Munich agreement was torn up, and France and Britain declared war. Qualified and unqualified pacifism remained locked in struggle, equally impotent. All that remained to WILPFers for the duration of the war was humanitarian work with refugees.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the word ‘fascism’ is current again. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (Isis) that now controls a large swathe of Iraq and Syria is increasingly perceived by those who oppose it, including many Muslims, as something more than a mere terrorist militia. Many are characterising it as neo-fascism, citing its moral authoritarianism, ideological supremacism and apparent intention to exterminate certain culturally-defined categories of people. They suggest, too, that Isis’s proclaimed intention to conquer the world and install a Caliphate invites a comparison with the Nazi project.

“Bombing Isis has clearly not been a solution. It’s reproducing a cycle of violence and preventing serious consideration of non-military means.”

With the 1930s pacifist dilemma in mind, I took the opportunity, at WILPF’s Congress in The Hague in May, to ask some current members what they see as appropriate and effective responses to Isis.

There is already external military intervention in the conflict. Iran and its ally Hezbollah have armed forces in the region. The US, besides using its influence to strengthen the Iraqi army, began air strikes against IS in August 2014. The Kurdish fighting units, the peshmerga, of northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria, together with others sent across the Turkish border by the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) are engaging Isis in ground battles.

In Rojava, in northern-eastern Syria, a Kurd-led semi-autonomous region is evolving, administered on lines of ‘democratic confederalism’, reflecting the political theory of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Rojava’s peshmerga, the People’s Protection Units, have two elements – the YPG, male fighters, and the YPJ units, comprised solely of women, under female command. The women peshmerga are particularly motivated to rescue the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yazidi and other minority women captured and enslaved by Isis. Through my links with their supporters in Roj Women, the Kurdish women’s association in London, I have learned that they feel that they cannot hope to prevail against Isis unless its armed vehicles and heavy weaponry are destroyed by US air strikes.

So in my questions to WILPF women I hoped to discover how qualified and unqualified pacifism is expressed today. Would there be more agreement, this time round? I asked them: what would you say to the governments currently taking military action against Isis? Persist or stop? And what would you say to the Kurdish women peshmerga? We support your campaign? Or lay down your arms?

Two of the WILPFers I spoke with were born to families living under Nazism in the 1930s. Edith Ballantyne was born in 1922 in the German-speaking area of Czechoslovakia. She was a teenager when it was annexed by Hitler. Her family felt bitterly betrayed by Britain’s concessions at Munich. Luckily they were able to escape the region, to spend the war years as refugees. Inge Stemmler was born in 1930s Germany to parents who were strongly anti-fascist. The family fled to the Netherlands, but of course did not thereby escape Hitler’s war machine.

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So when Inge says, of Isis, ‘this is fascism’, her conviction comes from experience. She is acutely aware of the persistence of fascism, and feels it important to name it as such, and to be always ready to resist it, by force of arms if necessary. She now believes the US bombing should continue “until they have finished the job”. She says, “Sometimes, you have to fight. It is important that Isis be stopped.”

Edith, for her part, is in no doubt that Nazism could not have been defeated without fighting. But she feels differently about the US military intervention against Isis. In the case of Iraq and Syria today, she believes, “Although it’s a situation where military action makes sense, bombing isn’t the answer. Too much is being destroyed, including innocent lives.” Besides, she fears it will draw yet more young men to Islamist extremism. Rather, we should be looking for the root causes of the rise of Isis.

Like other women I spoke with this week, Edith has no doubt that the United States itself has helped create the phenomenon of armed Islamist extremism, by its manoeuvres to control Middle Eastern oil supplies, by invading and occupying Iraq, by its arms exports to the region, by its support for Israel and betrayal of Palestinians, and every step in its ‘war on terror’ since 9/11. So, Edith would say, rather than try and destroy Isis from the air, the US and its allies should be giving positive, but non-military, assistance to those opposing Isis, and working by all possible means for political unity.

Then I reminded Inge and Edith of the Kurdish peshmerga women who are soldiering on the ground, risking their lives every day, to rescue women captured by Isis and to prevent more falling into their hands. I ask her, “When they say, ‘But we need those air strikes!’, how would you answer them? Would you say, ‘Lay down your arms?’”

Edith thinks a moment, then replies, “I don’t think so. Sitting here safely outside the war zone, we should understand them, not condemn them. To resist is a human right. However, in the long run we should not accept that militarism is the only response. We should seriously begin to build peacemaking mechanisms.”

In reply to the same question, Inge says, “As a WILPFer I would like to speak with the peshmerga women, hear what they say. Fascism is so dirty. It’s like an octopus, getting its tentacles into society, its racist idea of the superiority of one kind of person over another. I might well agree, and say to the Kurdish women, ‘Yes, you have to fight’.” But, she goes on to surmise, perhaps when it’s over they themselves might look back on their campaign and say, “That was not the way to do it.”

“We should be looking for the root causes of the rise of Isis.”

A third WILPFer I spoke with in the course of the Congress was less than half the age of Edith and Inge. Laila Alodaat is newer to WILPF, one of the team of fulltime employees, with particular responsibility for crisis response and the League’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) programme. A Syrian, a lawyer, still engaged in practical work in her country as a WILPF representative, she is uncompromisingly pacifist. While vehemently opposed to Bashar Assad, she does not believe armed opposition is the solution to this devastating aggression. Syrian civilians were deceived into thinking that resorting to force will save them from extermination by Assad. Eventually their legitimate resistance was hijacked by possession of arms, with the result that many civilians were killed and others turned into warlords.

Similarly, Laila is unhesitating in condemning military intervention by the USA and its allies against Isis. “Bombing Isis,” she says, “has clearly not been a solution. It’s reproducing a cycle of violence and preventing serious consideration of non-military means of combating Isis. They should rethink their approach.”

She is convinced that Isis cannot be defeated by arms alone. She cites Iraq after the US invasion to prove that a military response serves only to perpetuate a culture of violence. Those who are bombing Isis now should make equal efforts, spend equal funds, she believes, on unarmed initiatives to combat this force.

Laila similarly would urge the Kurdish women peshmerga “to use the power they have to emphasise non-military means to ensure the freedom and wellbeing of civilians, women and men alike. And to create a space where women can be effective without having to take up arms.”

I was heartened and relieved to learn from Laila of many civil society groups in north-eastern Syria and neighbouring Iraq that are even now running effective humanitarian and human rights projects, despite the fighting. She herself is working closely with initiatives providing support for women, health and psycho-social care for survivors, and ensuring secular education for children.

Edith reminded me of the words in which British WILPF chairperson, Mrs. Barbara Duncan Harris, addressed the ‘pacifist dilemma’ in 1938. Writing to WILPF national sections, in the wake of Munich, she described pacifism as “the struggle for truth, the struggle for right, the struggle for clear political aims, for firm political will and action”. Pacifism is not, she believed, “the weak acceptance of fait accomplis achieved by brute force. Pacifism is a courageous initiative for a constructive policy of just peace.”

First published by Open Democracy

Photo title: A Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom meeting in Germany

Photo credit: © Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung