The Pacifist Dilemma: Women Peacemakers’ Responses to Islamic State

In American scholar Theodore Roszak’s wonderful fictional debate between Ghandi and Churchill, the British Prime Minister challenges Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence by asking him what one is to do when the enemy is at the gate. Gandhi’s response does not waver: the enemy was “the product of a long catalogue of vengeful and selfish actions” and nonviolent struggle will eventually bring victory.” But such conviction is difficult, and that is the pacifist dilemma that Cynthia Cockburn draws out in her interviews with peace activists from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in April 2015.


By the time Hitler attacked Austria in early 1938, the membership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 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 9th Congress in 1937 WILPF had issued a statement that recognized 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 (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Da’esh), 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 characterizing 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 Islamic State’s proclaimed intention to conquer the world and install a Caliphate invites a comparison with the Nazi project.

With the 1930s pacifist dilemma in mind, I took the opportunity, at WILPF’s Centenary Congress in The Hague last week, of asking some current members what they see as appropriate and effective responses to Islamic State. There is already external military intervention in the conflict (editor’s note: this does not yet include Russia, whose intervention begins in September). 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 Islamic State 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 IS. 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 IS 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 IS? 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.

So when Inge says, of Islamic State, ‘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. So now she believes the US bombing should continue ‘until they have finished the job’. She says, ‘Sometimes, you have to fight. It is important that Islamic State 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 Islamic State. 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 IS.

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 maneuvers 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 IS from the air, the USA and its allies should be giving positive, but non-military, assistance to those opposing IS, 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 Islamic State and to prevent more falling into their hands. When they say, ‘But we need those air strikes!’, how would you answer them? Would you say, ‘Lay down your arms?’

Edith thought a moment, then replied, ‘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 said, ‘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 went 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’.

A third Wilpfer I spoke with in the course of the Congress last week 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 Islamic State. ‘Bombing IS’, she says, ‘has clearly not been a solution. It’s reproducing a cycle of violence and preventing serious consideration of non-military means of combatting IS. They should rethink their approach.’ She is convinced that Islamic State 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 IS 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 emphasize 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.

We admire the lightly-armed peshmerga for their courage in facing Islamic State. But this kind of civil society activism in a war zone is courageous too. 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 faits accomplis achieved by brute force. Pacifism is courageous initiative for a constructive policy of just peace’.

Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer, living in London, associated as honorary professor with the Department of Sociology, City University London, and the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, Warwick University. Her most recent book is Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

, ,

One Response to The Pacifist Dilemma: Women Peacemakers’ Responses to Islamic State

  1. Lani Williams December 7, 2016 at 11:09 pm #

    I agree with Edith when she says “rather than try and destroy IS from the air, the USA and its allies should be giving positive, but non-military, assistance to those opposing IS, and working by all possible means for political unity.” And the next powerful thing said “sitting here safely outside the war zone, we should understand them,not condemn them”. Intriguing article

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes