The Violence of Nonviolence

By Michael Barker
April 23, 2010

Academia can provide a vital service for anti-capitalist activism by helping generate the theory to inform revolutionary politics. However, at present the relationship between activists and academia is not as close as it ought to be. To be sure there are activist-scholars who work hard to bridge the artificial divide between the two groups, and likewise there are many hard-working activists striving to keep abreast of academia’s latest offerings, but a gap there is, nevertheless.

In this article I will argue that part of the reason for the problematic gulf that lies between academic researchers and the rest of the world owes much to the fact that too many ostensibly progressive scholars have been co-opted by liberal elites. The end result is that while such scholars are more than capable of documenting the violence of capital, they tend to overlook its flexibility, and willingness, to deploy nonviolence in the service of imperialism. Consequently their output offers false guidance to anti-capitalist activists, and unwittingly, may even serve to further undermine the public’s faith in their ability to eradicate systemic injustice. Tragically, in the case of academics whose scholarship deals with the history of nonviolent social change, the end result of such liberal anti-imperialism may actually promote more, not less, violence.

The output of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading Egyptian pro-democracy activist and a sociologist who holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship, is a case in point. Confusion however abounds, as illustrated by Rannie Amiri’s CounterPunch article, ‘Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim vs. the Ugly Dictator: A Dissident Voice Refuses to be Silenced’ (August 2008). Here we are led to believe that Ibrahim, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, is a progressive activist whose “scholarly and academic achievements are impressive.” Thus while I do not dispute that Ibrahim is a dedicated “human rights activist, democracy advocate and political dissident” this does not mean that his activism and scholarship necessarily forwards a progressive agenda.

In fact, I would suggest that while Ibrahim does promote democracy, it is not the popular form most commonly associated with progressive activism, instead he appears to be an active proponent of low-intensity democracy, or polyarchy. These polyarchal ambitions are illustrated by Ibrahim’s service on the board of directors of a group called Rights and Democracy (also known as the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), which happens to be the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. government’s central “democracy promoting” venture, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). [1]

Not wanting to stop here, Ibrahim’s “democratic” resume is bolstered by his service on the international advisory board of the NED’s Journal of Democracy. And in 2002, in reward for his dedicated activism, the neoconservative stronghold, Freedom House, rewarded him with their inaugural Bette Bao Lord Prize for Writing in the Cause of Freedom. Thus, as I have written elsewhere:

While Ibrahim’s links to the darker side of the democracy manipulating lobby have not played out in the international media, one part of his life that has been well covered in the media was his arrest in June 2000, and his subsequent imprisonment for illegally receiving foreign funding (European Union grants) for his democracy work at the Ibn Khaldun Center which he founded in 1988 in Egypt. Interestingly, the Ibn Khaldun Center only received its first NED grant in 2005 to “establish and maintain” a new Egyptian Democracy Support Network. Ibrahim’s 2000 arrest pricked the world’s attention, and the Bush administration went as far as withholding a “supplemental aid package for Egypt” until he was released from prison in August 2000. However, Ibrahim’s ties to the democracy manipulators are longstanding, as in 1983 he founded the Arab Organization for Human Rights, of which the … NED recipient the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) is a member. This makes it less surprising that the secretary-general of EOHR, Hafez Abu Saada, was arrested on similar charges to Ibrahim in December 1998, and was likewise released from prison as a result of international pressure. Ibrahim’s ties to Freedom House and the NED hint at his neoconservative credentials, which are confirmed by his listing on the books of Benador Associates, a well-known neoconservative public relations agency. [2]

Ibrahim’s wife, Barbara Ibrahim, in addition to acting as the founding director of the American University in Cairo’s John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, sits alongside her husband on the board of the Ibn Khaldun Center. Here it is worth observing that prior to taking up her appointment at the American University in Cairo in 2006, Barbara had served for fourteen years as regional director for West Asia and North Africa at the imperialist Population Council; and as the Ford Foundation’s Middle East program officer for urban poverty and women’s studies. Unfortunately, criticisms of liberal elite behemoths – like the Ford, Gates or Rockefeller foundations – are uncommon in Leftist academic circles, which is severely problematic given the key role such philanthropists play in promoting imperialism. [3] This silence though helps explain why Barbara is able to act as the treasurer of Virtual Activism, a group whose founding president (Marlyn Tadros) used to serve on the board of directors of a more radical (albeit liberal foundation backed) organization called Grassroots International. [4]

Returning to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, his “democratic” bono fides are strengthened by his situation on the advisory board of the Project on Middle East Democracy, an organization “dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the U.S. can best support that process”: and a post that involves him serving alongside leading imperial elites like Thomas Carothers, Lorne Craner, Ambassador Mark Palmer, and Haleh Esfandiari.

Controversially, in 1995 Haleh Esfandiari acted as the first Iranian fellow at the NED, and is presently married to Human Rights Watch adviser, Shaul Bakhash – an individual who resides with Ibrahim on the international advisory board of the NED’s Journal of Democracy. Of even more interest to this article though, Esfandiari acts as advisor for the Iraqi Women’s Educational Institute, a joint project of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum, and the American Islamic Congress (which includes Ibrahim as a board member). Here in turn, the founder of the American Islamic Congress, Zainab Al-Suwaij, is the cofounder of another dubious outfit known as Women for a Free Iraq, which was launched in 2003 with support from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a dozen Iraqi-American groups in January 2003 with a meeting at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney. [5] Furthermore, on top of heading up these “democracy promoting” groups Al-Suwaij is a dedicated conflict “resolver” and is a board member of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. [6]

It is no secret that imperialist intelligence communities have long been interested in the geostrategic manipulation of religion, as evinced by Mark Curtis’ forthcoming book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (Serpent’s Tail, 2010). This noxious history is particularly pertinent to this article given the importance that the study of Islam has assumed within the current “War on Terrorism.” Indeed, intimate ties now exist between Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies: and by way of an example, in 2007 American Islamic Congress board member, Khaleel Mohammed, served on the advisory council of the International Intelligence Summit, a conference that describes itself as a “neutral forum” that brings “together intelligence agencies of the free world and the emerging democracies.” Mohammed’s conservative background is of course hard to mistake, as he is currently a faculty member of the Mississippi Homeland Security Program: however, the same is not always true for other scholars who collaborate with intelligence agencies. For instance, in March 2005 Lester Kurtz, a professor of sociology based at George Mason University, gave a workshop on religion and violence to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the RAND Corporation titled “Gods and Social Movements: Religion and the Mobilization of Social Action.” [7] Kurtz’s workshop is a useful example of progressive links to the intelligence community, as he is a well-known and influential theorist of nonviolence, whose current activities involves his working on a documentary project (and related book) titled Peaceful Warriors: A History of Nonviolence.

By making the foregoing connections, I am not in any way implying that work of nonviolence theorists (like Kurtz) who collude with “democracy promoting” elites is worthless, it most certainly is not. Although that said, it is clear that the scholarship of nonviolent theorists who defend the imperial abuse of nonviolence may have certain shortcomings which need to be recognized by activists. But while such issues are certainly a nuisance, I would argue that the primary problem resulting from elite/activist collaboration is that it better enables the ruling class to harness the power of nonviolent activism to the violence of capitalism.

In this regard, nonviolence theorist and international banker, Peter Ackerman is an important elite functionary who has played a critical role in facilitating the imperial use of nonviolence. In this case, the primary vehicle for Ackerman’s capitalist-nonviolence is his International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a group that counts the aforementioned Lester Kurtz amongst their academic advisers. Fittingly the chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s academic advisory board is noted anti-imperialist scholar, professor Stephen Zunes, [8] an individual who along with Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher co-edited the book Nonviolent Social Movements: The Geography of Nonviolence (Blackwell, 1999). Zunes’ however honors himself by being one of the major defenders of Ackerman’s imperialism, and while this pitiful debate will not be rehashed here, suffice to say Zunes sees no problem in rendering his academic anti-imperialism to imperial analysts.

I say this because from May 20-24, 2007, Zunes led a seminar in Egypt on nonviolent civic strategies at Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldun Center, which although not mentioned earlier is a part of the NED-initiated World Movement for Democracy’s Network of Democracy Research Institutes. Moreover, on April 28, 2010, Zunes will be presenting his research as part of a panel at the 11th annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. No doubt, Zunes has not thought critically about his forthcoming conference appearance; and why might I ask would he, as his trusted colleague, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, serves on the board of directors of this Center. Yet as this article has illustrated, Ibrahim and his nonviolent cohorts are not likely to be friends of any anti-capitalist struggle. Thus it is no coincidence that Asma Afsaruddin, the chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, serves on the advisory board of the aforementioned conservative Iraqi Women’s Educational Institute.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that in 2002 the former executive director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Abdulwahab Alkebsi, left this position to become the director of the Middle East and North Africa division of the NED, and now serves as the regional director for Africa and the Middle East and North Africa for the NED’s primary conservative grantee, the Center for International Private Enterprise. This connection of course has no direct bearing on the politics of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, but all the same it worth bearing in mind, if only to gauge the caliber of intellectuals the Center has chosen to represent them.

By examining the backgrounds of just a few theorists of nonviolence this article has attempted to highlight the problems that such scholars can provide for revolutionary social movements. It has not argued that there are any faults with nonviolence per se, only that activists must be aware of the shortcomings of its leading proponents. Evidently, nonviolence can serve violent purposes; thus it is a prerequisite that all critical scholars and activists should give serious attention to this issue. In this way, all Leftists (both academics and activists) can work together more effectively in their bid to eradicate capitalism.


1. William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Anthony Fenton, ‘Legitimizing Polyarchy: Canada’s Contribution to “Democracy Promotion” in Latin American and the Caribbean’, Znet, October 29, 2006.

2. Michael Barker, ‘The Project for a New American Humanitarianism: Olympian Ambitions from Darfur to Tibet and Beijing’, Swans Commentary, August 25, 2008.

3. Michael Barker, ‘The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 19 (2), 2008, 15-42; Katherine Barkley and Steve Weissman, ‘The Eco-Establishment’, in Ramparts, eds., Eco-Catastrophe (Harper and Row, 1970).
For more general criticisms of the imperial nature of liberal philanthropy, see Robert F. Arnove, ed., Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (G.K. Hall, 1980); Edward H. Berman, The Ideology of Philanthropy: The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy (State University of New York Press, 1983); Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2003).
For a specific analysis of the negative impact of liberal philanthropy on U.S. academia, see Michael Barker, ‘Progressive Social Change in the “Ivory Tower”? A Critical Reflection on the Evolution of Activist Orientated Research in Universities’, Refereed paper presented to Australasian Political Science Association conference, University of Queensland, July 6-9, 2008.

4. The former vice president of Virtual Activism was human rights activist, Professor Peter Rosenblum. Rosenblum, in addition to previously serving as the program director of the NED-funded International Human Rights Law Group (which is now known as Global Rights), resides on the Africa advisory committee of the imperialist group Human Rights Watch. For a detailed critique of Human Rights Watch, see Michael Barker, ‘Human Rights Watch Brings Neoliberalism to Africa’, Swans Commentary, May 3, 2010.
Grassroots International’s current executive director, Nikhil Aziz, previously worked for Political Research Associates, and Grassroots International’s current advisers include progressive authors like Kassahun Checole (the founder and publisher of Africa World Press), Food First co-founders Joseph Collins and Frances Moore Lappe, science philosopher Richard Levins, human rights attorney Michael Ratner, Palestinian human rights scholar Sara Roy, and the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Emira Woods.

5. See RightWeb profile:

6. For a critique of conflict resolution, see Michael Barker, ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution or Revolution’, State of Nature, Winter 2009.
For criticisms of Interactive Conflict Resolution and more specifically of the chair of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, Joseph Montville, see Michael Barker, ‘Of Conflict and Misdirection’, Swans Commentary, May 2010. Montville is a former board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

7. For details of the intelligence workshop, see Lester Kurtz’s CV:

8. Stephen Zunes is the author of the much commended book Tinder Box: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Books, 2003). On the back cover of this book Noam Chomsky writes: “A careful, informed and perceptive reconstruction of major historical forces in the Middle East and the world power nexus in which it is enmeshed. Zunes provides very valuable background for analysis and comprehension of what is at stake and where policy choices can be expected to lead. A very useful handbook to the complexities of this disturbed and fateful region.”
Here it is important to observe that Noam Chomsky fails, like Zunes, to incorporate criticisms of liberal philanthropy into his otherwise excellent analyses, see Michael Barker, ‘Noam Chomsky and the Power of Letters’, Swans Commentary, December 15, 2008.

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at: