In only 184 pages Mark Kurlansky’s latest book Non-violence, the history of a dangerous idea packs a mighty, well-researched account of war, peace and non-violence going back centuries. It includes the days of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of Islam right up to the current Iraq war.
An important theme is how war is usually fought by the poor on behalf of the rich. David Low Dodge, who founded the New York Peace Society in 1815, said “Very few … who are instigators of war actually take the field of battle … The great mass of soldiers are generally from the poor of a country [and] for a few cents per day endure all the hardships.”
In World War II, working class districts in England, Germany and Japan were deliberately bombed as a war strategy.
Today, in relation to the war in Iraq, “Every time a voice … of the privileged … who present television news [in America] is heard saluting ‘the courage of our fighting men and women’ … listen closely and you will hear the familiar strain from … Petr Chelcicky the 15th century Czech: the rich bamboozling the poor … The US all-volunteer army is nothing more than a draft of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unemployed.”
The foreword is by the Dalai Lama who writes “it is important to acknowledge that non-violence does not mean the mere absence of violence ... The true expression of non-violence is compassion, which is not just a passive emotional response, but a rational stimulus to action”.
Mozi (China 470-391 BC) is quoted: “To kill one man is to be guilty of a capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase the guilt ten-fold, to kill a hundred is to increase it a hundred-fold. This the rulers … all recognise and yet when it comes to the greatest crime - waging war on another state - they praise it!
“If a man on seeing a little black were to say it is black, but on seeing a lot of black were to say it is white, it would be clear such a man could not distinguish black and white … So those who recognise a small crime as such, but do not recognise the wickedness of the greatest crime of all - the waging of war on another state - but actually praise it - cannot distinguish right and wrong.”
Jesus Christ rejected warfare and killing: “the Christians … became uncompromisingly dedicated to pacifism … For 284 years [they were] an antiwar cult”. The sixth of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not kill", doesn’t say “except in self-defence” nor “except when absolutely necessary”. The Old Testament is full of accounts of warfare and even justifications for them but “This does not change the fact that the central law states ‘no killing’.”
Islam - the root of the word is salam, peace - was founded by seventh century prophet Mohammed whose revelations about society were collected in the Koran. Central is the building of communities with a just distribution of wealth, and Mohammed’s attempt at a perfect society in Mecca “enforced a complete ban on violence”. During the hajj, the required pilgrimage to Mecca, the faithful Muslim was not allowed to carry weapons, even for hunting, or to commit any violence, including words spoken in anger.
Later, Mohammed gave permission to take up arms for those “who have been attacked because they have been wronged”, but he still taught war was a last resort and that God blessed those who took a non-violent path. Jihad originally meant “an internal struggle to become the perfect Muslim”, persuading unbelievers with argument and non-violent activism.
In 1258 Mongols invaded the Islamic cultural centre Baghdad where a young Sunni, Ibn Taymiyah, started writing works on Islamic law. To him jihad meant violent warfare and all fit males had a duty to fight. This is the man quoted by Osama bin Laden, according to Kurlansky.
“Most war-makers try to claim that theirs is a holy war, a just war, that God is on their side”. Images of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, still seen in movies, video games and toys “steep children at an early age in the culture of warfare and killing”. Kurlansky continues, “In 2001, when US President George W. Bush announced his ‘war on terror’, his words echoed the messages of Pope Urban II. He even used the word crusade … Urban’s famous speech had become the standard way to sell a war”.