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article imageOp-Ed: Beyond the Games — Activism and terrorism at the Sochi Olympics

By George Arthur     Jan 31, 2014 in Politics
In just one week the games begin and tension is in the air. Across the world, the international community is waiting to tune in for reasons beyond athletics; for updates on activism and radicalism in and around Sochi.
In the lead up to these 2014 Winter Olympics, stakeholders of all stripes – from Russian officials to competing athletes, from IOC members to pro-democracy groups, from western pundits to Islamic extremists – have continually commented on both security measures in place for the games as well as the likelihood for demonstrations throughout the Olympics; and for good reason.
As a result of political and geographic conditions, the Sochi Olympic Games offers the ideal platform for activists of all kind and cause to demonstrate. So what demonstrations are to be expected? And what impact will they have?
To this first question, it is useful to divide demonstrators, in broad terms, into two categories: those who participate in acts of civil disobedience and those who commit acts of violent radicalism. To the second and more important question –the likely results of demonstration – we must first understand the history of each method of activism.
Both approaches to demonstration have historical precedent which provides insight into which practice is most fruitful in the struggle to challenge and overcome oppression, and in evaluating the legacy of both civil disobedience and violent radicalism it is overwhelmingly clear that only one form of demonstration is an effective means in spurring societal change; civil disobedience. Don’t take my word for it though – let’s instead review the history of civil disobedience (as it relates to inciting societal change in democracies) and of violent radicalism (as it relates to political Islam) before returning to the Sochi Olympics.
Police detain a gay rights activist during a protest against Russian laws banning the promotion or d...
Police detain a gay rights activist during a protest against Russian laws banning the promotion or display of homosexuality in front of minors outside the HQ of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee in Moscow
Alexander Nemenov
It was in Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” that the term ‘civil disobedience’ was first introduced to the world of language. Although the concept of civil disobedience had certainly been practiced ahead of the definition for the term, up until this time there was no precise way to describe this particular form of activism. By 1866, the term was so regularly used and Thoreau’s work so clearly the etymologic root for it that two things happened; first, the term ‘civil disobedience’ was added to the English dictionary, and second, Thoreau’s essay was retitled “Essay on Civil Disobedience.”
Along this vein, Merriam-Webster defines civil disobedience as, “[the] refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government”. Concise and accurate, it’s as good a definition for the term as one can find. Quite worth noting however, is that even in the absence of a definition for civil disobedience it is nearly impossible to hear the term without recollecting civil rights leaders whose legacies are inextricably linked to the method. As soon as one hears those two words put together, a flood of memories rushes to mind; of individuals, of groups, and of causes. These leaders and movements are often times easier to remember than what you ate for dinner last week.
Whether remembering Thoreau and those who in their time opposed both slavery and the war in Mexico, Mahatma Gandhi and those who supported the fight for independence from British rule, Martin Luther King Jr. and those who participated in the civil rights movement, the Committee of 100 and their pursuit of public protests to prevent government idiocy (at first with regard to nuclear weapons) or countless others, one is recalling people, groups and movements that have altered the landscape of human rights and dignity in measurable, meaningful, and enduring ways. Equally linked to the work of the aforementioned is and was a firm belief in and commitment to non-violent demonstrations (means) in the pursuit of equality (ends). This in mind, no wonder it’s so easy to remember such individuals and groups, or to understand and appreciate civil disobedience without fully defining the term – their means, their ends and their methodology surely have graduated them to a rare and esteemed class of timeless heroes.
By use of non-violent means they, in each case, challenged the status quo while paying careful attention to the most important objective in challenging oppression – winning the hearts and minds of the undecided public. (Aside: many activists who take part in non-violent civil protest have made the point that the term ‘civil disobedience’ is too vague and therefore too prone to misuse to be used as a broad definition for all non-violent acts of disobedience toward government. While I would agree that the term – as any – can be bastardized, I also feel that it is the best such blanket definition for such activists. So as long as one is clear in understanding that civil disobedience refers to acts like the Million Man March, and not to acts such as withholding taxes on grounds that “Obama is not an American” et al, then all is well.)
With regard to violent radicalism as it relates to Islamism, one needs not look back too far to find its historical roots. Despite the long and distinguished history of the Islamic faith, the history of violent and political Islam is much shorter and much less spectacular – most credit Sayyid Qutb with galvanizing the concept. The 1955 text by Qtub, titled Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (in English, Milestones), laid the foundation for violent fundamentalism by calling for an ‘authentic’ political Islam which would ‘rescue’ the world from the ills of Jahiliyyah (translated it means ‘pre-Islamic ignorance’) via the installation of Sharia law. Not stopping there, Qtub also framed the modern form of Islamic radicals by stating in no uncertain terms that it is not possible for the ‘faithful’ to co-exist with others, “Islam cannot accept or agree to a situation which is half-Islam and half-Jahiliyyah ... The mixing and co-existence of the truth and falsehood is impossible.”
Although there is much debate over how Qtub should be remembered and the extent to which he should be credited for creating the concept of the modern Jihadist, it cannot be denied that – at the very least – he encouraged and promoted violent radicalism as a means to the end of bringing about a politically Islamic world, “This movement uses ... physical power and Jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the jahili system which prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways [i.e. what they want to do] and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord.” To add to this detestable legacy, Qtub’s earlier work “The America that I Have Seen” is best described as a polemic call-to-action against the individual rights and freedoms enshrined in American law. The entirety of the text brims with nuggets of thinly veiled anti-American nonsense, for example, “all that requires mind power and muscle are where American genius shines, and all that requires spirit and emotion are where American naiveté and primitiveness become apparent.”
After his execution in 1966, Qutb’s works spread like wildfire and so was born unto the world the modern Jihadi; an Islamic believer who is willing to sacrifice their own life and to take the lives of others in the name of demanding Islamic rule. Though this view is boiled down for simplicity, it captures the basic goal of most Islamist’s; the goal is not to convert the world, but rather to call for the establishment of a Caliphate (an Islamic republic), though these semantic details are relatively unimportant and nearly impossible to consider in the wake of malevolent radicalism (ie, suicide bombings). Should you be personally interested in gaining a better understanding of Islamic radicalism, its roots, goals, contradictions and flaws, I highly suggest the work “Radical” by Maajid Nawaz. It is required reading for anyone with an interest in understanding the subject and without question one of the most honest, captivating and above all, coherently argued books on the subject of Islamism in the 21st century.
A picture taken  on January 18  2014  shows people walking past an information banner with the photo...
A picture taken on January 18, 2014, shows people walking past an information banner with the photos of suspected terrorists wanted by the police in a department store in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi
Nina Zotina, AFP/File
As a final note on violent radicalism, although there have been countless acts of ‘terror’ in recent years, if we choose to measure the effectiveness of such acts by the political gains made as a result of them – specifically with regard to reversing the conditions that result in oppression – it is painfully clear that violent radicalism does nothing to change the conditions of oppression for a group; instead it deepens the divide between demonstrators and the public, encourages the public to hold activists in contempt (as it is awfully difficult to empathize with demonstrators who would kill you if they could), and in all, serves to only perpetuate and strengthen oppression. Violence engenders fears; fear breeds hate; hatred propels mistreatment.
To shift back to conditions in Russia, the political climate with regard to the derision of gay communities, antipathy toward groups like GOLOS who work to ensure fair elections, the obviously corrupt court system (just to name a few) all serves to push protestors to the streets of Sochi. Geographically, Sochi and the southern Caucasus regions are hotbeds for Islamist extremism; the memories of the brutality of wars in Chechnya still fresh enough to be an impetus for violent radicalism. Thus, it is likely the international community will witness both forms of demonstration during these 2014 Winter Olympics.
My opinion is that those individuals who participate in acts of violent radicalism will be forgotten alongside the hundreds of other suicide bombers who have committed similar acts, and instead be forever lost in a lonely chasm of sordid history, where the victims of oppression died as murderers. If such attacks take place, they are most likely to occur outside of Sochi, and in areas where security measures are not as strong.
With regard to civil disobedience – I imagine it will occur in Sochi and in very public ways. I would be shocked if Russian demonstrators kept to their allotted rally centers, and equally shocked if these groups don’t garner a ton of international attention. Further, I would wager that when people look back on the games in the years to come, more will remember the activists who took to the streets and helped advance human rights and healthy democracy before any individual athlete.
It needs to be said that, fundamentally, both the civil disobedient and the violent radical has a worthy cause; a desire for acceptance and equality without precondition. This desire is fair and should be respected and granted; gay or straight or bi, man or women or trans, black or white or another, Islamic or Christian or another or without faith, rich or poor or somewhere in the middle, we all should be treated fairly and equally in society. Of course in many places throughout the world these self-evident truths are not respected and instead are entirely denied or worse, defiled. Under such conditions, there will always be activism, and where there is activism there is likely to be both the civilly disobedient and the violently radical; in the end though, it is only those who subscribe to the tenets of Thoreau, Luther King Jr., and Ghandi who win the day, while those who aim to make political gains by means of fear and cruelty are left without gain.
Although the most recent battles in Russia for self-evident human rights have not resulted in legislative change, the many wars waged throughout the history of democracy suggest the demonstrations of groups in Russia will prove powerful, meaningful and undeniably effective in bringing about change. The stream of civil-discontent that fomented into a tide of change in the case of Indian independence or US civil rights, is building in Russia as you read these words. As I write these words, those within Russia and in the international community are paying more and more attention to the work of activists like environmental demonstrator Yevgeniy Vitishko (who is currently facing three years in jail for damaging a fence), free speech rock group Pussy Riot (who were recently released from jail for ‘hooliganism’, that is, for playing loud music without welcome inside a cathedral), or Amnesty International leaders who just yesterday served the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin with a petition – signed by more than 200,000 – demanding the “repeal a series of repressive laws restricting the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association in the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.” In short, much like it has been throughout history, a stream of steady civil disobedience is building into a tidal wave of disapproval toward current and draconian laws. And just as has been the case throughout history, no matter the resistance by government officials, change will come.
It is unfortunate that Islamism has gone the route of violent extremism at the behest of a few fantastically delusional and unsuccessful ‘martyrs’ as this form of activism has, at least since the change turn of the century, served only to worsen the conditions of oppression against Muslim communities. But change to demonstration methods, as with society, can happen here too.
To quickly return to Maajid Nawaz and his book “Radical”, it took years in jail and a commitment to understanding the history of Islam and activism before he was able to abandon violent radicalism in the name of civil disobedience. Though he was able to describe the path out of extremism succinctly, the path is long, dangerous and deconstructing. To quote Nawaz from a passage in “Radical”, "I'd gladly give myself unconditionally to Allah, but not to [a group of violent radicals]. The thought process involved in leaving [such groups] begins first at questioning an individual in authority, then the tactics, then the strategy, then the methodology, and then finally by questioning the ideology itself." Easier said than done, but this is the path from ineffective, brutal and deprecating radicalism and into meaningful, captivating and socially healthy activism.
(A quick tangent before the end of this article; it is necessary to say that while this editorial has focused on Islamist radicalism, all forms of violent radicalism – whether committed by the IRA or the Contra rebel groups or any other group – is counter-productive. The focus of this article has been to comment on the most probable forms of demonstration at the Sochi games, and with that in mind, Islamist violence has been the focus with regard to violent radicalism.)
If only there were more time between now and the games, more time to convince activists of all stripes and cause to the utility of civil disobedience. But time races on toward these 2014 Winter Olympics and the world will watch for more than medal counts. Hoping for the best and fearing the worst, it is my sincere hope that these games are remembered in years to come for the courage of the civilly disobedient, and not for any other reason – athletic or violent.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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