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The Palestinian Mandelas

The Palestinian Mandelas

Reading this Economist review of "Budrus," a new documentary about a nascent Palestinian non-violent movement, which premiers in New York this October, reminded of Tom Friedman. I’m usually a fan of Friedman’s Middle East commentary; he’s one of the few voices who’s spent years reporting from region and gets both Israeli and Arab viewpoints pretty much right.

But I didn’t like the glibness of his column last Sunday, in which he called for an Arab Nelson Mandela. As he wrote, "the big problem is not those Muslims building mosques in America, it is those Muslims blowing up mosques in the Middle East. And the answer to them is not an interfaith dialogue in America. It is an intrafaith dialogue — so sorely missing — in the Muslim world."

It’s not that that he was wrong about the need for internal Islamic reform. Indeed, there aren’t enough grassroots Arab leaders calling for non-violent activism. It’s just that even moderate Westerners like Friedman too easily dismiss the few that already exist. Instead of wasting energy on the points of divergence between moderate Islamic reformers’ viewpoints and our own–as we’ve been doing with Faisal Abdul Rauf–we should appreciate the essential spirit of his endeavor, and those who share it.

And Rauf is not the only reformer we should be defending. They exist in the Palestinian territories, too. As the film "Budrus," produced by an Israeli and Palestinian, reminds us, Arab non-violence movements are a fact there, if still extremely small and on the political margins. "Budrus" focuses on one, which must not be overlooked.

It’s guiding leader is Ayed Morrar, who began a grassroots protest in the West Bank village of Budrus when the Israeli security wall began to go up there in 2004. Soon he was joined by hundreds of Israelis and even Fatah and Hamas sympathizers, which led to the wall being re-routed around the village.

And this is where critics will no doubt jump in: Hamas sympathizers joined them–how can that be non-violent! But this is exactly the point: it is only people like Morrar who can sap the energy of Hamas’ appeal. When the same people who once accepted violent resistance embrace it’s non-violent twin, then you are onto something.

But we stumble too often on the fact that the Muslim narrative will always, at some point, differ from our own. When it is violent, nasty and cynically opposed to our own interests, we absolutely right to reject it. But where the clear tenor is one of compromise and co-existence, then you’ve got your Mandela.

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