Foreign Relations & International Law Lawfare News

The Foreign Policy Essay: Choosing from the Contentious Politics Buffet

Victor Asal, Richard Legault, Ora Szekely, Jonathan Wilkenfeld
Sunday, November 23, 2014, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: Political groups representing ethnic, religious, or other minorities have a range of options for how to engage with the state, from nonviolent tactics such as protests and strikes to violent tactics including terrorism. Some groups go down one and only one path, but many of the world’s most important actors embrace a combination of tactics.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor’s Note: Political groups representing ethnic, religious, or other minorities have a range of options for how to engage with the state, from nonviolent tactics such as protests and strikes to violent tactics including terrorism. Some groups go down one and only one path, but many of the world’s most important actors embrace a combination of tactics. Victor Asal of SUNY Albany, Richard Legault from the Department of Homeland Security, Ora Szekely of Clark University, and Jonathan Wilkenfeld of the University of Maryland explore why groups might choose to use both peaceful and violent tactics and why we should avoid lumping groups into the simple categories of “violent” or “nonviolent.”


Asal photoHizballah is an important actor in both Lebanon and the wider region. It is an organization with serious military capacity that is currently involved in violent conflict in Syria and that countries like Israel see as a serious threat. Yet Hizballah is also an important political actor in Lebanon, where in addition to its military activities it also acts as a traditional political party and is a key provider of social services in many areas of the country. In the Lebanese context, Hizballah mobilizes not just as a political party or as a violent non-state actor but also holds massive demonstrations to make its political preferences known. Despite Hizballah’s multifaceted nature, however, many focus mainly on the organization’s armed wing. But Hizballah, like many militant organizations, is far more complex than this. Legault photo2This confusion over Hizballah is typical. Both news agencies and policymakers tend to stovepipe organizations as being either “violent” or “nonviolent,” “political” or “military,” treating these labels as characteristics rather than behaviors. Academics often do the same. The relationship between the use of violent and nonviolent tactics by organizations advocating a political agenda is often conceived of as a sort of unidirectional spectrum: an organization that shifts to the use of violence is thereafter labeled a “violent organization,” and analysis of the organization will often focus only on one aspect of its activities. Yet this ignores the range of “contentious” political options that may include traditional political activities such as nonviolent or violent protest or violent actions against the government or even civilians. For example, Hamas may call for protests, launch rockets, and they may do both in the same year. Other groups may focus on nonviolent or regular politics, like the Arab Democratic Party in Israel. Szekely photoAll political organizations face a choice of whether or not to engage in contentious politics. If they decide to do so, they also have a choice of whether to use violent or nonviolent tactics (or a combination of both). It is important to realize that these are choices that are always available to organizations: rather than a linear scale, choices of contentious politics more closely resemble a menu from which such movements can “order” a tactic or a combination of tactics. That is, they can choose to use a violent strategy, a nonviolent strategy, or a mixed approach. So why do some non-state actors choose violence, others choose nonviolence, and some choose both? (To make it even more complicated some organizations switch back and forth over time.) Based on our analysis, which draws on a longer study published in the Journal of Peace Research, it turns out that several factors, including ideology, matter, but not necessarily in the ways we often assume. Wilkenfeld photoWe studied the behavior of 104 separate ethno-political organizations that claimed to represent “Minorities at Risk” in the Middle East across 24 years using the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior dataset. Drawing from the contentious politics and political violence literature, we examined the impact of various factors on an organization’s decision to participate in contentious politics and on the form that participation took. The contributing factors we examined are: how the state treats the organization (is the state repressive or not); the organization’s political environment (whether the state in which the organization is located is a democracy or not); the organization’s resources and capabilities (was it only located in the country in question or did it have branches elsewhere, and did it have support from a diaspora population); whether the organization provided social services; and the organization’s ideology (is it a religious, leftist, or gender-inclusive organization). There is a very large body of literature indicating that repression and the violation of human rights can have an impact on mobilization. Theoretically, strong repression can shut down mobilization and make actors less likely to engage in contentious politics. As Marjane Satrapi writes in Persepolis (her graphic novel depicting her experience growing up in revolutionary Iran), “when we’re afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection, our fear paralyzes us.” On the other hand, there is a tipping point at which repression should push people towards violence. As so clearly captured in the lyrics of the Bruce Cockburn song “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” repression creates anger, and anger can lead to the choice of violence:

I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states

And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate

If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher

If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

We found that state repression had a big impact on the choice to engage in contentious politics and the form that engagement took. Organizations that were actively repressed by the government were much less likely to use any kind of traditional politics and less likely to protest or mix protest with violence. If an organization did decide to engage politically, it was much more likely—28% more, in fact—to use violence than organizations that were not actively repressed. There is a powerful logic that may explain this behavior: if I am likely to get shot or arrested if I protest, I may be less inclined to challenge the government at all; but if I do, then using violence makes more sense, as I am likely to be met by violence anyway. On the flip side of the repression equation we found that being in a more democratic country did not have an impact on the use of traditional politics (which surprised us) but did have an important impact on the use of protest. Organizations in democracies were more likely to use protest or protest mixed with violence than organizations in non-democratic states—but were not likely to use only violence. This too makes sense: democracies generally view protest (at least nonviolent protest) as a legitimate form of political expression and are thus relatively more tolerant of it than their non-democratic counterparts. Therefore, it is logical that protest would be the mobilization tool of choice for groups operating in democratic countries, even if the groups use violence as well. Organizational resources and capabilities should also theoretically have an impact on a group’s choices of mobilization. Organizations that are located in only one country without any branches outside the country do not have the flexibility of going abroad and will therefore need to weigh the potential cost of annoying the state with their behavior much more carefully than those organizations that can easily relocate to a branch somewhere across state borders. We found strong support for this argument: organizations that did not have foreign branches were 13% more likely to adopt traditional politics and not to involve themselves in protest or a mixed strategy than multinational organizations. Interestingly, having only domestic infrastructure had no statistically significant impact on a group’s decision to pursue a violence-only approach to contentious politics. We also examined the impact of diaspora support on the behavior of organizations. Organizations with diaspora support get more resources and get that support from a constituency that will not suffer the impact of the organization’s contentious choices (i.e., backlash from the state) the way that its domestic constituency would. As such, one might expect that diaspora support might encourage the use of contentious politics, and we found that it does. Organizations with such support are more likely to engage in nonviolence (11% more likely) or a mixed strategy (10% more likely), and more likely (17% more likely) to use violence than groups without diaspora support. The provision of social services is often considered a key indication of territorial control by an organization—something that is often indicative of a violent relationship to the state given efforts by the organization to create a state of its own. Others have made the argument that the provision of social services allows organizations to recruit individuals for violence with promises of benefits. In our analysis we found evidence that organizations that provided social services were 3.6% more likely to engage in a mixed strategy and 15% more likely to engage in a violence-only strategy than groups that did provide social services. Our findings about religion are particularly intriguing. There is a wide literature that ties religious ideology to the use of violence, and there is evidence that religious terrorists are more deadly. Mark Juergensmeyer, for example, argues that religion enables groups both to see their opponents as “others” who are not worthy of humane consideration and also to focus on a divine audience—potentially a divine audience comfortable with the slaughter of civilians. However, our findings suggest that religious ideology did not have much of an effect at all on contentious choices. This may be because the organizations in our sample all have an ethnic identity, so even those groups that espoused a religious ideology were not solely organized around their religious identity. It may also be that religious ideology has a larger impact on the choice of targets once a group has already decided to use violence. Leftist ideology has also been tied to violence, and we found evidence to support such an argument: leftist organizations were 11% more likely to adopt a violence-only strategy than a mixed or nonviolent approach. Perhaps our most fascinating finding is that, more than other factors, ideologies of gender inclusion make an organization much less likely to use violence (19% less likely) than organizations without such ideologies. Gender ideology also has the biggest positive impact on an organization’s likelihood to engage in protest, making it 19% more likely to do so. There is a growing literature that has found that states that empower women are less likely to use violence, and we have found evidence that gender-inclusive ideology has a similar impact on organizations. It is important to note that although our measure is related to the research that has been done on states, it is not the same. While state-level analyses measure how women are treated, we only measured whether or not the organization has a stated ideology about gender inclusion—not how it actually treats women (and as we know many organizations do not follow the ideologies they preach). Still, it is impressive that the ideology alone is having such a large impact. It is important to remember when considering all of these results that there are key limitations to the generalizability of our findings, given that we only examined minority ethnic organizations in the Middle East and North Africa; yet they are suggestive of what analyses of violent and nonviolent organizations can reveal. And though our findings may be limited to a small subset of violent and nonviolent organizations, it is a subset that has been especially active when it comes to engaging in contentious politics. As such, our findings have meaningful policy implications for how the U.S. and other actors engage with minority ethnic organizations in the Middle East and North Africa. When making decisions regarding any non-state organization, it is critical that policymakers understand the complex interactions between the organization and its government, as well as between the organization and its constituents, both at home and in the diaspora, in order to craft policies that diminish rather than increase the likelihood that an organization will choose to engage in violent political action. For instance, understanding why certain populations may look very favorably on an organization that the government sees as worthy of repression may help policymakers avoid implementing repressive measures that might inflame the situation in favor of a more conciliatory approach. Conversely, knowing that a group does not have any external branches to which it can flee when faced with government repression may make a repression strategy a more viable option for policymakers. Another clear policy implication of our research is that ideology matters. Since organizations with a democratic and gender-inclusive ideology are less likely to choose violence as their preferred method of contentious political action, it may be wiser for governments to engage with such groups rather than to violently repress them, as the latter strategy may induce an otherwise nonviolent group to adopt violence in self-defense. Finally, our analysis supports a larger narrative that has repeatedly shown that ignoring serious repression on the part of allies or adversaries can lead to serious outbreaks of violence.


Victor Asal is director of the Center for Policy Research and associate professor at Rockefeller College, University at Albany SUNY. Richard Legault is a social scientist at the Department of Homeland Security. Ora Szekely is an assistant professor of political science at Clark University. Jonathan Wilkenfeld is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a specialist in foreign policy decision making, international crises, negotiation, and mediation.

Subscribe to Lawfare