By Tariq Shadid
Although people in our modern times have been educated to believe that having the ‘right’ ideas, methods or ideologies is what causes revolutions, history teaches us that drastic changes usually happen when the majority of the people rally behind a certain leader, more than behind an ideology. While Palestinian society continues to be torn apart by factional strife, and people increasingly see each other as adversaries based on differences of opinion or conviction, what they really need is not a new philosophy, but simply a truly charismatic leader.
We may idealize human intellect and enlightenment, but in practice, human social biology usually proves to be stronger than ideology. While most people today believe that their strength lies in the success of their perceived Utopian model of society, and that the ideas of a prominent persona are more important than his personal characteristics, their behavior is often indicative of the opposite. Being herd animals, changes usually happen when the majority of the human herd flocks behind a leader who is perceived as charismatic, strong, sympathetic and courageous.
The Effect of Charisma
In democratic societies, politicians seem to be very aware of this human behavioral phenomenon, especially during campaign time. A good example is the victory of Barack Obama in the American elections of 2008. We can all clearly see that the policies of the new administration, with its promises of ‘change’, barely show any significant differences – especially in foreign affairs – when compared to the much reviled Bush administration. To perceptive observers this has come as no surprise, since it was rather easy to read it between the lines of those ‘historical’ election campaigns. Still, people not only in the USA but even worldwide were under the spell of Obama’s personal charm, eloquence and strong charisma, which consolidated his famous landslide electoral victory regardless of these simple facts.
Many people seem to believe that it was Gandhi’s famous and impressive philosophy of non-violence (Satyagraha), which gave him the leverage to be able to rally the vast majority of the population of India behind him and make them take to the streets. They seem to forget that India’s independence was immediately followed by war, strife and violence which still has not been resolved today. While one can easily maintain that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh owe their independence from British colonial rule to the persona of Gandhi, it is quite difficult to make the case that it was his ideology that won the victory. If this was indeed the case, then Satyagraha would have survived its charismatic founder, and would have been instated as the region’s main philosophy. What we see instead, is that India and Pakistan have gone to war with each other three times since their independence, and can both boast nuclear destructive capability, not Satyagraha, as their source of power.
There is no doubt that Gandhi’s non-violence was an incredibly effective strategy for liberation, but its success at the same time was entirely dependent on his leadership in that struggle. No wonder that this successful feat has not yet proven to be reproducible under the leadership of other activist figures in the world.
With the assassination of Malcolm X, who was able to inspire millions into taking action against overwhelming odds, his movement was effectively stopped in its tracks before it could be consolidated into a victory. His legacy now lives on as a powerful inspiration, rather than as an example of liberation. The Libyan struggle for independence under Omar El Mukhtar, who was able to mobilize the Libyan population against colonialism and oppression, was effectively maimed by the elimination of his inspiring leadership, when he was hanged at the gallows.
People Need Leaders, Not Ideologies
Almost every significant mobilization for change of a population in history has taken place under the charismatic leadership of a person. It is very difficult to find any examples in history of successful uprisings or revolutions that were not inspired by a leader who was considered to be a hero by the majority of the people. People need a leader, not an ideology.
Even the qualities that define these historical figures of change, are almost disappointingly simple. The leader needs to be someone of high intelligence, with deep strategic insights and communication skills which enable him (or her) to express the concerns of the people in a way that appeals to them. He needs to possess rhetorical qualities that can appeal to people of different levels of education and social background. He also needs to have personal traits that enable a majority of people to identify with him, instead of seeming alien or superimposed to them. His message needs to be simple and convincing, and contain a promise of change. Once this person has earned the love of the majority of the people, the awe-inspiring herd-behavior of the human race makes it easy for this leader to rally the people behind him, whether we are talking about national elections, a revolution or a popularity contest at a local school.
When we observe other herd animals, we can see that they always have some leading animals that are followed by the rest. In the savannas of Africa, we can see how these herd animals migrate in a splendidly concerted flow, without any confusion about the herd’s direction, which can often be seen from an breathtaking aerial view in wildlife documentaries. In the skies of Europe, during the fall season, one can see the impeccable figures drawn in the skies by huge clouds of thousands of starlings, which seem almost surreal in their coordinated movements as they elegantly sway between the treetops. Since there seems to be no difference of opinion among them on whom to follow, these starlings never collide with one another. This requires an almost unfathomable level of coordination, but is mainly achieved by their complete acceptance of their leadership’s commands.
The Fallacy of Negotiations
In the Palestinian situation there is little confusion about which stated principles have the potential to unite the majority of the people. Our common cause, which is liberation from oppression, is our common interest; this suffices as an ideology and is the common denominator of all existing Palestinian factions. Nevertheless the popular movement against Zionist occupation and persecution is chaotically torn into many shreds. There is an abundance of opinions and ideologies, which concern themselves with end goals and final solutions, and end up leading to people sometimes being fanatically opposed against one another. What Palestine lacks is not a ‘one-state’ or ‘two-state’ solution, and not a progressive or conservative movement, but simply a leader who has the trust of the majority of the people. Coming from such a loved leader, people would most likely be prepared to accept any solution he would present, as long as he would promise to lead their struggle for liberation with full dedication.
While a significant portion of the population has been led to believe that negotiations are the way forward out of their dire situation, it is a matter of realism to conclude that this can never be successful. Again, history is our teacher. No overwhelming military or economical superpower has ever gone against its own interests simply because its adversaries were such smart speakers. It is therefore rather simplistic to expect the US-Israeli-European axis of racist colonization to steer off its course of total domination of the region, based on the communication skills of some intelligent or eloquent Palestinians. In fact, as long as they are aware that the representatives they are negotiating with are not backed by a massive majority of the population, they cannot even be blamed for not taking their so-called Palestinian ‘partner in peace’ seriously.
In truth, if they were certain that a leader had such a massive popular backing, they would most likely start a campaign of vilification against him. They would contend that he is an ‘impossible partner in peace’, based on whatever argumentation they would deem useful to prove their point to the masses in the West. Eventually, they would aim to physically eliminate him, as they have done with many promising Palestinian leaders, from all existing resistance groups.
The Ineffectiveness of Moderation
One can be sure that a population is in a state of confusion when a significant proportion of it, despite living under harsh oppression, puts its hopes in a moderate leader. No oppressed people in history ever won their freedom by choosing a moderate leader to represent them; even Gandhi was a radical, although his unique method was non-violence. Changes come about when a leader is massively hated and reviled by the adversary, and equally overwhelmingly loved by his own people. Therefore, rallying behind a leader who is deemed acceptable to the enemy, is by definition a crucial waste of time and effort. He has no choice but to balance between serving the occupier’s goals and keeping his own people appeased, since these maneuvers are his only guarantee to keep his undesirable position at the negotiating table intact. Undesirable, not for the personal ambitions of that leader, but for the Palestinian cause. These ‘negotiations at gunpoint’ merely create an illusion of progress, while consolidating the domination of the Zionist colonizer, day after day, even when negotiations are ‘stalled’, as has often been the case.
In Palestine, a leader with the necessary charisma is absent on the political stage. We have a variety of candidates; some of them are more interested in gaining popularity among Western politicians and masses, than among their own people, in the meantime deriving their position of power from the status and popular backing of their organizations. Others care so little about their public relations status towards the world community, that they lose the trust of a portion of their own people in terms of being representative to the outside world. None of them is massively feared or reviled in Israeli society on their personal merits, not in the way Ahmad Yasin and Yasser Arafat were. None of them is massively loved by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, across the entire spectrum.
Palestine is Full of Heroes
Therefore, these painful and tragic decades have not really been spent waiting for a ‘solution’. Palestine is waiting for her leader, who is radical, sincere, courageous, charismatic and not only speaks clearly in terms of the liberation of Palestine, but proves and displays his full dedication to achieving it. Once this leader emerges, only a minority of the people will still give priority to serving the goals of their factional leadership, party or even their ideology. Once this leader appears on the stage and unites the people, not even Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu and the whole leadership of the European Union combined will be able to stop the Palestinians from claiming their freedom and turning it into a reality.
Are you disappointed by my view? Do you feel as if I have dashed all our hopes for the future, because no such leader exists? Then perhaps you have misunderstood me. The point I am trying to make contains a message of hope, despite all the cynicism. We just have to stop being impressed by people who wave around US dollars or Euros, or brag about their Western contacts, because these people ultimately represent nothing but a dead end street for the Palestinian cause. The leader who can really make a change, will have to be one who has the courage to be a truly independent Palestinian.
We need to start realizing that Palestine is full of selfless and charismatic heroes, although they are seldom seen on center stage, and are rarely revered by their surroundings, unless they have achieved the status of martyrdom – which effectively means they are not there to lead us anymore. We have to try and modify our cultural practice of celebrating heroes only when they are dead, and start embracing and supporting the powerless but dedicated and trustworthy Palestinian heroes who are still alive and kicking in every village and town.
Only then we will have started to prepare the ground for that rare person who will eventually grow to win all of our hearts, and whom we can trust to lead us towards our liberation. The ‘Palestinian Gandhi’ most likely already exists; all it takes is for us to start noticing him, and supporting him.
– Tariq Shadid is a Palestinian surgeon living in the Middle East, and has written numerous essays about the Palestinian issue over the years. Most of these were published by the Palestine Chronicle (www.palestinechronicle.com) and have been bundled in the book "Understanding Palestine", which is available through Amazon.com. He also runs a website of internationally oriented music dedicated to the Palestinian cause, which can be found at www.docjazz.com. This article was contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (Originally published in PalestineThinkTank.com)