Atshan, Thakkar Discuss Pacifism in Emergency Night Owls Event

Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College

On Saturday, Nov. 18, Assistant Political Science Professor Jonny Thakkar hosted a Night Owls event on pacifism with Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan. Night Owls is a philosophical discussion forum started at Swarthmore by Thakkar this semester. At the most recent talk, Thakkar interviewed Atshan about his Quaker and pacifist ideals, allowing students to ask questions afterwards to Atshan.

Unlike prior Night Owls events, this discussion was advertised as an “Emergency” event. At the beginning of the discussion, Thakkar explained why, highlighting a pressing need for reasoned philosophical questioning.

“Sometimes there are events that are sufficiently pressing and troubling that they call for a kind of philosophical discussion,” Thakkar said. “Those discussions don’t always come naturally to us because we kind of want to dive into action. We want to protest, we want to organize, this kind of thing. But it’s almost always the case in those types of crises that we’re invoking principles.”

Atshan was raised in the West Bank in Palestine. He attended a Quaker school and later became a practicing Quaker. During his talk, he highlighted the prominence of Quaker communities in diverse parts of the world, including Palestine.

“Often when we think of Quakerism, we think of whiteness. That’s a very U.S.-centric understanding of Quakerism, but actually, in parts of the African continent and Latin America, there are significant Quaker communities,” Atshan explained. “In the Palestinian territories, there’s the Ramallah Friends School, which is my alma mater, which was established in the 1800s.”  

Atshan emphasized that he joined the Quaker community because they accepted diverse identities. He further highlighted the importance of acceptance, pacifism, and activism as Quaker values in his understanding of the religion.

“Quaker pacifism is one central and fundamental pillar, in addition to nonviolence,” he continued. “There’s a long history of speaking truth to power. There’s a long history of speakers being at the forefront of pretty much every social justice struggle, whether it’s speaking about LGBTQ rights, like Quaker meetings, or hosting same sex marriages, way ahead of the curve.”

After this, Thakkar questioned whether or not Atshan’s pacifism preceded his Quakerism. In response, Atshan characterized this aspect of his ideology as a point of growth over the course of his life and in the context of his Palestinian identity.

“I would say that probably as a teenager and as a younger person, I wasn’t [nonviolent] fully and I come from the community in which these debates about violence and nonviolence and pacifism and self defense are very animated,” Atshan said. “And there are many, many different points of view within Palestinian society about this question of violence and where it fits, or if it should fit or not fit at all in the freedom struggle.”

Regarding his pacifist views, Atshan advocated a very uncompromising position on nonviolence. He also noted the diverse and widespread nature of harm that he classified as violence.

“I’ve really gone out with a full absolute pacifism, which is absolute commitment to not inflicting physical violence upon any human being,” Atshan said. “Violence can take many different forms. It includes the physical part, but it also includes structural violence that’s part of the harm. Of course, all of us are complicit in harm in many, many ways. I’m the first to recognize that I’m complicit in digital systems and structures of home, but I’m committed to do everything I can to minimize that.”

When questioned about the current environment of Swarthmore’s campus, Atshan argued that in an educational setting, even when he did not agree with the view, it was beneficial for the students to be exposed to different perspectives. In his classes, he incorporates readings and guests that he disagrees with to foster “an intellectually exciting space [with] heterogeneity of thought.”

Atshan further disagreed with the notion of safe spaces in an educational context, especially when they inhibit the discussion of diverse ideas.

“This idea that I have to confront a point of view that’s different from my own, and that’s making me uncomfortable, and then conflating that discomfort with now I’m feeling unsafe, and it’s like, how?” he said. “You want to talk about unsafe? People are literally being killed in other parts of the world. And even here in the United States, there are people who are actually dying.”

When discussing current events on Swarthmore’s campus, especially in the context of discussion surrounding Israel-Palestine, Atshan qualified his views on safe spaces and maintained that it is important to have some boundaries.

 “There are moments where there is physical intimidation, there are threats, there is incitement to violence, and we are seeing a rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, those kinds of sentiments, and we are seeing some pockets of people inciting violence or supporting different forms of violence,” he continued. “And that I think crosses a threshold where we need to have some parameters.”

When questioned about pacifism in cases where a military conflict might be unavoidable, Atshan stated that Quakers fulfill an important role through their pacifism and critiques of society.

“What Quakers have said is that we’re going to hold the mirror to society, in terms of violence, and excesses,” he said. “And we’re going to acknowledge that there’s no shortage of human beings who are willing to enact violence.”

At the same time, Atshan characterized his dedication to pacifist ideals as a personal choice that was not obligatory for others to follow.

“If someone takes pride in the fact that they fought the Nazis … I’m not going to stigmatize that person or chastise that person or lambast that person, or moralize against them,” he said. “But I’m going to make the [pacifist] decision that’s very individual and communal for our community.”

Atshan concluded his discussion with Thakkar by explaining his belief that the presence of Quakerism shifted common perceptions of violence and its necessity.

“[Quakerism is] completely paradigm shifting, because I have students who, for example, have never even heard of Costa Rica and the fact that they don’t have a military infrastructure. So, the idea that there shouldn’t be a nation state without a military was not something that was even imagined,” Atshan said. “What [Quakers are] doing is decolonizing our imagination [and] demilitarizing our imagination.”

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