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David Cortright, 'Gandhi and Beyond - Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism'

Paradigm, 2006; ISBN 1 5945 1266 3; 280pp;£12.99

I had two misgivings about this book before I began to read it. Both turned out to be unfounded.

The first was that, since I have read my fair share of nonviolence books, I feared that it would all be repetition. Cortright starts the book with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but not with the ordinary biographical stories of their lives. Rather he uses them as vehicles to explain the secret of non-violence, together with today's scholars and his own opinions. It works very well and even though Gandhi and King are familiar to me I learned a lot, especially in a later chapter where he writes about Gandhi's and King's views on gender and sexuality.

The second misgiving was the subtitle, which made me hesitate to buy it: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism. I was afraid that this was another American too hung up on terrorism; as though terrorism is the biggest problem humans face today when tens of thousands of people are dying every day of poverty.

Actually the book doesn't talk very much about terrorism, but poses an important challenge to nonviolent activists: If we want to stop the “war on terror” we ought to be able to provide a better solution to the problem of terrorism than the military does.

I have been racking my brain on how we can be more effective in our nonviolent campaigns. This book gave me a lot of food for thought on the subject. But unlike strategists like Gene Sharp, Cortright doesn't limit nonviolence to its effectiveness. He sees nonviolence not just as a method, but as a way of life. He talks about his struggles and his times of doubts about the ideas of nonviolence. He also manages to combine learning from the history of nonviolence with the nonviolent movement of today - a potent combination that we need more of.

I am sure military analysts sit, day in and day out, trying to analyse yesterday's battles to learn how to fight more effectively tomorrow. We nonviolent activists have something to learn from the military in that sense. Cortright's book really highlights the importance of making this analysis and learning from our mistakes.

The book gives a refreshing criticism of our nonviolent icons. I had heard negative rumours about Gandhi and King but was unsure if they were true. According to this book some of them were and some were not. But Cortright makes a more important point - you can admire one part of a human's life, like Gandhi's nonviolent struggle against the British occupation, while at the same time being deeply critical of another part of the same person's life - like Gandhi's warped views on gender and sexuality. Cortright rightly points out that we should not expect flawless leaders.

Talking about leaders, I have been embarrassed to keep bringing nothing but male nonviolent role models to my nonviolent workshops. So I was happy to find two great female role models in this book; Dorothy Day and Barbara Deming. Two women who really deserve more appreciation for their contribution.

At the end of the book Cortright gives us some practical tools and encourages us to try new, creative, and sometimes more risky, nonviolence methods.

He shows many examples of how nonviolence has made fantastic gains the last decades. There have been victories even in the cases were it seemed we failed. And it takes time, sometimes a very long time, to change for the better. What we need in the struggle is persistence and hope according to Cortright. Both these traits have grown stronger in me while reading this book.