Tambar Probes Politics of Non-Violence

By Tanzeen R. Doha – What does Turkey’s Peace Mothers movement mean for traditional humanitarian notions of non-violence? Can it ease tension between the Turkish state and the pro-Kurdish PKK? At a colloquium hosted by the Department of Anthropology on October 17, 2016, Kabir Tambar of Stanford University suggested that the Mothers’ declarations of friendship provide a potential pathway to peace.

Tambar began his talk, entitled “Declarations of Friendship: Nonviolence and the Concept of the Political in the Middle East,” by describing a conversation with a Kurdish Peace Mother. (The Peace Mothers are women’s civil rights movement which seeks to promote peace between Turkey’s different ethnic groups through non-violent means.) In this context, Tambar raised the tensions between Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political on one hand, and liberal humanitarian notions of non-violence on the other.

What might arise, he asked, from an examination of friendship and the ethics of non-violence outside of the liberal realm? Tambar remarked that the Peace Mother he met was not simply describing tactical manipulation in the face of tremendous state violence, but rather sounding a new kind of call for friendship with Turks.

Friends and enemies

Tambar then discussed the relevance of the friend/enemy distinction in Schmitt’s concept of the political. He explained the “anti-politics” of the humanitarian approach within liberalism. While these two approaches may appear to be counterpoised, their assumptive logics actually share certain similarities—the anti-politics of the humanitarian approach is itself political. Accordingly, the humanitarian approach does indeed appear to offer a friend/enemy distinction like the one that is so central to Schmitt’s concept of the political.

In Tambar’s formulation, declaration of friendship does not immediately assert difference. Instead, it begins with the possibility of inclusion. It suggests hesitation and ambiguity, rather than clear-cut difference.

Interrogating non-violence

Next, Tambar turned to the concept of sovereignty in a majoritarian state. In most states, there exists both a majority sovereignty and a minority discourse which allows for a certain concept of self-determination. Marginalized groups employ self-determination as a framework of politics within the logic of the modern state. When such groups suffer violence, they often articulate how they are foundational for the state.

Tambar suggested that the politics of friendship cannot always be subsumed beneath the structure of the state. For example, the Peace Mothers can be considered to be operating, at times, outside of the logic of the state. Put another way, the communication, interaction, and friendship between Turkish and Kurdish Mothers complicates the stubborn logic of the state. Such conversations between Mothers may potentially inaugurate a new kind of ethics of non-violence.

Regarding his own research, Tambar described two potential paths forward. The first would involve a critique of violence. The second, which he favored, would entail an interrogation of the notion of non-violence—the history of which (outside of liberalism) remains, he said, under-examined. 

This event was co-sponsored by ME/SA. Learn more about Kabir Tambar at his Stanford University faculty webpage.