US Catholic Faith in Real Life

"Old fogey" inspires Twitter revolutionaries

By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

“Stoop-shouldered and white-haired at 83, he grows orchids, has yet to master the Internet, and hardly seems like a dangerous man,” notes a recent New York Times profile of Gene Sharp, the U.S. political theorist who pioneered the field of strategic nonviolent action. “But for the world’s despots, his ideas can be fatal.”

I first encountered Sharp's writings in one of the "autonomous seminars" our group of Catholic theology students in Bonn, Germany organized almost 30 years ago. One of his articles was part of a packet of materials we compiled for a seminar on Catholic and other peace and nonviolence studies. So I was immediately intrigued when I ran across the Times article.

For decades Sharp’s practical writings on nonviolent revolution have inspired dissidents around the world, including now also Egypt’s young social-network-organized protesters. Following a Cairo workshop several years ago, Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada says, activists translated some of Sharp’s writings into Arabic. She says his message of “attacking the weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.

Being one of the self-described "old fogeys" in our office who are still not tweeting and visiting Facebook only about once a month, I was further intrigued by a peculiar irony noted in the NYT story:

Despite the influence his ideas have had on the Middle East’s Twitter revolutionaries (even the Muslim Brotherhood has his book From Dictatorship to Democracy posted on its website), Sharp, the Times profile says, “is not on Facebook and does not venture onto [his own Albert Einstein Institution’s] website. (‘I should,’ he said apologetically.) If he must send e-mail, he consults a handwritten note [his assistant Jamila] Raqib has taped to the doorjamb near his state-of-the-art Macintosh computer in a study overflowing with books and papers. ‘To open a blank e-mail,’ it reads, ‘click once on icon that says “new” at top of window.’ ”