Archive | March, 2009

Conversation Between Gandhi & Bin Laden – by Bhikhu Parekh

If he were alive today, how might Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest apostle of non-violence, challenge Osama Bin Laden’s worldview?  Bhikhu Parekh is Vice-President of The Gandhi Foundation, a professor of political philosophy, a Labour peer, and the author of three books on Gandhi. This article first appeared in Prospect magazine in April 2004.

Bhikhu Parekh’s preface

Like millions around the world, I found the atrocities of 9/11 abhorrent and utterly condemn such acts of terror. Despite the war against terror, we continue to see more horrors such as that in Madrid. What drives the bombers? How do they live with their deeds? Is there no alternative to the cycle of violence? No one is better qualified to advise on this than Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of non-violence. My imaginary exchange between him and Bin Laden tries to do two things: to comprehend at least part of the twisted worldview that inspires Bin Laden, for we cannot defeat it without understanding it; and second, to explore a neglected alternative. My Bin Laden is an intellectual construct, a metaphor, referring not so much to the real man as to a more generic pro-terror radical Islamist.

Dear Mahatma Gandhi

2nd October 2003

Ever since my followers attacked the American embassy in Kenya, the USS Cole in Yemen, and later the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, they and I have been declared enemies of the civilised world who can be hunted, tortured and killed like wild animals. I was not surprised by the American reaction, but I was dismayed by the hostile reactions of some of my fellow Muslims. I owe it to them to explain why we did what we did, why we remain unmoved by the calumnies heaped upon us and why we might do it again. Since every political act is unintelligible outside its historical context, I must begin with some history.

Islam is a great religion, continuous with and completing the other two Abrahamic religions. It accepts them as genuine and true religions, reveres their prophets and has always been tolerant and respectful of them. Thanks to the moral and spiritual force of its profound truths, Islam, a late historical arrival, was quickly able to win over the willing allegiance of millions of people in different parts of the world. It inspired its followers with such zeal and fervour that their armies chalked up conquests against all odds, making it the second most powerful world religion. Christians, who have long been jealous of its appeal and resentful of its power, tried to discredit and undermine it by mocking its beliefs, vilifying its prophet and mounting crusades against it. Islam survived all these and built up large empires, the great Ottoman empire being the last.

With the rise of the modern world, Britain, France and other European countries began to industrialise. Driven by the lust for power and profit on which capitalism and imperialism is based, they conquered large parts of the world and set about reshaping their colonies in their image. Since Muslim societies had betrayed their religious principles and become corrupt and degenerate, they were easy prey. Being better armed, the British and French overwhelmed the Ottoman empire, broke it up into artificial political units, set up corrupt rulers, kept them weak and divided, and used them to perpetuate their power. After the 1939-1945 war, they deprived the Palestinians of their homeland, handed over a large part to the Jews, and created a festering source of injustice in the shape of Israel. Muslim societies have always included large Jewish communities and have been more protective of them than European societies. But giving the Jews their own state, at Palestinian expense, and in the heart of the Arab world, was provocative and unjust.

As the US replaced the weakened Europeans in the 1950s, it continued this project and designed a more subtle empire of its own. In the name of defending the west against the Soviet threat, it set up and supported puppet regimes in many parts of the world, especially the Muslim societies of the middle east upon whose oil it had come to depend for its prosperity. It was even more partial to Israel than the Europeans were, devoting much of its foreign aid budget to it, arming it, and encouraging its expansionist ambitions. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave the US an illusion of omnipotence and removed all restraints on its hubris. The US today is determined to Americanise the world and restructure every society along secular, capitalist, liberal and consumerist lines. Its troops are stationed in 120 countries, and pressure their governments to do its bidding. It controls major international economic and political institutions and uses them to pursue its interests. When that does not work, it resorts to bribery and blackmail to get its way. And when even that fails, it acts unilaterally in disregard of international law and institutions. No government is beyond its reach. Although the current Republican administration is unashamed in its imperialist designs, the previous Clinton administrations were no better. They followed the same policy, albeit relying more on economic and political pressure than on the threat of military might.

Although the American empire must be fought in every part of the world, I am mainly concerned to liberate Muslim societies, not only because I belong to them but also because they constitute the weakest link in the imperial chain and my success there will set an example and inspire others. My goal is fourfold: to get the Americans out of Muslim societies, to destroy Israel as a separate Jewish state and create a free Palestine in which Jews can live as a protected minority, to remove corrupt American stooges in Muslim societies and restructure the latter along truly Islamic principles, and finally to restore the earlier glory of Islam by uniting the umma and ensuring Muslim rule in such erstwhile Muslim countries as Palestine, Bukhara, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bang-ladesh, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, South Yemen, Tashkent and Andalucia.

Violence is the only way to achieve these goals because this is the only language the US understands. Our violence has to be based on terror because ill-equipped Muslims can never match American might in open combat. Although our terrorist violence is primarily directed against the “icons of US military and economic power,” one cannot be so fastidious as to exclude civilians. The US itself has never spared civilians in its wars on us: nearly 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of US-inspired sanctions. US citizens have freely elected their governments, often supported their policies (or at least failed to protest against and dissociate themselves from them in large numbers), and are directly or indirectly complicit in their government’s deeds.

I should make two additional points. First, our terror is reactive. We are only responding to the terrorist violence of the US. Americans rob us of our wealth and oil, attack our religion, trample upon our dignity, treat us as pawns in their global chess game, and have the moral impertinence to call us terrorists when we are only defending ourselves against their terrorism.

Second, I distinguish between “commendable” and “reprehensible” terrorism. Terrorism to abolish tyranny, external domination, corrupt rulers and traitors belongs to the first, and one that imposes or perpetuates these evils belongs to the second. My followers neither kill like cowards nor make personal gains from their actions. They give up the ordinary pleasures-careers, families, even their lives-and show by their self-sacrifice that they are guided by the highest of motives. Our terrorism is moral and religious, not criminal in nature as our western critics claim. Our consciences are clear, and I say to my fellow Muslims that to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim.



Dear Osama

1st November 2003

Listening to you, my brother Osama, I was strongly reminded of my dialogue with my terrorist countrymen, which began in London in 1909 and continued almost until my death. As in their case, so in yours, I find your reasoning perverse and your glorification of violence utterly abhorrent.

Whether you realise it or not, you think and talk like an imperialist. You present a sanitised picture of Islamic history. All conquests and empires involve bloodshed, oppression and injustice, and yours was no different. Muslim rulers in India destroyed Hindu temples, looted Hindu property and converted vast masses by a combination of inducement and force. They also destroyed traditional African cultures and social structures and sought to obliterate memories of their pre-Islamic past. And although they treated Christians and Jews better, they never granted them equal citizenship. Since all this occurred a long time ago, there is no point in lamenting it and apportioning blame, but we do have a duty to acknowledge the full truth of the past and resolve never to repeat it. You do not do this, and are even determined to revive Muslim rule in the countries you mention. You attack European imperialism because it ended yours, and you attack Americans because they are preventing you from reviving it. An imperialist yourself, you have no moral right to attack the imperialist designs of others.

You keep talking about the truly Islamic society whose glory you want to revive. I do not find it at all appealing, and nor do most of your fellow Muslims. You want to combine a centralised state, an industrialised economy and nuclear weapons with a set of Islamic values and practices. This is an incoherent enterprise. Once you opt for the economic, political and other institutions of modernity, you cannot escape their logic. You would become more and more like a western society and get sucked into a process of globalisation and thus into the American empire, precisely what you say you do not want. Furthermore, these institutions cannot be sustained without creating an appropriate culture, radically transforming social, educational and other institutions, and undermining the very religious and moral values you cherish. You want to create powerful Muslim societies that are capable of standing up to the west. But if you are really serious about creating a good society, you should stop measuring yourself against the west. You should start instead with the great values of Islam, relate them to the circumstances and aspirations of your people, and assimilate those western values and institutions that will enrich your societies.

As you admit, Muslim societies have become degenerate, but your explanation for this is wrong. They are degenerate because they are static, inegalitarian, patriarchal, averse to change, and lacking the spirit of scientific inquiry, individual freedom and the capacity for collective and co-operative action. In these areas we have much to learn from the west. I have myself been a grateful student of the west, learning much from its liberal, Christian and socialist traditions and suitably integrating it into Indian ways of life and thought. A crude division of the world into west and east is unhelpful because it homogenises each and obstructs a mutually beneficial dialogue.

You say that the west is spiritually empty and call its citizens infidels. Although the west is consumerist and militarist, many of its citizens have a strong social conscience. The concern for the poor, the welfare state, the desire to create a just society and the pressures for global justice and humanitarian intervention are all examples of this. Religion matters a great deal to many in the west, and some of them are keen to enter into a dialogue with and borrow from non-Christian religions. You are wrong to think that Muslims have a monopoly on spirituality. Spirituality is not about how often you pray, fast and visit the mosque, but about serving your fellow humans and living by the great virtues of humility, benevolence, tolerance and universal love. I see little evidence of this in you.

You seem to believe that Islam is perfect. But all religions contain truths and errors. Moreover, you, Osama, claim to know the true principles of Islam better than anyone else, and brook no dissent. You rule out the creative adaptation of these principles to a world vastly different to the one in which they were first articulated. And by asking the Islamic state to impose them on its subjects, you deny the latter their basic religious freedom. This is the surest way to corrupt both your religion and the state and to arrest the moral and spiritual growth of your people. A truly religious person wants to live by the values and beliefs of his religion. If the state has to enforce them on him, then clearly his religion has ceased to have any meaning for him. A religiously based state is a sacrilege, an insult to God and to the human soul.

You blame the Europeans or Americans and never Islam for your sad predicament. You forget the simple truth that no outsider can get a direct or indirect foothold in a society unless it is itself rotten, just as no human body succumbs to a disease unless it has lost its regenerative resources. Stop blaming others, and concentrate your energies on rebuilding and revitalising your societies by educating and organising the masses. You are right to say that many Muslim rulers are corrupt stooges of external powers, but you forget that our rulers are not an alien species but a magnified version of ourselves. We create them in our image and are responsible for what they are and do. You, Osama, have no patience, no plan of social regeneration, no desire to deal with the deeper causes of social decay. You rely on a tightly knit group of religious activists to transform society. But once in power, they too will become corrupt, arrogant and dictatorial.

While repeatedly attacking the Americans, you also keep attacking the Jews and have often expressed not only anti-Zionist but offensive antisemitic sentiments. I could not disagree more. Unlike you, I have lived and worked with Jews, admire their intellectual and moral qualities, and know them and their history well. Some Jews became my closest friends in South Africa, and one of them bought a farm where we set up an experiment in communal living. I call the Jews the “untouchables of Christianity.” Although they are an integral part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, they were for centuries ostracised, shunned, humiliated and subjected by Christians to degrading treatment, of which the Nazi atrocity was only the most horrendous example.

I well know that the victims of yesterday can easily become the oppressors of tomorrow, and use their past suffering to excuse and even legitimise their brutal treatment of others. Israel has in recent years behaved in an unjust manner with the support of the US. Its misdeeds must be challenged, but you must not be insensitive to the effect of their past suffering on the Jews. They are naturally haunted by their bitter historical memories, feel profoundly insecure and sometimes find it difficult to trust even well-meaning outsiders. They have at last found a home and understandably feel intensely possessive about it. Their new home rendered the Palestinians homeless and caused them immense suffering. We need to find ways of doing justice to both. I was keen on a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs just as I would have liked a united India. In spite of all my efforts to stop it, India was partitioned. I accepted it in the hope that once the two quarrelling brothers set up their separate homes and got their hostilities out of their systems, they would not only learn to coexist in peace but even perhaps revive their deeper bonds and draw closer. You, Osama, must accept the existence of Israel, give it the sense of security it needs, and work patiently towards getting it to appreciate the justice of the Palestinian cause. As long as you threaten it, you frighten its people and drive them into the arms of its most reactionary and militarist leaders. Sensible Israelis know that they have to live in the midst of Arab societies, and that the latter will not remain backward and divided for ever.

Finally I must turn to your terrorist methods. I find them unacceptable on pragmatic and moral grounds. They will not help you achieve your goals. They cannot drive away the Americans who will use their might to smash your terrorist camps and networks, as they have done in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They do not mind disregarding international law and even their own constitutional procedures, and you have no hope against such a determined opponent. Even if they were to go, your methods would not be able to defeat their indigenous collaborators, let alone revitalise Muslim societies. There is not a single example in history of terrorists creating a humane and healthy society. Today, Osama, you use terrorism against the Americans and Muslim rulers; tomorrow your own people will use it against you and claim the same justification for it. When will this vicious circle end?

I also have moral objections to your method. Human life is sacred, and taking it is inherently evil. Besides, however fallen a human being might be, he is never so degenerate that he cannot be won over or neutralised by organised moral pressure. Human beings do evil deeds because they are in the grip of evil ideas, or are driven by hatred, or because of the compulsions of their wider society which disposes them to do things they might personally disapprove of. Violence does not address any of these circumstances.

As I have shown by example, organised non-violent resistance is the only moral and effective way to fight evil. It appeals to the opponent’s sense of shared humanity, awakens his conscience, reassures him that he need fear no harm, and mobilises the power of public opinion. It also allows time for tempers to cool and reason to work, lifts both parties to a higher level of relationship, teases out what they share in common, avoids false polarisation, and leaves behind no lasting legacy of mutual hatred. Don’t play your opponent’s game and remain trapped in the chain of action and reaction. Take upon yourself the burden of his evil, become his conscience and transform the context of your conflict. I call this the surgery of the soul, purging the poison of hatred and mobilising the moral energies of the opponent for a common cause.

Take the case of the Palestinians. They have used violence. Israel has countered it with greater violence. The result is an increasing brutalisation of the two societies. Now consider what would happen if the Palestinians were to follow my advice. They would eschew all threats to Israeli citizens, acknowledge them as their brothers, appeal to their sense of justice and long history of humiliation, and get them to appreciate both the suffering they are causing to the Palestinians and the considerable damage they are doing to their own psyche and society. If necessary, they would mount well organised acts of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to highlight their injustices and dare the Israeli government to do its worst.

I cannot imagine that any Israeli government, not even that of Ariel Sharon, would kill unarmed and peaceful protesters with the world watching. If it did, it would not only incur universal condemnation, including that of diaspora Jews, but also divide its own people. I am convinced too that some Israeli soldiers would disobey government orders, as some are already doing. Unlike the current wave of violence, peaceful protests would have the advantage of delegitimising Israeli violence, raising the morale and moral stature of Palestinians and mobilising world opinion in their favour.

You might say, as some of your associates have done, that non-violence comes easily to us Hindus and is alien to the Islamic tradition. This is not true. Hindus have a long tradition of violence, and are by temperament as violent a people as any other. It was only after a long campaign and examples of successful non-violence that I was able to bring them round to accepting it. As for Muslims, you should know that they too have a long tradition of non-violent resistance. The ferocious Pathans of the northwest frontier provinces of what is now Pakistan embraced it with great success under the guidance of my friend Abdul Gaffar Khan. No religion is inherently for or against violence. It is up to its leaders to interpret it appropriately and guide its followers accordingly.

With blessings and love

MK Gandhi

Dear Mahatma Gandhi

1st January 2004

I must confess that I had never before had a reason to read your writings or follow your life. You are not as well known in Muslim countries as you are in the west, and all I had heard was that you were a Hindu leader of India who could not command the loyalty of the Muslims and fought against the British by a passive and rather feminine method. But I was sufficiently interested by some of the things you said to go and read and reflect on your life and work. While I now see the situation a little differently, I remain unpersuaded.

You misrepresent your Indian experience and, like all moralists, extend it to societies where it does not apply. Since British forces did not occupy your country, they had to depend on local support, which naturally placed considerable constraints on them. The British people were ambivalent about the empire, and some were opposed to it. You could therefore always count on a sympathetic body of British opinion to press your case for independence. By the time you came to dominate the Indian political scene, the British were exhausted, initially by the 1914-1918 war and then by the great depression. The events leading up to the 1939-1945 war and that war itself debilitated them further. You were therefore in the fortunate position of confronting a weak opponent who had neither the will nor the means to continue to rule over your country. You should also recall that you lived at a time when there were several centres of power, each regulating the others, and none, not even the British empire, enjoyed complete mastery.

The historical context in which I have to operate could not be more different. It is dominated by a single power with a global reach, which feels triumphant after its victory in the cold war, and thinks that it can now do what it likes. Its economy is driven by an enormous appetite for profits and the consequent desire to turn the whole world into a safe market for American goods. Its political system is dominated by money and selfish pressure groups, it incarcerates more people than any other rich country, it has a larger class of the poor than any other rich country, it has launched more clandestine, proxy and open wars than any other-yet the US considers its form of government to be the best in the world, and insists without the slightest embarrassment that it has a right and a duty to export it to other countries. This formidable combination of self-righteousness, missionary spirit, national self-interest, moral myopia and overwhelming power in a single country has radically transformed the world. Your ideas, Mr Gandhi, belong to a world that is dead, and are of no help to those fighting against current injustices.

The Americans have to be checked in the interest of global peace, stability and justice. This requires not just military power but a superior vision of man and society that satisfies the deepest urges and aspirations of the human soul. Europe cannot provide this because it is part of the same western civilisation and because it is all too keen to share the spoils of the American empire. Only Islam offers an alternative. It has the vision of a truly good society and the will to realise it. It is also endowed with the requisite wealth, strength of numbers, and long historical experience of ruling over a multi-ethnic and multi-religious world. It is therefore vital that Muslim countries should unite, acquire nuclear weapons, take control of their oil wealth and lead the world in a better direction. You call this imperialism. I understand your fears and assure you that we do not seek to impose our views on others, let alone run their societies. We want to restore Islamic civilisation in the erstwhile Muslim countries, and are confident that its moral and spiritual vision will win over the allegiance of the rest of the world over time. The cold war was dominated by a clash between the two materialist ideologies of capitalism and communism. Islam provides a superior alternative to both, the future belongs to us.

You reject modernity, I don’t. The modern world is here to stay, has much to be said for it, and anyone opting out of it is doomed to impotence. I do not want an alternative to modernity as you do, but an alternative modernity, a society that draws on modern technology and places it in the service of Islam. I want nuclear weapons, the modern state, industrialisation and so on, without which my people would remain at the mercy of the west, but I do not want the modern secular, egalitarian and liberal culture with all its attendant evils of atheism, confused gender roles, promiscuity, homosexuality, selfishness, consumerism, and so on. Such a cultural synthesis, which gives modernity an Islamic soul, is possible and worth fighting for.

Unlike you I don’t consider violence inherently evil. I judge it on the basis of its goals and its ability to realise them. Your non-violent struggle was constantly shadowed by terrorist activities, which frightened and weakened the British and must be given as much credit for achieving Indian independence as your non-violence. Every method of struggle requires certain conditions for its success. Non-violence requires a decent opponent, freedom to mount protests, and a reasonably impartial media. You had all three; I don’t. We do not have the civil liberties you enjoyed. If we resorted to non-violent protests, the Americans and their stooges would infiltrate our ranks, create divisions, spread false stories, and, if all this failed, use force to maul us down. They would then use the pliant global media to manipulate public opinion in their favour.

If you need further proof, look at the ways in which the Americans and the British justified and continue to justify the recent war on Iraq. They solemnly announced that they had incontrovertible proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and they still can’t find them. When Hans Blix introduced a note of caution, he was vilified. Cautious reports of British and American intelligence services were deliberately doctored by politicians, who proved more dishonourable than their spies. We are not even told exactly how many Iraqi civilians died in the war. And as for the military casualties, no one is bothered-as if an Iraqi soldier’s life had no value. We are told little about the daily atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians by US soldiers, and none of the latter has so far been tried let alone punished. In the light of all this, there is absolutely no chance of success for non-violent protests. The world won’t even know what humiliations and atrocities were inflicted upon us, let alone exert pressure on our behalf. You, Mr Gandhi, had no answer when Martin Buber asked what advice you would give to the Jewish victims of Hitler’s camps. As he pointed out, where there is no witness, there is no martyrdom, only a pointless waste of life.

Unlike Hinduism, Islam takes a more charitable view of violence and sanctions and even enjoins it under certain circumstances. The prophet himself used violence, and so did his followers and other great Muslim religious and political leaders. Even if I were to plead for non-violence, it would not be accepted by my fellow-Muslims. The Pathan followers of Abdul Gaffar Khan used it only for a while, and then abandoned it in favour of violence. I see no other way to shake the might of the Americans.

Violence is how we got rid of the Soviets in Afghanistan. America understood this and gave us all the help we needed. And it is because of this that they are now scared of the same methods being used against them. As I have said on several occasions, the struggle against the Soviets was a profound “spiritual experience” for me and my fellow-fighters, and represented a decisive turning point in our way of thinking. It gave us enormous self-confidence, expanded our political horizon, helped us build a global network and enabled us to move beyond narrow, largely ethnic, Arab nationalism to the vision of a wider Islamic unity. I would rather stick to the method I and my followers have found successful than try yours. You keep telling me that I should not lower myself to the level of my opponent and should act on higher principles. Why? If others hit me, I hit back. If they harm me or my people, I harm them. Why should I endure the suffering involved in being my opponent’s redeemer? I am a follower of Prophet Muhammad, not Jesus Christ.



Dear Osama

30th January 2004

You advance the following propositions. First, Americans are embarked on an imperialist project to dominate the world. Second, Muslim societies should be reconstructed on the basis of the true principles of Islam. Third, this cannot be done without getting the Americans out of your societies and overthrowing their native collaborators. Fourth, only terrorist violence can achieve these goals.

As for the first argument, you are wrong to generalise about Americans. Some groups there fit your description, others don’t. Many Americans are deeply troubled by and critical of what their government is doing in their name, and have protested against the recent war in Iraq. Some of those who support the present administration do so because they are fearful after the events of 9/11. Their belief that their country was invulnerable to foreign attack has been shattered, and they live in fear of future attacks. Bush reassures them that his global war on terrorism will give them the security they crave, so they go along with him. As long as you keep talking the way you do, you reinforce their paranoia and support for Bush’s policy. If you had talked the language of peace and linked up with the progressive forces in America, you would have had a better chance of success.

As for your second argument, I could not disagree more. All past and present experience confirms my view that identifying religion with the state corrupts both. Religion has a legitimate place in public life and is an important source of people’s commitments and motivations. But that is wholly different from saying that the state should be based on, enforce, or be guided by religious principles. The state is based on coercion, religion on freedom, and the two simply cannot go together. In your case the situation is made worse by the fact that you take not an open, tolerant and dynamic view of religion, but a static, self-righteous and dogmatic one. This commits you to a tightly knit politico-religious party supervising all areas of individual and social life, the surest way to destroy religion, create a terrorist state, and turn human beings into soulless automata. Have you learned nothing from the disastrous experiences of Iran and your own “land of the two holy mosques,” as you call Saudi Arabia, both of which are beginning to appreciate the need to separate religion and state?

Your third proposition is only partially true. Following our earlier discussion, I looked more closely at the history of US interference in the affairs of Muslim societies. I appreciate better your view that you can’t achieve significant changes in your society without ending US influence. However, removing them physically does not mean that you will be able to banish American values and views of life if your people remain enamoured of them. You can only fight ideas with ideas, and need a more clearly developed alternative. Furthermore, as long as your society remains deeply divided, unjust, and devoid of a strong sense of freedom and cohesion, it will remain too weak to resist external manipulation and domination. Terrorist attacks on outsiders or their domestic representatives may give you a febrile feeling of elation and satisfy your ego, but they achieve nothing lasting. You need to build a cadre of reformers and activists, work among the masses, open up spaces for action by judicious acts of protest, and create a broad-based movement with the power to reconstitute your society. Once your society develops a collective sense of identity and a strong spirit of independence, America would not be able to dominate it.

Finally, you make a serious mistake in rejecting non-violence. Braving the brutality of America’s southern states, Martin Luther King used non-violence to achieve civil rights for black Americans and gave them a sense of pride and self-confidence. Iranians, too, successfully used it against the Shah. The more his troops killed innocent protestors, the more rapidly his regime dissolved, with even some of his troops deserting him. You say that my own countrymen used violence and that I sanctioned it. Some of my countrymen did resort to violence when provoked beyond endurance. Although I said that it was understandable, I continued to condemn it, fasted in a spirit of atonement and even apologised to the colonial rulers for it. To condone isolated acts of violence by desperate individuals is one thing; to make violence the central principle of struggle is totally different.

You rightly say that martyrdom requires witness and that the role of the media is crucial to its success. Some sections of the media are biased and all too ready to oblige their governments; others are not. There is also no reason why you can’t start your own publications to present your views as I did and as Al-Jazeera has done. You should not exaggerate the power of the media in pluralistic societies. They cannot ignore non-violent protests altogether, for this would discredit them. Ordinary men and women know that the media are often biased, and make appropriate allowances for that. Had this not been the case, the scale of the opposition to the war on Iraq in a country like Britain would be inexplicable. I would go so far as to say that by exaggerating the power of the media, you fall into the trap set by your opponents. If your cause is just and is pursued in a peaceful and humane manner, it will command attention. My experience bears this out.

Even if you do not believe in non-violence, you should know by now that your methods have done an incalculable harm to your people: you have discredited a great religion. Millions now instinctively associate Islam with violence and destruction. You have also deeply divided the umma, subjected your followers to torture and degradation, and rendered miserable the lives of many innocent diaspora Muslims. You have given the Bush administration an excuse to unleash extensive violence and pursue a project of global assertiveness. It is time you grew out of your infantile obsession with death and destruction, abandoned your messianic zeal, and showed a bit of humility and good sense. But my religion forbids me to give up on any human being, not even on you.


MK Gandhi

This dialogue is based on a lecture first delivered at Boston University. A longer version can be found in “The Stranger’s Religion: Fascination and Fear” edited by Anna Lannstrom (University of Notre Dame Press)

Response to Sale of Gandhi’s Personal Items

In response to the sale by auction in New York of Gandhi’s round glasses, a pocket watch, leather sandals and other personal items, members of The Gandhi Foundation Executive Committee have the following comments:

“It is rather obscene that items belonging to a man who deliberately led a simple lifestyle are now being sold to the highest bidder in a capitalist system, which Gandhi rejected. The items should rightfully belong in a national museum. It’s a pity that his message is not adopted with the same vigour with which his possessions are being exploited.” – Omar Hayat

“I think that there are at least two issues at stake in the preservation and presentation of any material object:
  1. What meaning does the object in itself convey to the observer. In other words, does it convey meaning at any cultural or political level, or give insight into its creator, previous owners or their contemporaries?  What does the observer gain from seeing it?
  2. The private/public dimension.  If it passes this test of significance, how many people will be freely able to observe it? If it is sold into private hands, what material gain affords to the buyer and what are the implications for the future?
In Gandhi’s case, I am sure he would scoff at any attempt to argue the first and dismiss out of hand any attempt to value his possessions as perverse and a corruption of the ideals he worked so hard to remind us of.” – John Rowley
“I find it pretty disgusting that someone wants to make a lot of money from them but then that’s quite normal in our perverse society.   Prices paid for all sorts of artifacts are outrageous and are a product of the enormous inequality that exists. However I doubt if Gandhi would have wanted such items to be preserved.” – George Paxton

Cecil Evans (1925-2009)

Cecil Evans

Cecil Evans

Obituary of Cecil Evans, Quaker and co-founder of The Gandhi Foundation. Our thanks go to Douglas Butterfield and Jordans Quaker Meeting for permission to reproduce this remembrance of Cecil’s life.


Cecil Evans was born in 1925 in Liverpool of Welsh parentage.  He was not born a Quaker. He wanted to be English and disengage from his Welsh roots so he and his brother joined the Congregational Church which was nearer their home and more progressive than the Welsh Chapels with younger ministers.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Cecil was a pupil at the Liverpool Institute High School, which was evacuated to Bangor. He went back to Liverpool during the “phoney war” but was evacuated again when the Liverpool Docks were bombed. Cecil took School Certificate in 1941 and Higher in 1943; leaving school in April 1944. His was a classical education. His classics master wrote “He has worked with vigour and determination. I am sure that his classical training will serve him well, and that his personal qualities and intellectual ability will carry him far in whatever field he eventually enters.” Cecil tried unsuccessfully to get a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Wartime service

So Cecil registered for military service and joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve on a scheme that was 50% military service and 50% university – with the government giving maintenance grants to ex-service men to go on to university after the war.  He volunteered to serve on minesweepers in the Channel. This experience of wartime naval service shaped his thinking about war. In later life he recalled his naval service with some pride in having cleared the coast of mines, looking back with some satisfaction when in the 1960’s and 1970’s his Quaker service was closely involved with disarmament efforts.


Cecil went to Oxford University to read PPE after the war, where he met Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, who interpreted the West and the East to each other, and wrote Recovery of Faith: the way to a religion of the Spirit, later becoming the second President of India (1962-1967). Cecil also attended a series of lectures in All Souls College stimulated by an American student Richard Hillman. These experiences shaped Cecil’s thinking about religion.

Cecil met a Friend at a lecture he attended – a Mr Sutton who was a professor at St Edmund Hall –  who told Cecil about the Religious Society of Friends.  Cecil did some research on Quakers using Whittaker’s Almanac. He received a brief personal letter in response to his enquiry from Edgar Dunstan, the predecessor of George Gorman, secretary to Quaker Home Service, giving him contact details for Wallasey and Birkenhead Friends Meetings.  He attended Birkenhead Meeting from 1949 and was accepted into membership in 1953.

In 1949 Cecil left Oxford and got a temporary job teaching Latin in a Quaker School at Wigton in the Lake District, moving on to teach at Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire.  He qualified as a teacher at Liverpool University.

12 years in North America; work in the Quaker United Nations Office, New York

Cecil emigrated to Canada in 1952, and spent 12 years in North America. After a period as a university lecturer in philosophy in Manitoba, he become General Secretary of the Canadian Friends Service Committee in Toronto from 1956 to 1960, and attended Toronto Meeting.  He was deputed to attend the UN General Assembly to represent Canadian Friends for a month in 1958.

Cecil then spent 3 years from 1960 in New York as a staff member, and latterly the Director, of the Quaker United Nations Office. Cecil wrote on the issues that the Quaker office was working on; disarmament and world order, conciliation in East-West relations, early cessation of nuclear testing, development of regional peace forces, concerns about the situation in Cuba, the “China Question”, Algeria, Israeli-Arab questions, abolition of capital punishment, and the abolition of slavery worldwide.

Cecil wrote about the formal and informal interactions with delegates that staff of the Quaker UN Office enjoyed, and about holding Quaker House functions on such topics as the role of small nations in disarmaments, the work of the UN Housing Commission, China’s relationship to the UN, and developments in Latin America. All meetings were off-the-record and conducted in an informal atmosphere, where guests generally felt free to participate and found the experience relaxing and refreshing. Many delegates, as well as members of the UN Secretariat, were often glad to explore aspects of problems on which they were working with a group like Friends, a testimony to the confidence established by Friends over the years, especially through relief and educational work. The Quaker UN programme won the respect of Hugh Foot, then the British Ambassador to the UN, later to become Lord Caradon.

Cecil later described this as the high point of his working life, and it left him with the life-long conviction that Christians and the Church should be involved in the political process, not necessarily as politicians, but concerned with political issues; how people are treated, how they are rewarded, how they are housed and educated, as well as with the wider sphere of international relations, for peace and the conditions which make for peace.

Return to England; work for Quakers in London (Britain) Yearly Meeting

In 1964 Cecil returned to England, and worked in London jointly for the East-West Relations Committee and the American Friends Service Committee, with special reference to western relations with China.

Cecil then returned to teaching, obtaining a teaching post at Leighton Park, the Quaker School in Reading, where his friend Richard Coleman was head of Divinity & Classics.  He taught the History and Principles of Quakerism for four years. He completed a Master’s degree in International Politics at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth.

Cecil was the first chairman, from 1966 to 1971, of the United Nations and Disarmament (UNAD) Working Group of Friends Peace and International Relations Committee (FPIRC), and built it up into an effective Group.

In 1971 Cecil was appointed the International Secretary and later General Secretary of the FPIRC. He actively promoted the campaign for the renewal of Britain’s acceptance of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the ratification of the two United Nations Human Rights Covenants. He encouraged Friends to write to MPs. He promoted the campaign to withdraw Britain from the Arms Trade. He wrote to The Times about the importance to the Church of having only ethical investments.

With restructuring in October 1978 he was appointed Assistant General Secretary of Quaker Peace and Service, the amalgamated body of Friends Service Council and the FPIRC, a post he held until his retirement (circa 1990).

Nicholas Sims, who was chairman of UNAD and its successor (the United Nations Committee of QPS), and a member of FPIRC and QPS, writes “During his time at Friends House he was very supportive of his committee members and his colleagues, just the kind of loyal servant our Society owed so much to in the heyday of Quaker international affairs work. He took infinite pains to enable Friends to carry the work forward and to get it right.” Cecil was also secretary of the Quaker group for diplomats in London.

Cecil managed the “One Percent Fund”, arising out of the concern endorsed by Yearly Meeting in 1968, to encourage (by practical example and advocacy) the Quaker concern that 1% of the GNP (the value of all goods and services produced) should go to overseas aid. This target had been recommended by the 2nd UN Trade and Development Conference for overseas aid programmes of wealthier countries by 1975, endorsed by the Pearson Report of the World Bank. Cecil supported the view that this was “the first stumbling step towards the ideal of an international welfare state”, and Cecil was advocating that Friends ought to be concerned about fair trade agreements with developing countries, as well as aid for development. Eventually the work of this Fund was taken forward by the Committee on the Sharing of World Resources.

Cecil is represented in Quaker Faith and Practice in an article he wrote in 1987, and it is a fine expression of Quaker conviction on the roots of world poverty and speaking truth to power;

“Our primary objective in speaking truth to power on social and economic issues, especially on the problem of world poverty, should be the interests of the poor. Our role is to remind the rich and privileged, including ourselves, of the challenge to surrender privilege.”

Cecil represented British Quakers for years on an annual consultation on Quaker work at the UN (QUNC) set up in the 1970s. He participated actively in the NGO Human Rights Network in London, acting as its secretary for a time.  He strongly supported the Quaker witness in Europe at Brussels, and the setting up of Quaker House in Brussels.

Cecil was active ecumenically. He was a member of the British Council of Churches Advisory Forum on Human Rights in the 1970’s. He was greatly valued by his counterparts in the other denominational headquarters and the BCC. He was influential in getting ecumenical support for the abolition of torture, and the abolition of the death penalty, as concerns to be taken forward by the British churches together and promoted on UN agendas.


In 1982 Cecil married Isabel Copeland-Watts at Uxbridge Meeting House and they both became members of Jordans Monthly Meeting (now Chilterns Area Meeting) in 1983, worshipping firstly at Amersham Meeting, where he was an elder, and then at Jordans Local Meeting where he has served as clerk and in many other ways. Friends rejoice at the happiness that their marriage brought to both of them over 26 years. Cecil and Isabel are remembered for their guided walks in the area to trace out the early history of Jordans Meeting in the 17th century.  Cecil is also remembered for his ministry on the life and teaching of William Penn, who is buried at Jordans. He often ministered on the writing of William Penn:

“True Godliness does not turn us out of the world, but enables us to live better in it, and excites our endeavours to mend it”

Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund

From 1980 Cecil has been a Trustee, Chairman and, latterly, Patron of the Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund in London. Originally established in 1962 as the relief arm of Amnesty International, the Fund is now a separate charity and the only agency in the UK making grants specifically to prisoners of conscience – individuals who have been persecuted for their conscientiously-held beliefs, provided that they have not used or advocated violence.  The Fund aims to raise and distribute money to help prisoners of conscience and/or their families rehabilitate themselves during and after their ordeal.  Financial grants cover general hardship relief, furniture, medicines, travel costs, family reunion costs, education, counselling, requalification costs, resettlement costs and protective accompaniment.

As a trustee of the Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund, in 1992, Cecil introduced the Fund’s work to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT), based in Geneva.  Through Cecil’s initial recommendation, this UN Fund agreed to support the Appeal Fund’s beneficiaries who had suffered torture.  Cecil nurtured this relationship for several years as Chair and the support is still ongoing, 17 years later.  In total, £700,000 has been raised to support prisoners of conscience who have been subjected to torture, and  thousands of individuals and their families have benefited from this wonderful legacy. Rosamund Horwood-Smith, former chair of the Fund, has written;

“My memories of Cecil are of his gentle integrity, his sensitivity to the needs of others and his modesty.  He had a wonderful and ready smile, his voice was melodious and his words considered and he gave his time and wise counsel to us at Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund without stint.  We will remember him with great affection and gratitude.”

Tom Blumenau, former Director of the Fund, has written;

“I think the overwhelming quality, which Cecil had, was a complete fairness and the support he gave to his colleagues. He was very much supported in his activities — particularly his work with the Quakers – by his wife Isabel.  He was what one would call a really good man”

Cecil has written many articles on subjects related to peace, particularly for The Friend.  For example, he wrote about his belief in the power of letter writing in ‘speaking truth to power’, and another expressing his approval of the setting up of a Quaker Fellowship by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. He spoke extensively at Friends Meetings, and meetings of the UNA.

Conscientious Objection to paying tax for war purposes

Cecil became the clerk of a Meeting for Sufferings group on Conscientious Objection – the withholding of taxes for military purposes.  With the assistance of Meeting for Sufferings the independent Peace Tax Campaign was set up in 1980. Meeting for Sufferings agreed, on behalf of its own employees, including Cecil, that it could support the conscientious objection of staff members to paying for arms through PAYE, and was supported by Yearly Meeting in 1983. This led to the Clerk and Assistant Clerk of Meeting for Sufferings, Beryl Hibbs and Maisie Birmingham, appearing in court, and judgement was awarded to the Inland Revenue. The decision was appealed before the Master of the Rolls, the clerks spoke movingly in their own defence, but the judge found that the lack of the right to withhold tax did not infringe fundamental liberties. Meeting for Sufferings decided to pay all the withheld tax, on the grounds that the law had been tested as far as possible. In 1987 Yearly Meeting took on the concern afresh, and minuted that

“We are convinced by the Spirit of God to say without any hesitation whatsoever that we must support the right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for war purposes”

Meeting for Sufferings appointed a Working Group on Taxation for Military Purposes, of which Cecil was the clerk, and the group consulted widely with local meetings. In March 1989 Meeting for Sufferings decided in principle to support those employees who held a conscientious objection to paying taxes for military purposes, including Cecil. However, this decision caused considerable controversy locally, and no practicable way forward was found, and the staff request has not been considered further since that time. Meeting for Sufferings also considered a proposal that it should express a corporate objection to collecting tax for military purposes by ceasing to pay this proportion of tax to the Inland Revenue. However Meeting for Sufferings did not proceed with this proposal because of the unease of some staff. From December 1991 Meeting for Sufferings asked its clerk to write a letter to the Inland Revenue each month when the PAYE cheque was sent, explaining the concern of Friends and making it clear that payment was being made under protest.
Yearly Meeting in 1993 agreed to “accept the discipline of taking parliamentary action on payment of taxes for military purposes” which included the writing of letters to MPs.

Parliamentary action continued, and in January 1994 a 10 minute rule bill was introduced on behalf of the Peace Tax Campaign and an Early Day Motion on the subject by the close of the 1994 session of Parliament. A report on this was received by Yearly Meeting in 1995. In all of this, Cecil kept alive a vision of a peace-building fund created with funds diverted from tax revenue used for military purposes, which could be spent on helping to remove the causes of war, such as poverty, the plight of refugees, as well as peace keeping and peace research. Cecil quoted Robert Barclay in his Apology recognising that it may be right for an individual or group to take a position for which most people are not yet ready. Cecil felt that there should be some in the world who seek to present a standard of Christian perfection by going the whole way now, thus being able to indicate the objective to which all will eventually be drawn.

In 1996, Cecil wrote a booklet, The Claims of Conscience, Quakers and Conscientious Objection to taxation for military purposes, published by Quaker Home Service, London, which sets out with great clarity the ethics of conscientious objection, and the history of the concern amongst Friends, with a vision for the future.

The quality of Cecil’s service and the recognition that he had much to offer adult education in the field of international relations led to an invitation in 1994 to become  a Friend in Residence along with his wife, Isabel, in Woodbrooke, the Quaker Adult Education Centre in Birmingham.  Out of his experience he led sessions on the United Nations and rose to the challenge of engaging with diverse views on the role and effectiveness of the UN.

The Gandhi Foundation

In December 1982, Sir Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi won 8 Oscars.  At the time, Cecil was Assistant General Secretary of Quaker Peace and Service and had met Surur Hoda in his role as UK Secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation.  They discovered that they both had a deep admiration for the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi.

The astounding success of Gandhi in the UK months later prompted Surur to invite Cecil to go with Lord Ennals, Diana Schumacher, Martin Polden, Rex Ambler and himself to Sir Richard’s house with a view to setting up The Gandhi Foundation.  The trust deeds were duly completed later that year with Richard as President and David Ennals as Chairman.  Cecil contributed enormous energies to an already dynamic Committee which, from 1985, organised with increasing success three annual events and a quarterly newsletter.  The Gandhi Foundation Annual Lecture is on Gandhi’s birthday [2nd October – now UN Day of Nonviolence] and has had five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates deliver the Lecture to date.  The Gandhi Multi-faith Service has been held every year since 1987 to mark Gandhi’s death on 30th January and a week long Summer School is held to elucidate a Gandhian response to contemporary issues.  The Gandhi Way newsletter has been edited since 1984 by George Paxton which means that the 100th issue will be published this Spring.  The Foundation has funded many other projects over the last quarter century, both here and in India, most benefiting from the tens of thousands of pounds that Cecil raised for The Foundation.

Cecil always offered wise counsel on the way forward.  He led discussions in Committee, in the Summer School, in Conferences and gave lectures about Gandhi whenever he was asked.  Many will happily recall how his diplomatic skills were used so gently but authoritatively, most publicly when he ‘refereed’ speakers at the Multi-faith services held in Kingsley Hall and in St James, Piccadilly:  some let their enthusiasm take them beyond their allotted time and so were shown first a yellow card and then a red card!

Cecil took over as Chairman of the Foundation when David Ennals died in 1995. He then presided over the Annual Lectures given by The Revd the Lord Soper, Mairead Maguire, Bruce Kent, Professor Adam Curle, Dr. Scilla Elworthy, John Hume MP and Simon Hughes MP.  He continued to come to the Lecture even though poorly until October 2008 when Rev Harold Good and Father Alec Reid, who jointly witnessed the decommissioning of IRA weapons, gave the Lecture and received the Peace Award in The House of Lords.

In 1999, Cecil and Surur conceived, planned and presented the first International Gandhi Peace Award.  This was received posthumously by Lady Eirwen Harbottle, the widow of Major-General Sir Michael Harbottle who had founded “Generals for Peace”.   In subsequent years, Cecil saw The Peace Award being given by the sub-Committee to his friends Nicholas Gillett, Peter Dent & Bill Peters, the latter two being the Founders of “Jubilee 2000”.  The Peace Award will continue to be presented in memory of Cecil and Surur Hoda for as long as it is given.

The grace of God in Cecil’s life

Since 1953, when he first joined the Religious Society of Friends, Cecil has worked tirelessly on behalf of others by promoting peace and non-violence.  Stuart Morton, staff member of Quaker Peace and Social Witness writes:

“Throughout all of his work, Cecil has touched and improved many thousands of lives around the world through his dedicated championing of peace, non-violence and reconciliation.  He continues to be an inspiration to all of those who have the pleasure of knowing or working with him. Cecil combined moral and intellectual clarity with a great respect for whoever it was that he was engaging with.  He was dedicated to the work of peace and in my experience worked very hard to be fully ready for any dialogue that would promote peace and justice. His tone of voice was always one of positive encouragement to those staff and committee members who worked alongside him. His generosity of spirit, outward calm, and sensitive veracity marked him out as a Quaker and a diplomat.”

Friends who knew Cecil have commented that he was “a kindler, not a snuffer”: He always wore the broken chain of the Jubilee Debt Campaign in his button hole. He worked constantly for peace; he loved people; he was always gracious. He had a gift for building people up with quiet words of appreciation. The Grace of God shone through him in all these ways. Cecil left us with a vision for the future. He hoped that in the coming century – sooner rather than later – we shall be able to abolish war, and the conditions that make for war. He wrote;

“it may sound far-fetched, but it could be possible, with God’s help, if we have a will to do it. One of the ways of achieving it will be through a strengthened United Nations. The UN has the machinery potentially through it preventative diplomacy and in other ways to help achieve it. It is the responsibility of member governments to enable the UN to fulfil its potential, and for its citizens like ourselves to see that governments do so”.

John Rowley of the Gandhi Foundation writes

“The lasting memory of any encounter with Cecil was his gentle humour, the grace of his manner and the thoughtfulness of his words.  All of us who knew him throughout his unstinting support for The Gandhi Foundation, or who heard or read his erudite and articulate advocacy of non-violence in all human activity, or who benefited from his vast practical experience in resolving conflicts will remember this man with love and a smile.  We were privileged to know him.”

In his garden Cecil was passionate about growing roses, and to the end of his life was the President of the Seer Green Horticultural Society. He found rose growing a therapeutic and restful change from the stresses of his working life. Cecil always carried the Tewkesbury Abbey blessing with him, and it expresses well how the grace of God shone through his life:

Go on your way in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast that which is good; render no man evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted, support the weak, help and cheer the sick, honour all men, love and serve the Lord; and may the blessing of God be upon you and remain with you for ever.

In the last months of his life Cecil moved into a nursing home where he was cared for whilst suffering the early symptoms of dementia, and limited mobility. He was cheerful and positive to the end of his life, sharing worship with Friends who called to visit him in the last two days of his life. Asked how he was he replied, “All the better for seeing you!” He was a benign and kindly Friend who always left his friends feeling better for having met him and known him.  We are glad to have known him.


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