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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)

2008 Peace Award & Annual Lecture – Harold Good & Alec Reid

Dr Omar Hayat, Rev Harold Good, Father Alec Reid, Lord Bhikhu Parekh

Dr Omar Hayat, Father Alec Reid, Rev Harold Good, Lord Bhikhu Parekh

Gandhi Peace Award 2008 – Citation
by Dr. Omar Hayat

Something extraordinary has taken place and is taking place in Northern Ireland. Something very powerful indeed. After decades of troubles the wholly unexpected coalition of the two extremes in the province, the Sinn Fein and the DUP has taken place (originally with the Reverend Paisley as First Minister (now replaced by Peter Robinson) and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister).

However, it would always have been all too easy to despair of any resolution of the tribal politics of the province and Northern Ireland also has of course many similarities to the communal divide of India and the peacemakers of Northern Ireland all along faced in the Protestant/Catholic divide just the same sort of challenge as Mohandas Gandhi did in his prolonged struggle against the force of Hindu/Muslim communalism; which periodically grips India. Northern Ireland was always a Gandhian challenge and sometimes we forget how much of Gandhi’s struggle was one against terrorism. It was a struggle that did cost him his life. Clearly the Gandhi Foundation wanted to celebrate, indeed rejoice, in the triumph of non-violence over violence.

Omar Hayat and Bhikhu Parekh

Omar Hayat and Bhikhu Parekh

Of course, key to the recent political truce was the decommissioning process. Here there was a critical barrier to be overcome. No member of the IRA could afford to be photographed handing in their weapons – this according to their military code is a treasonable offence and so another solution had to be found. That was through the witness statements to the handing in of weapons to trusted representatives of the two communities. The men asked to take on this role were the Reverend Harold Good and Father Alex Reid who acted as clerical witnesses during General John de Chastelain’s disarmament process. This act of being representatives of the two communities and overseeing the disarmament requires a great deal of Trust, a very uncommon trust in today’s world which strives towards transparency, which in some circumstances is a very good thing but also implies a lack of trust. So literally these two men have been trusted by the rest of the world and especially the sectarian parties of Northern Ireland, just on their say so, to have told the truth. Otherwise the whole process would not have progressed. A heavy responsibility indeed.

Alec Reid and Harold Good

Alec Reid and Harold Good

It may be appropriate here if I read a few comments made at the time:

‘I hadn’t heard of Good before I saw him being interviewed on the news following the announcement of the disarmament. He gives a feeling of gentle sincerity and integrity which I personally feel engenders trust. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would feel that he would lie or allow himself to be duped …………..’

‘It’s wonderful to know we have such people of faith as Rev. Good and Father Alec helping to make peace between the people of Northern Ireland and perhaps an encouragement to the rest of us that continue to hold onto `old hurt’ as we continue to blast the darkness instead of lighting a candle.

I want to now say something about the background of these two men to becoming witnesses in the disarmament process.

Rev. Harold Good

Rev. Harold Good

Reverend Harold Good
In all kinds of ways Harold Good has been involved in Gandhian causes. Born 1937 in Derry he was to follow his father into the Methodist ministry. He served as a probationary minister in the Dublin City mission in the 1950’s. He met his wife, Clodagh, whilst serving in Waterford.

In the 60’s he served in Ohio and came into direct involvement with the civil rights movement. He served in the largely black Methodist church in Indianapolis and there he was to be deeply affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King. He made a connection between racism and sectarianism.

Returning to Northern Ireland in 1968 it was through being assigned to a chapel in Agnes Road, Shankill, that he was plunged into the heart of the sectarian divide. He was witness to the consequences of brutal murders:

`I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.’ He had to draw on the philosophy of John Wesley: `be friends of all and enemies of none.’ To quote Good himself: `honest relationships must have both, patience and aggressiveness, for the building of trust.’

In the course of his ministry he was active in the work of reconciliation and the resettlement of prisoners. He was the Director in the 70’s of the Corrymeela community., a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners), part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin road prison, worked closely with both Republican and loyalist prisoners. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was of course the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

In 1999 he was able to take a sabbatical in South Africa and his life converged very immediately with the life of Gandhi. He attended the centenary of the Phoenix farm settlement outside Durban and met Gandhi’s granddaughter. He became close to Bishop Tutu and was inspired by the South African Truth Commission and became actively involved and remains so to this day in the equivalent Healing through Remembering project in Northern Ireland.

Reverend Good has become a recognised speaker on conflict resolution, invited for example to lecture to the Basques. The Basque government awarded him the Rene Cassin Human Rights award. He and Father Reid were invited to give the John Hume lecture at the McGill University.

He was awarded an MBE in 1970 and OBE in 1985. He was elected President of the Irish Methodist Church 2001-2.

Father Alec Reid

Father Alec Reid

Father Alec Reid
Brought up in County Tipperary he was professed as a monk in the Redemptorist order 1950 (the Redemptorists were founded in 1732, for mission work among the poor, and significantly refused to restrict their mission to just educational work) and in 1954 joined the Clonard monastery in Belfast, sited at the crossroads between the Nationalist Catholic community and the Protestant Shankill road. Here he was to spend the next 40 years.

In the nature of his vocation this has been a more public than private life. In 1988 he gave the last rites to two Royal signals corporals who accidentally strayed into a republican funeral and were killed by the Provisional IRA. Father Reid has always been a committed opponent of violence. In this cause from the late 80’s onwards he engaged in talks between all the political parties, first facilitating a meeting between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, meeting Charles Haughey in 1987 and thereafter involved discreetly in the political process right through to the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

He has likewise been involved in the peace process in Basque Spain and in 2002 was awarded the Sabino Arana `World Mirror prize ‘by the Sabino Arana Foundation of Bilbao.

He is currently based in Dublin. Although, recently he was not feeling too well we are delighted that he has come today. So, here was the background to the trust placed in them both as a witness to the decommissioning process.

I would now like to ask Lord Bhikhu Parekh to present the Gandhi Foundation 2008 International Peace Award to Reverend Harold Good & Father Alexander Reid.

Bhikhu Parekh and Harold Good

Bhikhu Parekh and Harold Good

Peace Award Acceptance Speech & Annual Lecture
by Dr. Harold Good

Thank you … and thank you Father Alec for speaking on behalf of us both and for expressing so eloquently the immense sense of honour and privilege of which we are both so aware this evening.

Following Our Part In The Verification of De-Commissioning . . .
There was a great deal of interest on the part of journalists and writers, all of whom wanted a “scoop”! One of them interviewed me for a book in which he asked why I got myself involved in all of this. In reply I said something to the effect that I wanted to leave my grandchildren and the children of their generation, the gift of peace. One of my daughters was reading this to her ten year old son and said,

“Wasn’t that a nice thing Granddad said … he wanted to leave you the gift of peace !” To which he replied, “I hope he will leave us some of his money as well !”

I hope he will be happy with the peace …. because there won’t be a lot else! More seriously, I can think of no greater gift that one generation could leave to another, than the gift of a world more at peace with itself than the one it inherited.

Gandhi Foundation audience

Gandhi Foundation audience

I know that this is where we and Gandhi and this Foundation which bears his name will find common ground. We can all think of iconic figures of the 20th Century. People who have left their mark on the pages of history for many different reasons. Some for their music, some for their analytical insights and others for their scientific achievements. But of those who have made the greatest contribution to our understanding of how we are meant to resolve our conflicts and how we are to share life on this planet, the first names to come to mind will be those of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Each of them in their own distinctive way has influenced us all, as they have influenced history. But of the four, the one whose life and teaching helped more than any to shape the thinking of the other three was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

This year we have marked the 40th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and the 60th Anniversary of the death of Gandhi. How ironic, that two relentless advocates of non-violence should both suffer such a violent death. Those of my age and above may remember something of that fateful 30th day of January, 1948 , when on our crackling wireless sets we heard of the assassination of this strangely clad, skeletal and bespectacled little man in the distant land of India. As a ten year old schoolboy I could not have understood the significance of that event and would have paid it little attention.

For me it was many years later when I began to understand the impact of Gandhi’s teaching upon a world that lay well beyond the shores of either India or Ireland. By then it was the mid-sixties and I was living and studying in the then very turbulent and racially divided United States of America.

During that time I was serving a black inner-city congregation – from whom I learned much more about grace than I did about race! But nothing prepared me for the task of ministering to those people in the week that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. A week when everything he had preached and learned from Gandhi was put to the ultimate test. But a week in which America and the world was to see that no assassin’s bullet could destroy the dream. A dream which is unfolding before our very eyes during these final days of the American election.

It was not surprising, that upon my return to Ireland in the late sixties I was to bring something of that experience into an inner city parish in the then turbulent Northern Ireland. It was on our first visit to South Africa that Clodagh and I stood on the railway platform in Pietermaritzburg where Gandhi , the Cambridge educated lawyer was ejected from the first class compartment for no reason other than the colour of his skin and his ethnic origins. This, of course, is where it all began. Those who flung him from that train could not have known that in that moment they were launching one of the most powerful movements in world history!

Later we drove to Phoenix near Durban to see for ourselves the settlement where Gandhi established a model of community for fellow Indians who, like himself, had been marginalised in the country of their adoption. We had been invited to the dedication of a memorial to Gandhi, to be attended by the Prime Minister of India. Our host was responsible for the arrangements, and with a life-size marble bust of the Mahatma on the back seat we bumped our way to Phoenix. I have a wonderful memory of Clodagh and Gandhi hanging on to their seats, if not each other! Sadly, it rained all through the ceremony and when leaving our vehicle got firmly stuck in a sea of mud. We pushed and shoved with the help of a gracious man who I asked to help us … not knowing until we were both covered in mud that he was none other than the grandson of Gandhi himself!

Having shared all of that, I hasten to add that these rich experiences do not make me a Gandhian expert. On the contrary, I am very conscious that I am in the presence of people who have already forgotten more than I will ever know about the Mahatma. So I will be cautious in my references!

On a recent evening I watched a BBC documentary to mark the 40th Anniversary of the first Civil Rights March in Northern Ireland. It was entitled, “The Day the Troubles Began”. But as we all know, our troubles began long before 5th October 1968. As I watched the scenes of bloody confrontation between the peaceful protestors and the police, I looked at Gandhi on the cover of the book on my knee and thought how different our story might have been if long before 1968 we had taken time to hear what Gandhi had to say to Ireland, as well as to India.

Not that the real Gandhi was the infallible ‘saint’ which many of his followers perceived him to be. Indeed, he would be the first to remind us of his own imperfections and of his personal vulnerability.

“I am not a god”, he would say. “Indeed, if the truth were known I am tempted more than most men . . .”

In his personal life he was a complex man. Like the Protestant Puritans he struggled with irrational guilt and his natural desires. In his political life he had many critics as well as disciples. His biographer, Judith Brown, encapsulates him well when she writes,

“He was a man of his time and place, with a particular philosophical and religious background, facing a particular political and social situation. He was also deeply human, capable of heights and depths of sensation and vision, of great enlightenment and dire doubt. The roots of his attitudes and actions were tangled, as are most people’s. He made good and bad choices. He hurt some, yet consoled and sustained many. He was caught in compromises, inevitable in public life.”

So what was it about this enigmatic figure which made him an icon of the 20th Century? What is it about him that continues to bring people , such as ourselves, together on a night such as this, sixty years after his death? Again, Judith Brown.

“….. fundamentally, Gandhi was a man of vision and action, who asked many of the profoundest questions that face humankind as it struggles to live in community. It was this confrontation out of a real humanity which marks his true stature and which makes his struggles and glimpses of truth of enduring significance. As a man of his time who asked the deepest questions, even though he did not have all the answers, he became a man for all times and all places.”

Returning to the theme of this evening, “Lessons for Peacemaking”, Gandhi offers two fundamental principles to those who would be serious about making peace. Firstly he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”, reminding us of the need for personal integrity in the search for peace. This was the distinctive genius of Gandhi, he ‘lived the dream’. His words and actions were one, not two. In his lifestyle; his long marches; his going to prison; his readiness to fast unto death, there could be no doubt about his integrity as well as his intent.

Secondly, in a world where people instinctively assume that violence is the only sure way to challenge and change an unjust order, or that physical force is the only way of dealing with civil unrest and insurgency, Gandhi insists that there is always another and a better way. This is where I want us to connect with the Irish Peace Process.

Amongst the many books from which I sought inspiration for this lecture, I found this one in my local library. What a fascinating title, “A Word to Gandhi, the lesson of Ireland”! It is a remarkable book, addressed to Gandhi in 1931 by none other than a Brigadier-General Crozier of the British Army who had served in Ireland during the bloodiest years of the Irish rebellion. The Brigadier concludes his book with these words,

“Having seen a great deal of force in use, having applied that force for over thirty years, having experienced the utter failure of force, I must needs look for other weapons with which to achieve the welfare of mankind”

In his insistence that there must be another and a better way to resolve the problems of both Ireland and India, he pleads for a return to

“…… the weapons of love, tolerance, faith and truth and a cleansing of the stables”

Those of us who draw our inspiration from the Jesus of history, as did Gandhi, will remember his words,

“you have heard it said of old …but l tell you there is a new way”.

And it was St Paul who introduced his timeless words about the power of love by saying,

“But now I will show you a more excellent way . . .” (1st Corinthians 12/13)

For All Parties To Our Conflict,
The time had come when we knew there had to be another way. After thirty and more years of violence, the people of Ireland, North and South, Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant, were weary of war. None more so than the victims and survivors of our conflict who would resonate with the words of Gandhi when he spoke of the awfulness and the futility of violence.

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

Inevitably, the search for another and a better way begins with the acceptance of REALITY. And, as we know, reality can be painful. For Republicans, with their long history, the painful reality was that their political aspiration would not and could not be achieved through an never-ending armed and bloody struggle. For the British Government it meant acceptance of the reality that there was never going to be a military solution to the Irish problem.

A reality about which Brigadier Crozier had written to Gandhi so many years before! . . . Why does it take us so long to learn from the lessons of history? But within those realities were other realities. None of which came easily to a people entrenched in history and engulfed in violence. For Unionists it was the acceptance of the right of Nationalists to equal rights of citizenship as well as their legitimate political aspiration. For Nationalists it was the acceptance of the right of Unionists to theirs. In the search for a better way one must offer to the other nothing less than one would ask for oneself. The ultimate reality was that this part of Ireland was home to people of both traditions, Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant, who must finally find a way to live together.

IF the acceptance of REALITY is the first step in the search for peace . . . the second is the need for DIALOGUE. This is not to suggest that there was no dialogue prior to the setting up of formal talks. While not widely publicised, throughout those violent years there was much informal dialogue which for many of us began on the streets of our cities in the darkest of days and nights.

We continued that dialogue in Protestant parsonages and Catholic monasteries; in private homes and grass-roots movements where people of goodwill came together to share their fears and their frustration. For those involved, such gatherings provided an antidote to consummate hatred and dismal despair and sustained a vision of what ultimately was to follow.

However, significant as it was, much of this dialogue was limited to conversations between like-minded people, none of whom would ever resort to violence as a way of resolving a dispute of any kind. The time had come for dialogue to include historic enemies. Something that would be resisted, but which people of goodwill were prepared to facilitate.

Yitzhak Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel, made relentless efforts to make peace with Palestine. During the peace talks, he was pictured shaking the hand of his arch enemy, Yassar Arafat. In the face of furious criticism, he said, “you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.” In the context of our community, subjected to years of violence and counter-violence, this would be as unthinkable as it was unpalatable. Not many would understand Gandhi’s approach to dialogue with an opponent. Gandhi’s word for this was “SATYAGRAHA.” He explains it …

“It is never the intention of SATYAGRAHA to embarrass your opponent. The appeal is never to his fear; it is, must be, always to his heart.”

“Behind my non-cooperation there is always the keenest desire to co-operate on the slightest pretext, even with the worst of opponents. To me, a very imperfect mortal, ever in need of God’s grace, no one is beyond redemption.”

In describing the dialogue which brought us to where we now are, I use the image of a curtained stage. There were three levels at which people talked, which I describe as ….

  1. Back-stage
  2. Off-stage
  3. On-stage

By this I refer to ‘behind the scenes’, informal, unrecorded conversations for which no one would be held accountable. Opportunities for people from all sides of this conflict to hear one another, some for the very first time. As it had to be an HONEST dialogue it was not always an easy dialogue. While TRUTH can ultimately make us free, it can also be very painful.

All too easily forgotten due to later events and the passage of time, was the courageous initiative on the part of Protestant churchmen who, in 1974, met secretly with the leadership of the IRA at a hotel in Feakle, Co Clare. Our history might have been very different had those talks not been abandoned after the unexpected arrival of the Irish Police in response to a tip-off!

While it is of such conversations that Father Alec and I are most familiar, you will have noticed that we do not speak of them in any detail. Unlike others, there will be no ‘reveal-all books’! For honest dialogue there must be mutual trust…. a trust which is sacred and must never be betrayed.

Father Alec Reid

Father Alec Reid

For Father Alec there was the remarkable back-stage dialogue which led to the ground-breaking Hume-Adams talks resulting in the IRA cease-fire of 1994. In a BBC 4 profile it was Olivia O’Leary who paid my friend a well-deserved compliment when she said,

“In every conflict there is a no man’s land into which few will dare to go. Father Alec was one who did.”

For me, and for others from my tradition, there were endless days of dialogue with those committed to the antithesis of the political position embraced by the majority of people from our part of the community. This was not an easy tension, but one we chose to carry discreetly within ourselves.

I return to my image of the curtained stage. At the theatre, when curtains are pulled, the band plays and the leading players walk on stage, we are unaware of those who helped to shift the furniture, adjust the lighting and write the scripts. What matters most is what we see before us, and what is to follow. So it is in making peace. And rightly so.

The second level of dialogue is that which we describe as “OFF-STAGE”
For those involved this was difficult, potentially politically dangerous and full of risk, for there is no definite outcome. In the 1980s an IRA re-armed by Libya intensified its violent campaign and the state was accused of “shoot to kill”. There seemed to be no end to the “Long War”. But behind those violent images was a secret ‘backchannel’ involving the British Security Services, a facilitator, Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, and Martin McGuinness. Having accepted reality, both sides knew that the only way out of this conflict would be through negotiation and dialogue. This is but one example of “off stage” dialogue where issues and potential are explored in private before arriving on the public stage.

The third level of dialogue we describe as “ON STAGE”.
Throughout the years there have been many much publicized initiatives, each of which it was hoped would break the deadlock and resolve our conflict. We remember most by name, if not in detail. The ‘Anglo-Irish Agreement’; the ‘Sunningdale Agreement’ ; the ‘Downing Street Declaration’. Usually these initiatives are described as “failed” or “ill-fated”. In my view they should not be, for each was followed by strenuous efforts to build on what had been learned. Here I pause to pay tribute to the leadership of David Trimble and John Hume who put process and peace before self and party and paid a high electoral price, but without whose vision and effort we would not be where we now are.

An important lesson from our history is that to have any chance of success, dialogue must be inclusive. Father Alec’s simple but profoundly important image is of a ‘table’ around which all parties to a conflict are invited to sit, as equals. This was the basis of the talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell which led to the Good Friday Agreement. While Ian Paisley’s party and lesser known Bob McCartney chose to leave the table when Sinn Fein took their seats, their seats were kept for them while others sat through long days and nights until they arrived at agreement.

This was to be the genius of the Good Friday Agreement. As a ‘man-made’ agreement it could not be perfect, and was not acceptable to all. But in separate referenda it received the overwhelming endorsement of the people in both parts of Ireland. Here at last was CONSENSUS as to what was no longer acceptable as well as agreement on a way forward based on exclusively peaceful means and respect for the rights of all
To achieve consensus, there is an inevitable need for COMPROMISE.

Those who would argue that ‘compromise’ is a doubtful if not ‘dirty’ word will know that no marriage or any meaningful relationship would survive without it! It is not without significance that the words ‘compromise’ and ‘accommodation’ share a common root. Therefore compromise, like accommodation, is about making space for one another.

In the Good Friday Agreement there was much that was mutually acceptable to all of the parties. But there were highly contentious issues which could only be resolved through compromise. One such issue was the demand for the early release of ‘politically-motivated’ prisoners from both sides of our conflict, many of whom had been guilty of the most heinous of crimes.

At that time I chaired an organisation that shared responsibility for the care and resettlement of prisoners of all kinds and we facilitated an informed debate on the issue. Amongst those who had difficulty with the concept of early release were people from the churches.

So, I invited their representatives to meet with Brian Currin, a South African lawyer who had been involved within their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of my guests asked,

“But what about justice?”

“Don’t speak or think of this as justice” said Brian. “This is not about justice. You cannot speak of this as justice to a widow or an orphan. This is about giving all parties to the conflict an opportunity to share in a new beginning, whether you think they deserve it or not.”

“That” said I, “is what we as preachers call ‘grace’!”

“If that is your word”, said he, “keep using it for you will need a lot of it!”

In addition to ‘reality’; ‘dialogue’; ‘consensus’ and ‘compromise’, every peace process needs visible ‘SIGNS AND SYMBOLS’. This was what lay behind the demand of Unionists, and of both governments, for the complete de-commissioning of the weapons of the IRA. For Unionists, they would not contemplate sharing government with Republicans until there was evidence of ‘deeds not words’.

The historic Constitution of the Republican movement clearly forbids the surrender of one’s weapon. It speaks highly of the patience of Gen. John de Chastelain and his colleagues on the International Commission on De-commissioning that they were able to agree a process with the leadership of the IRA whereby their weapons would be put permanently ‘beyond use’ and ‘beyond reach.’ It was no surprise that the demand of Mr Paisley and the Democratic Unionists for photographic evidence was unacceptable to the IRA. The compromise was that two clerics, one Catholic and one Protestant, should be the ‘seeing eyes’ to verify what had taken place. Father Alec and I were entrusted with that task. While we do not speak of the detail of that exercise, neither of us will forget the moment when out of the shadows, a lone figure who watched over us during those days stepped forward and with military precision handed his weapon to General de Chastelain.

At that moment Father Alec leaned over and whispered in my ear, “there goes the last gun out of Irish politics.”

To report what we had seen with our own eyes was conformation of a visible sign that as far as Republicans were concerned, ‘their war was over’.

Other visible confidence-building measures included the implementation of the Patten Report on policing. A new name, new uniform, badges and insignia were very visible signs and symbols of a new Police which from now on would be fully accountable and representative of the whole community.

And there were those remarkable images from May of last year when all of the parties took their seats in the new Stormont Assembly. For me the lasting image is that of First Minister, Ian Paisley, and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, going through the door of that building. Note the hand of one upon the arm of the other. This truly was ‘the hand of history’. And worth a thousand choreographed handshakes!

These are but some of the ‘Lessons for Peacemaking’, from our story. We could go on to speak of the need for ‘HOPE’. In one of his biographies , Gandhi is described in the language of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah as ‘a prisoner of hope’. Without that dogged and at times stubborn quality of hope, every peace process would fall victim to despair.

Many years ago, during the darkest days and nights of our troubles, our local newspaper invited children to write of their hopes for Northern Ireland. I still have the cutting with the simple hope of one little girl who wrote,

‘I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what are they bombing tonight.’

When I saw the cover of the Good Friday Agreement, I wondered did she remember what she wrote? I certainly did, for it was her letter as much as anything which prevented me from giving up.

Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace. In the context of his beloved India, Gandhi wrote what would well describe what we have seen . . .

“Things undreamt of are daily being seen, the impossible is ever becoming possible. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence.”

But while lessons have been learned, we cannot sit back and assume that our schooling in the ways of peace is complete. It is the American poet Robert Frost who speaks of the temptation to retreat to what might appear to be a ‘safe’ place.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep … but we have miles to go before we sleep … and we have promises to keep.”

Last year, in the Basque Country, Father Alec and I shared a platform with Rolf Meyer, former Minister for Security in the discredited Apartheid Government of South Africa. He later became the chief negotiator in a peace process with the ANC. He outlined ten steps in that process. Number 9 was the need for a ‘CHANGE OF MIND’. What could follow that? As preachers we should have known. Number 10 was the need for ‘A CHANGE OF HEART.’

Remembering what happened on the train at Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi would have rejoiced in hearing that. As a deeply spiritual person, who insisted that spiritual values should be the basis for political action, he would resonate with that need for a change of heart.

As we observed the relationship between First Minister Ian Paisley, the man who consistently said “No” and “Never”, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, self-confessed commander of the IRA, there was clearly something more than a change of mind!

As churches, we must accept responsibility for our part in our tragic history. But if part of the problem, we must now be part of the solution. And if we are true to what we preach, our distinctive contribution must be in the transformation of hearts and minds. Only when we dismantle the ‘barricades’ in our attitudes will the peace walls be taken down. It will be in the de-commissioning of our mind-set that we will set each other free from fear.

Like Gandhi, we too are on an unfinished journey. None must be left behind, not least those victims on every side who have not yet found healing. Like Gandhi we too have our deep disappointments as we see what he called

“wasted opportunity through the scramble for power and diversion of political energy”

But from the lessons of history, this is a journey from which we dare not turn back, not least for the sake of the child who wrote that letter and her children and theirs. So thank you for taking time to try and understand us, and please be patient with us as we continue our journey and share our story.

Gandhi vs Terrorism – by Mark Juergensmeyer

A review of an article published in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 2007

This issue of Daedalus features a number of articles on violence and nonviolence with one by Mark Juergensmeyer dealing in particular with Gandhi’s approach. The author wrote in 1984 an inspiring book, Fighting with Gandhi: A Step-by-step Strategy for Resolving Everyday Conflicts, which was republished as a paperback in 2002. The book shows how one can redirect the focus of a fight from persons to principles, determine the truth of one’s position in an argument, cope with a recalcitrant opponent, use the power of noncooperation, and know when a conflict is truly resolved.

In the article Juergensmeyer deals with the attack by an Indian student Madan Lal Dhingra on a British official in London in 1909. Gandhi blamed not so much the act as the “mad idea” that lay behind it. The strategy for confronting terrorism should consist of the following elements: 

  1. Stop an act of violence in its tracks
  2. Address the issues behind the terrorism
  3. Maintain the moral high ground. 

The author then questions whether these principles do work and uses the case of Northern Ireland. The situation of the two parties were extreme and uncompromising yet ultimately they were able to break through this impasse by employing several basic nonviolent techniques. These were: 

  1. Seeing the other side’s point of view 
  2. Not responding to violence in kind 
  3. Letting moderate voices surface
  4. Isolating radical voices
  5. Setting up channels of communication. 

He concludes that at least in one case in recent political history terrorism has come to an end through nonviolent means. But he adds: is it reasonable to conclude that this approach could work in other situations? Could it work in Kashmir, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which might be more complex, and what about jihadi war? In the latter, positions have been magnified into a moral contest of such proportions that it has become a sacred struggle. Is a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution relevant to the global jihadi war?

Juergensmeyer returns to the three principles of Gandhi outlined in the second paragraph above. The idea of war suggests an absolutism of conflict where reason and negotiation have no place and where opponents are enemies. For Gandhi the means used to conduct a struggle must be consistent with the goals to be achieved.

Piet Dijkstra

The Rise of the Suicide Bomber – by Omar Hayat

To understand the recent suicide attacks that have occurred in London, Madrid, New York and Bali we need to understand how the Muslim suicide attacks originated and objectively determine if religion played a significant contributory factor. This understanding may be able to prevent further attacks.

The Palestinian use of suicide terrorism is a good starting point in understanding this phenomenon. After the initial futile traditional war of 1948-49 the Palestinians in the 50s and early 60s tried unsuccessfully to approach world institutions to overcome the initial Israeli land capture. The pre-emptive strike by Israel in 1956 and 1967 and the final Arab attack of 1973-74 resulted in further capture of Palestinian lands by Israel and increasing marginalisation of Palestinian rights. These events led directly on to the early Palestinian terrorists of the 70s (Munich 1972, hijacking of Pan Am flight 110, etc.).

These were the traditional nationalistic terrorists with a secular outlook. The first Palestinian suicide attack in Israel did not occur for a further twenty years till April 1994 (8 people killed) in the town of Afula. This attack, according to Hamas, was a direct response to the killings with a Galil assault rifle of Muslim worshippers at the Machpelah Cave by Dr. Baruch Goldstein in February 1994 (29 dead and wounding 125). It is a point worthy of note that the Palestinians did not engage in suicide attacks till 1994 despite of the fact that their struggle had continued since the early 1950s. However, the first suicide attack in the Middle East pre-dated the Palestinian suicide attack by some ten years. Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (June 1982, first invasion in March 1978) and the international community’s connivance, or at best ambivalence, to that invasion, Arabs of that region experienced further humiliation and desperation culminating in the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982 (killing of up to 3,000 men women and children). This act and other acts of aggression, this time on the part of the US navy led directly to the first suicide attacks in October 1983 against the USA and French marine compounds (242 US and 54 French marines killed, scores injured). The suicide attack was carried out by Shia Muslims as opposed to Sunni Muslims. This attack followed in the wake of a conflict that had been continuing since the early 1970s and political/economic tensions that had existed in Lebanese society since the early 1960s.

During roughly the time that the Shia Muslims had started to engage in suicide attacks in Lebanon, in a conflict that was basically nationalistic, Afghanistan was fermenting a Sunni Jihadist movement created with the financial, military and ideological support of the USA. The USA was calling for a “Muslim Holy war” against the Soviet Union invasion of December 1979. It is ironic that at the time the USA was actively helping to create an Islamic Jihadist movement in Afghanistan it was also opposing another Islamic revolution namely the Shia Islamic Revolution that occurred in Iran (November 1979).

One of the heads of the Afghani foreign Muhajadeen was, our very own, Osama bin Laden. However, there were no incidents of suicide attacks against the Soviets over and beyond the suicidal attacks that soldiers commit in gaining ground ­ and by the way our perverse society world-wide decorates such acts of violent suicidal heroism with medals of honour posthumously given. In Afghanistan no suicide attacks were happening, mainly because the Muhajadeens were rightly thinking that they were winning and their struggle was being recognised. No suicide attacks were happening despite the fact that the resistance had an overtly Sunni Islamic Jihadist ideology and over 100,000 recruits from all over the Muslim world had entered to fight and do “God¹s work”. Meanwhile, as Iran and Lebanon gained their political independence Shia suicide missions quickly went out of favour.

As the Soviet Union was forced out through this “Holy war” against the Soviet infidel, other events in the Sunni Muslim world were now causing tensions with the once favoured friend, the USA. In India, the Kashmir armed insurgency gained ground in 1989. The majority of the population did not want independence or to secede to Pakistan but wanted better economic prosperity and greater political autonomy. The ham-handed approach of the Indian Government coupled with the religious fighters that had entered from the Afghanistan conflict succeeded in making this conflict another one of “God’s work”. The even greater suppression of the average Kashmiri’s basic rights by the Indian soldiers played into the hands of the religious extremists and alienated large sections of society. Twelve years into the conflict in May 2000, Afaq Ahmad Shah, a 12th grade student blew himself up along with his Maruti car attacking the 15 Corps Headquarters in Badamibagh Cantonment and became the first suicide bomber in Kashmir.

In 1991, after the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq, the USA led a coalition of countries to evict Iraq out of Kuwait. However, amongst the Muslim populace (and many others) this was less a war of Liberation and more a war to gain control over the Middle East. The continued presence of the US army in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (recently removed to Qatar) only strengthened that feeling and gave support to the religious right claim that the Muslim “holy lands” were under occupation.

In 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia in the wave of other such declarations. However, this independence declaration was not accepted and through internal misrule Chechnya became a lawless territory. In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin ordered 40,000 troops to take back Chechnya in what he thought would be a quick, politically advantageous and popular move. In fact, it turned out to be a quagmire and another fertile ground for religious extremists who came over again from the Afghan conflict to do “God’s work”. Russia was again fighting the same enemy but now in its own back yard. The Russian military use of heavy weaponry and extreme violence against the already traumatised populace only created greater resentment and violence. In May 2003 two female suicide bombers attacked Chechen Administrator Mufti Akhmed Kadyrov during a religious festival in Iliskhan Yurt and became the first Chechen suicide attackers. Kadyrov escaped injury, but 14 other persons were killed and 43 were wounded. Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility. As in Palestine, Lebanon and Kashmir this conflict had been continuing for over ten years before the recourse to suicide attackers and still only military/political targets were chosen by the suicide bombers and again the ultimate goal was secular.

In 1992 Algeria went to the polls and a religious party FIS won over half the seats in the first round of elections but not enough to form a government. The second round of elections was called off as the Army took over and banned FIS. Although FIS’s democratic credentials were dubious at best they had nevertheless won in a democratic ballot. The response of the West, in effect, was to support the Army takeover. Again, although many Muslims did not support FIS the fact that the West did not strongly protest against a military junta taking control of a country and annulling elections proved in the minds of many Muslims that the West had a deep-seated hypocrisy towards Muslim countries. The religious extremists were then able to claim that they tried the democratic route but this was denied.

In 1996 the Kosovo war began after former Yugoslav republics wanted independence, starting with Croatia. However, the Serbs were not willing to lose “their country”. In this conflict the Bosnians who enjoyed a multi-religious society became classed as the Muslim Bosnians and were prevented by the West from arming themselves to defend against Serb aggression. For their own part the Bosnian political leaders had their own ambitions of leading “their own country”. The policy of denying arms eventually led to the shameful genocide of over 7,000 men and boys, under the noses of the Dutch UN soldiers, by General Ratko Mladic and Dr. Radovan Karadzic’s forces (the two men later were to receive an award on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church for doing “God’s work”). This genocidal event was not only the most shameful in modern Dutch or UN history but also served the cause of the religious extremists who argued that “Muslims must protect and defend themselves” and only a Muslim Khilafat (state) could do this. Of course, they are incapable of acknowledging that the “West” also came to the aid of Bosnia ­ they only see a homogenised Christian West and a homogenised Muslim world.

Political failures rather than religion

These events laid the seeds of hostility, humiliation, desperation and a kind of “occupation of the mind” even amongst people not living in occupied lands and the view that the West is complicit in subjugating the Muslim world and is highly hypocritical. Of course, the finer details that every society is heterogeneous by nature and that millions are fully committed in Western democracies to root out exploitation is often forgotten in the heat of a debate. However, the fact that all these conflicts have a political basis and that religious extremists are able to highjack these for their own causes reflects the failure of politics and conflict resolution and not the attraction and persuasive abilities of the religious right or the cult of the suicide attacker. We have seen that in each incidence the suicide attack is a weapon of last and not first resort despite the alleged promise of heaven and heavenly pleasures.

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through the use of highly sophisticated, though largely indiscriminate, high altitude weaponry against, in one instance, a basically unarmed country and in the case of the other a primitive army has further fuelled resentment against the USA and its coalition allies. This despite the fact that the Taliban government was deeply unpopular with most Muslims worldwide as demonstrated by the proclamations of horror at the mindless destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. The Iraq war and the false reasons given to justify it has conclusively proven to many Muslims that the USA and its allies cannot be relied upon as being honest brokers and are only in Iraq for its natural resources. Again, the deposing of a hated ruler, Saddam Hussain, did not bring any plaudits from the Muslim world as the intentions of the allies were fundamentally questioned and the hypocrisy of supporting Saddam in the Iranian conflict and now deposing him was apparent. In both these countries where occupation exists and life is intolerable the political and religious extremists have found plenty of recruits who are willing to become suicide bombers (roughly 1 a day in 2004 in Iraq). Again, this reflects the desperation of the situation and the failure of the occupying forces rather than some fatal attraction on the part of the populace to the cult of suicide bombers. Further, in both these countries conflict has been occurring for more than twenty years and only now have they both resorted to suicide attacks. A more subtle point coming out from the use of force by great powers is the rationalisation on the part of the disadvantaged that only through violence can political aims be achieved. The continuing injustice in Palestine further assists the religious extremist’s mono-spectacled view of the world.

Surely, as we have seen an end to Shia suicide attacks in Lebanon as it started to determine it’s own political future through a multi-party democracy and we even see not just the theocratic state of Iran not supporting suicide missions but also the general population not being drawn towards such extremes as they themselves now control their own political future, we need to politically address the fundamental reasons behind the Sunni suicide attacker.

The cause of recent Sunni Muslim suicide attacks are purely political and result from a feeling of desperation, alienation, “occupation of the mind”, poor understanding of political realities, especially on the part of the actual suicide attacker, and not from theology. The religious element in the current wave of Muslim suicide bombers is used as a justification but if there was not a religious justification then it would be justification in another guise and the attacks would still continue. We only need to see the Tamil Tigers’ suicide attacks to realise that there is no religious foundation to suicide attacks. In fact the numbers killed by Tiger suicide attacks suggest that they are the most adept at this form of terrorism with the first attack occurring on July 5, 1987, with the objective of preventing Sri Lankan troops from advancing to Jaffna town, the political and cultural capital of Tamils. Again this attack was out of desperation (the attack killed 40 government troops). The fact that this attack occurred in 1987 some seven years before Sunni Muslim suicide attacks and only four years into the Tamil conflict again highlights the point that resorting to suicide attacks is fundamentally a political and not a religious action. Further, in Tiger folklore, human bomb volunteers (as they are called) are held in high esteem. He or she is extended the ‘privilege’ of having the ‘last supper’ with LTTE chief Prabhakaran before setting out on the mission. This is very reminiscent of the Palestinian bombers’ cult and is worthy of note that each group hold in high respect the suicide bomber and their “sacrifice”.

Of course, those religious clerics who justify and encourage suicide attacks do play a role in the minds of the actual attackers. Here we do need to make a distinction between suicide attacks that occur in a conflict zone, be it Palestine or Chechnya, and those that occur outside a conflict zone such as New York, Madrid, Bali or London. This is not to say that the pain and suffering caused by such acts is less in a conflict zone but that the mentality that is at play is certainly different since the problems facing the attackers’ community is more immediate.

An eye for an eye

Taking the case for attacks only in non-conflict zones we see that the latest trend in the suicide attacks is to choose “soft” targets, i.e. hotels, public transport systems and buildings ­ mainly because the “hard” targets are just too difficult to reach, e.g. the protection offered to say President Bush or Prime Minister Blair or other senior political figures and institutions. The extremist religious clerics have therefore reinvented the teachings of the Koran by taking out of context a few lines thereby perverting it’s meaning to justify attacks on purely civilian targets, e.g. the Bali bombings. Their political rational is that all targets are justified as all targets are political and economic (even young people having a drink at a tourist location) and that “we will hit you if you hit us”­ “an eye for an eye” making the whole world blind, paraphrasing the words of that great soul Mahatma Gandhi. Their view of “us” and “them” includes anyone who fully agrees with them or slightly disagrees with them respectively, irrespective of religious affiliation (“You are either with us or against us”). Their ideology is basically fascist in nature and they offer a simple, often violent, solution to the prevailing injustices and are able to “play” with the minds of young people whose minds are already under a perceived “occupation”­ very similar to other fascists around the world, be they religious or secular.

These extremist clerics need to be challenged directly and forcefully by right thinking people worldwide including Muslims. Muslims living in pluralistic countries (and these are not just in the West) in particular need to give a lead in redefining what it is to be a Muslim in a multifaith society (after all the first Islamic state of Medina was a multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith society). One method may be to insist that Mosques and all religious institutions have democratic procedures in place before local authorities give planning permissions for mosques, churches, synagogues, etc. to be built or even further that their licence may be revoked if democratic procedures are not implemented. Also, such religious institutions should not receive public funds unless such democratic procedures are in place. This will have the impact on at least reducing the ability of extremists to take over religious institutions, but this will need to be done to all religious institutions.

However, just redefining Islam will not be enough for it needs to be coupled with an understanding of politics and personal identity, and governments can play a very crucial role in this process by creating a greater dialogue between institutions to enable people to understand the “other point of view” and see the complexity of each society. Otherwise, we will remain in a religious cycle with no reference to the prevailing conditions of the actual world. It is only through this process of education that those who feel alienated against the West for injustices in the “Muslim” world will recognise that there is no homogeneous West or a homogeneous Muslim world and that within the “Muslim” world injustices are being perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They will recognise that the root causes of conflict are not religious by nature or nationalistic but economic and all our hands are dirty if not bloodied and no simple violent solution exists. Banning of extremist clerics is a short term solution (fraught with issues of freedom of speech and is also full of hypocrisy) but will not undermine extremist ideology as this can be transmitted through other networks and in cyberspace. Their ideology needs to be confronted by positive constructive counter-arguments for if we cannot win the debate against such fundamentally flawed views then our society itself must be fundamentally flawed.

However, to lay the emphasis of the present crisis firmly at the extremist clerics’ door would both be an insult to the innocent victims of their attacks and remove reason from the debate on how to counter such behaviour. After all, most religious texts have references to the use of violence (Old Testament, Exodus 22:20, Bible, Matthew 10:34, Quran, 4:89) and all societies use such references when justifying their political deeds. One only needs to look at Jews being blessed for occupying Palestinian lands, Christian soldiers being blessed for going to war, Muslims being blessed for driving out non-Muslims, to appreciate how religious texts are so widely misused.

If we are ever to resolve this conflict then we need to appreciate that religion is not underpinning these conflicts and be vigilant against falling into the trap set by the extremists that all conflicts are fundamentally religious and can only be resolved through religion. It seems that the world is ever moving closer to dividing itself along religious lines, e.g. Iraq divided along Shia and Sunni lines, Lebanon along Sunni, Shia and Christian lines, the USA is being increasingly controlled by evangelical parties, Israel is dominated by religious political parties, as is Pakistan, and secular India has a Hindu fundamentalist party as the main opposition. We need to address the fundamental politics behind the attacks so that political reasons underpinning exploitation, greed and power are exposed and at least moderated if not removed altogether. We further need to appreciate the inherent contradictions within the global economy and the increasing hypocrisy required to justify its present model and the increasing disparity of power between the State and the individual. Only then can the world “dry up the swamps of discontent” that lead to alienation and rid itself of the cycle of violence and counter-violence in which the most innocent are killed.

If we fail in addressing these fundamental issues then young minds that see the hypocrisy but do not understand the root causes or solutions will be further drawn towards desperate measures which will become more and more desperate and the violence increasingly random.

Gandhi, Gandhism and Terrorism – by Antony Copley

Helen Steven concluded her recent Gandhi Foundation Annual lecture by raising the question, how would Gandhi have dealt with today’s terrorism?(1) If she raised the question too late to formulate any kind of sustained answer, given the strong emphasis in her lecture on the need for dialogue, she suggested that Gandhi would certainly have wanted to enter into some kind of conversation with the terrorists. The appalling case of Ken Bigley(2) was then in everyone’s mind. It occurred to me later that Gandhi would in such circumstances have had no idea where the kidnappers were hiding him. (Later, we learnt that Scotland Yard and MI6 had had some idea, but chose to act through an intermediary and it was his attempt to spring him that triggered his beheading). At the time of the lecture I thought a response from the floor that Gandhi would have entered on a fast would have been his more likely strategy. But of course beyond these gruesome particulars the question is very close to Gandhi’s life’s work. Arguably satyagraha and the strategy of non-violence was targeting, as much as any other phenomenon, an alternative to the violent tactic of terrorism.

This paper will have two parts to it: one, dealing with the known aspects of Gandhi’s own life and attitudes in relation to terror, the second, raising the far more speculative question as to how he might have responded to the terrorist threat of today. The first part will begin by setting the context within which Gandhi was forced to address the issue of terrorism. We have to discuss both state terrorism as well as private. Definitions of state terrorism are bound to be controversial. At the outset of his career there was at least one terrorist movement, that in Tsarist Russia, which attracted mixed responses and, indeed, for many these Russian revolutionaries were heroes and heroines. Was there not a real risk that a like-minded movement in India would attract an equal cult following? It was a risk that Gandhi had always to face and tragically he was himself to die at the hands of a terrorist. It will then discuss the character of Gandhi’s response to the threat of a terrorist movement in India.

The second part entails stepping back and trying to make sense of Islamic terrorism. Is it rooted in traditional Islam? Alternatively, does fundamentalism not paradoxically emerge from modern European thought and, as John Gray has interpreted it, Islamic terrorism is in fact a product of western influence on Islam? It clearly is important to establish whether the current terrorist threat is driven by the traditional cultural values of Islam or of the west for this will leave us in a better position to judge just how Gandhi might have responded. After all, whatever his own mixed response to the west, his own private quarrel lay with the violent tendencies in western imperialist culture.

To elucidate Gandhi’s response to terrorism is one possibility. To suggest that Gandhism has an answer to terrorism is another. Maybe here we are running up against the limits of satyagraha.

State terrorism

A dictionary definition – that of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary – begins with reference to the reign of Terror in France, March 1793-July 1794:

‘a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage’.

Any subsequent example of the coerciveness of extreme state power has been branded as terrorism. Possibly radical governments are more likely to acquire this label than reactionary. The most obvious recent example would be the Terror as practised by Stalin’s Russia. If Nazism is rightly likewise branded terrorist it maybe because of its own radical reconstructive programme. Maybe regimes with overt millenarian aims tend more horrifically towards terror.

But of course attribution of terror has been used in far more generalised ways. Just about any authoritarian state can be accused of terror. For the anarchist the state is by definition an instrument of terrorism. And state terror breeds private terror. Here is John Pilger:

‘only by recognising the terrorism of states is it possible to understand, and deal with, acts of terror by groups and individuals which however horrific are tiny by comparison’.(3)

Israel, for example, he brands as a perpetrator of

‘its own, unrelenting planned terrorism for which there is no media language’.

Another contemporary example he cites is Russian state terrorism in Chechnya. States which exercise undue force reap the whirlwind of terrorist reprisal. But, of course, we could almost indefinitely extend the list of states practising terror against their subjects.

The way Gandhi challenged state authority is at the heart of satyagraha. First, he had to meet the repression of colonial authority in South Africa and the proto-apartheid state governments of Natal and Transvaal. Here was experience he could turn to advantage in the struggle for national independence from the Raj. Just how far this encounter suggests the appropriateness of a Gandhian response to the more repressive and totalitarian terrorist regimes of the recent times is open to question, for Gandhi was indisputably helped by having in Smuts an opponent open to the spiritual dimensions of satyagraha and in the raj a regime rhetorically committed to the rule of law together with an official class conditioned by public school values of fair-play. It took the horror of the Amritsar massacre to open Gandhi’s eyes to the readily available state violence behind that legal façade. The massacre released in Gandhi a readiness to move beyond constitutionalism and dialogue to non-cooperation and non-violent civil disobedience. In the response to colonial repression Gandhi worked out a strategy of political resistance which could equally be deployed to meet the challenge of other evils of his time as he saw them, such as industrial capitalist exploitation of labour, landowner oppression of the peasantry, and communalism. How did this political agenda relate to terrorism?

Terrorist Movements in Gandhi’s Lifetime

The histories of modern Russia and India have much in common and the struggle of the Russian intelligentsia to liberate Russia from serfdom and autocracy was an obvious role model for India’s own emergent radical intelligentsia. It began with the Decembrist movement and from the beginning here was a radical protest movement divided between a constitutional liberal approach and a recourse to a Jacobin-style terrorism. The same tension appeared in its successor, populism, with the alternatives of a ‘going to the people’, a non-violent propaganda movement, and a falling back on acts of extreme terror, with the assassination of officials and landowners and in 1881 the murder of Tsar Alexander. A section of the intelligentsia turned nihilist. In the mind of the leading exponent of anarchism, Bakunin, a positive cult of the cleansing power of revolutionary, millenarian, violence took hold. In the final phase that led to 1917 the same tension prevailed between a Marxist social democratic movement and a social revolutionary one which remained wedded to the practice of violence by a revolutionary elite.

Maybe what would have alarmed Gandhi the most about Russian terrorism was the extent to which public opinion was on its side. Take for example the support for Spridovna, the 20 year old assassin of General Luzhenovsky in 1906 where public opinion forced a commutation of her death sentence to life imprisonment, crowds returning again and again outside her detention quarters in Moscow. ‘Comrades, we shall meet again in a free Russia’ were her words as she was put on the train to her prison in Siberia. To quote Lesley Blanch’s account:

But what should have been a prison journey became a triumphal progress. Mysteriously, at each stop, cheering crowds were assembled. At Omsk and Krasnoyarsk the frenzy mounted. The engine-driver was stoned, the marseillaise was sung and red flags waved; the prisoner addressed the crowds from behind her bars as offerings rained through them, kopecks, five-rouble gold pieces, flowers and fruit. At each halt it seemed more likely she would be rescued and the guards were trebled. But they too seemed infected by the extraordinary circumstances and soon Spridovna was holding receptions, regally, from the steps of her wagon. Yet she did not try to escape, nor did the feared rescue take place.(4)

A parallel could be drawn with Irish nationalism, another movement split between a parliamentarist and a terrorist approach, and one which exercised an almost equal spell over Indian nationalists. Might a terrorist movement become just as attractive in India?

It is sobering to discover just how far sections of the nationalist leadership and of India’s radical youth were won over by the rhetoric of terrorist violence at the very time Gandhi was working out his own theory and praxis of non-violence. Whilst still in touch with events in India and making periodic returns there, in South Africa Gandhi’s main concern, however, was with terrorists outside India. Through his visits to London to petition the Colonial office on behalf of the Indian minority he became aware of them. Their ideas drove him to write Hind Swaraj. But terrorism within and without India was all part of the same terrorist conspiracy and both have to be considered if we are to set Gandhi’s philosophy in context.

Terrorism was centred on Maharashtra, Punjab and Bengal.(5) Two nationalists coming to prominence as the leading Extremists, Tilak from Maharashtra, Aurobindo Ghose, Bengali by origin but through his English education still mastering his own language, in the 1890’s employed in the state administration of Baroda, were to be closely associated with terrorism. Had he lived beyond 1920 Tilak would have posed probably an insuperable barrier to Gandhi’s taking over the leadership of the nationalist movement and Aurobindo was, by all accounts, the most brilliant prime-minister India was not to have. The continually teasing question of this terrorist movement is whether it was driven by a revivalist nationalism or merely adopted the outer trappings of a traditional culture whilst in fact being inspired by a wholly modern nationalist and terrorist agenda.

In Maharashtra the initial lead came from a rural Chitpavin Brahmin, Waredeo Balwant Phadke, who dreamt of a rising on behalf of Hinduism against foreign rule but was to get no further than a series of wild west gangland robberies prior to his flight to Hyderabad and capture in July 1879, followed by transportation to Aden and death in 1883. A more conspicuous act of terror came with the murder in Poona of the intolerably heavy-handed Plague Commissioner, W C Rand, by two Chitpavin Brahmins, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, 22 June 1897. Their grudge had been as much against Hindu social reformers as foreigners, with their inculcating the ferocious Mother Goddess, Bhowani (Durga/Kali) for their cause. They were certainly known to Tilak and he helped both at the time of their trial. There is no evidence, however, of his collusion with Rand’s murder and it was for tendentious newspaper articles that he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for sedition. Jail was already becoming the pathway to political reputation.

Bengal became the centre of the terrorist movement. It is a highly dramatic story, worthy of opera, with the deeply mysterious Aurobindo as the figurehead. Its membership is almost a roll-call of the nationalist elite. In the nature of any underground movement its narrative has to be uncertain. Within the Bengali intelligentsia, and in a sense no more than undergraduate societies, revolutionary cells, inspired by the Carbonari and Mazzini, began to coalesce. One Jatindra Nath Banerjea, a bit of a loner and by character a martinet, had contacted Aurobindo in Baroda in his search for a military training. This became an obsession with the terrorists and various countries, including Japan, were tried till Switzerland came up with an offer. Jatindra was to join the Anushilan Samiti (Cultural Association) in Calcutta and this, to become the most prominent revolutionary cell, was formally launched 24 March 1902. Meanwhile, a leading acolyte of the late Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, the Irish woman Margaret Noble met Aurobindo in Baroda and became actively involved in the movement. Vivekananda’s brother, Bhupenesh Dutt, also joined the Anushilan Samiti. Links were a made with Tilak in Bombay. Aurobindo met him for the first time at the Ahmedabad Congress meeting in 1902, seeing him as ‘the one possible leader of a revolutionary party’. If Maharashtra was to give way to Bengal as the centre of terrorism there was Thakur Saheb’s secret society, aimed at subverting loyalty in the Army. Jatindra was later to turn sanyassin but his preaching on the North West Frontier was in time to recruit Har Dayal, a Punjabi Hindu, to the terrorist movement and he in his turn won over Bhagat Singh, the most impressive of a later generation of the movement.

The terrorist movement was momentarily eclipsed by the populist Swadeshi revolt, Bengal’s outraged response to its division in 1905 but as that protest waned terrorism once again took centre stage. Meanwhile Aurobindo’s brother, Barin Ghose had usurped Jatindra’s role as leader and set up a kind of ashram in the garden of a suburban house in Maniktola. The most outstanding new recruit to the cell was the explosives expert, Hem Das, recently returned from Europe. Now began a series of attempts to assassinate prominent officials, first choice being the highly unpopular Lt-Governor of East Bengal, Sir Bamfylde Fuller—

‘the unsuccessful attempt to kill Fuller was probably the first serious attempt to commit a political murder in Bengal’s modern history'(6)

—next choice, likewise abortive, his successor, Sir Andrew Fraser through the blowing up of his train, but District Magistrate D C Allen was shot by the Dacca branch of the Anushilan Samiti December 1907, then a Chandernagore cell failed in their attempted assassination of the French mayor of the city, M Tarnivel—he’d effectively cut off the arms traffic between French and British India—but finally the Calcutta cell got a victim if not its chosen target, Douglas Kingsford, Calcutta’s Chief Presidency Magistrate recently transferred as Judge to Muzaffarpur in Bihar, March 1908, the terrorists murdering, instead, a Mrs Pringle-Kennedy and her daughter, the assassins, Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki. The hand held bomb, christened ‘the bomb of Mother Kali’, had become the symbol of violent revolution.

All these events became the focus of the Alipore Conspiracy trial held in 24 Parganas, Calcutta. The government’s main aim was to incriminate Aurobindo. If he had become increasingly absorbed by his journalism, editing the Bande Mataram, he had never lost contact with the terrorists and had yet to renounce violence. In large part through the brilliant advocacy of CR Das, his case being how anyone as clever as Aurobindo could have become associated with such an crackpot amateur outfit as the Anushilan Samiti, he was to be acquitted. As Peter Heehs puts it,

‘he had just escaped imprisonment for an offence that he unquestionably had committed. Not only was he a conspirator, he was the originator and the first organizer of a conspiracy whose declared aim was to drive the British from India’.(7)

His brother and Hem Das were not to be so fortunate, Barin condemned to death though on appeal this was commuted to a life sentence, and together with Hem Das and others, he was deported to the Andaman Islands. They were not freed till February 1920.

Aurobindo took up the cudgels again, editing another radical newspaper Karmajogin, but it was obvious that the authorities were determined to get him and he was to enter on a lifetime’s internal exile, fleeing via Chandernagore to Pondicherry. But Aurobindo had undergone a seachange, renouncing the Russian and Irish path of terror as unsuitable for India, and he embarked on his yogic quest for the supermind. Tilak, likewise heavily compromised by these events, was charged with sedition for an article in Kesari, its allegedly justifying the terrorism of the Muzaffarpur murders, sentenced to six years imprisonment and deported to Mandalay. He was only released in Poona on 17 June 1914.

But violence had not yet had its day. The CID officer involved in the trial, Inspector Shamsul Alam was murdered, there was another attempt on the life of Fraser, and a new terrorist group, Juguntar took up the running, climaxing with the attempted assassination by Rash Behari Bose of Viceroy Hardinge on his entry into the raj’s new capital, 23 December 1912. The terrorists had almost matched the Russian assassination of Alexander 11 in 1881.

Gandhi had been more immediately concerned by the terrorists in London. On July 2 1909 Sir Curzon-Wyllie, Secretary of State for India, had been shot at the Imperial Institute in Kensington by Madanlal Dhingra,

‘a tall, gangling Mahratta with thick curly hair and a square chin, with something languidly byronic in his manner'(8)

Here was a revolutionary terrorist movement which goes back to one Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930), a rich Inner Temple trained barrister, Dewan of several Indian princely states, who used his wealth to finance the cause of Indian nationalism, with lectureships and scholarships, and also founded India House in Highgate in 1905, a home for Indian students, which all but became a cell for terrorists. He edited a journal much influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, The Indian Sociologist whose reading Gandhi oddly encouraged in his own Indian Opinion. Payne states that ‘Gandhi genuinely liked and admired him’.(9) He took himself and his journal off to Paris in 1907.

If, as Anthony Parel writes, Krishnavarma was ‘the organising genius of the Indian expatriates’,(10) V D Savarkar (1883-1966) was ‘the brain of the group’. He had been awarded one of Krishnavarma’s scholarships and briefly resided in Highgate House. Savarkar proved to be a major force in Indian political life, inspiration for Hindu nationalism, that communally divisive hindutva movement. At this stage Savarkar encouraged terror, took Dhingra under his wing, grooming him for political martyrdom. Initially the target was the former Viceroy Curzon, but an opportunity was botched. On the day Dhingra was to murder Sir Curzon-Wyllie Savarkar allegedly gave Dhingra a nickel-plated revolver and said ‘Don’t show your face if you fail this time’. Gandhi was surely right to see Dhingra as acting under the influence of others. He was sentenced to death and hung August 17. Rather strangely Gandhi on Dussara day 24 October then engaged in public debate with Savarkar, Gandhi taking up the theme of the exemplary role of Rama, emphasising his peaceful courage and devotion to duty, Savarkar dwelling on the goddess Durga,’the bringer of sudden death’. Astonishingly, Savarkar remained free, only to be involved with planning terrorist acts in the Presidency of Bombay, providing the murder weapon that killed the District Magistrate of Nasik, A M T Jackson, 29 December 1909. He was staying with Krishnavarma in Paris at the time of his arrest warrant 22 February 1910, inexplicably surrendering himself to the authorities, was sent for trial to Bombay, briefly escaping in Marseilles en route. Savarkar was the arch-conspirator of the Nasik Conspiracy trial. There was a chance that the Hague Tribunal might decide Savarkar had been illegally arrested in France and hence acquitted. But the Hague Tribunal had no sympathy for terrorists, turned down the appeal, and 23 December Savarkar was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Islands. In 1924 the Labour goverment released him:

‘at forty one he looked sixty and resembled a lean and hungry hawk, with bitter mouth and eyes that seemed hooded’.

He was to inspire Ghodse, Gandhi’s assassin, and lived on till 83, only dying 26 February 1966.

Gandhi’s Response

At the very time Gandhi had embarked on a programme of non-violent civil disobedience the murder of Sir Clifford-Wyllie was a disturbing reminder that he was up against a potentially hugely influential alternative strategy of terrorist violence. Indeed, Gandhi’s entire political life was to be overshadowed by this alternative. Admittedly in some ways it advantaged him in the subcontinental freedom struggle, for, to quote Heehs, Gandhi realised

‘that much of his strength came from being regarded by the British as a lesser evil’.(13)

But it was a challenge he had to confront and on his return to South Africa on board Kildonan Castle, in an almost inspired way between 13 to 22 November he wrote the Gujurati version of Hind Swaraj. Anthony Parel has persuasively shown how Gandhi’s critique of so-called ‘modern civilisation’ was in large part driven by what he saw as its violent pursuit of power.(14) Madan Lal Dhingra’s crime, to quote Parel’s interpretation of Gandhi’s response,

‘was a modern political act par excellence—terrorism legitimised by nationalism’.

Gandhi admittedly separated out from western civilisation a modern and a Christian dimension. Not all had been corrupted. But in industrialism and imperialism there was clear evidence of violence within this modernity. Gandhi was profoundly committed to a view that ends did not justify means, that a violent means could only have a violent outcome, and it was vital for an ancient civilisation such as India’s not to allow these western values to take hold. Taking a stance against the violence of terror became part of a larger defence of Indian values, though Gandhi was all too aware there had to be a transformation from within, a revitalisation of dharma, if India was to advance. It is in this continuing tension between tradition and a kind of vulgar modernity that we will find best the answer to how Gandhi would have reacted to today’s Islamic terrorism.

There is, however, another way of critiquing terrorism. It can read as a form of political immaturity. The way forward for the nationalist movement lay in reaching out for greater popular involvement and indeed in that very democratisation of the struggle that Gandhi was to introduce. Tilak and Aurobindo are faulted by the JNU historians for their failure to point the young revolutionaries of Maharashtra and Bengal in this direction. Only when Tilak came to see the need for a broader based democracy did he come of age as a politician. Exactly the same debate had of course gone on within the Russian revolutionary movement, but its turning away from the democratic route and falling back on the idea of a revolutionary vanguard elite appears to have had a fatal attraction. This was to have a baleful long-term appeal.

But the terrorist movement continued within and without India to surface as an option. Abroad its centre passed to Canada and the American west coast in the Ghadr (Revolt) movement. Here was a Punjabi and Sikh involvement in terror, Lala Har Dayal its inspiration. It spread back into India and but in 1915 with the CID on its trail a planned rebellion under the leadership was Rash Behari Bose was stifled at birth:

‘an entire generation of the nationalist leadership of Punjab was thus politically beheaded’.(15)

Still, in terms of the secularism of the movement ‘the Ghadarites certainly’, the JNU historians believe, ‘contributed their share to the struggle for India’s freedom’. In its aftermath the lesson of democracy was seemingly in the short run learnt and many former terrorists played their part in the non-cooperation movement only to revert to terror after its withdrawal. Most famously, there was Bhagat Singh, seen as ‘a giant of an intellectual’, active in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (Army). He was one of the terrorists who murdered a police official, Saunders, reprisal for the death of Lal Lajpati Rai in a lathi charge, and then became a national hero with his lobbing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly 8 April 1929. Admittedly his intention had been to attract publicity through a trial, little damage had been done and subsequently Bhagat Singh renounced terror in favour of mass action. He was hanged in March 1931.

Within Bengal terror flared up again at much the same time as the salt satyagraha. The Yugantar and Anushilan groups merged, a Chittagong group their most active and on 18 April 1930, a day chosen to coincide with the date of the Dublin Easter uprising(16), seized the police armoury and embarked on a rebellion with a full scale military encounter on the neighbouring Jalalabad hill 22 April: its leader Surya Sen was not to be captured till 16 February 1933.

If, as the JNU historians claim, revolutionary terrorism gave way to the radical leftist parties in the 1930’s Gandhi could never relax his grip. There was always the fear of its resurgence. He might try to wean such activists as Jayaprakash Narayan off terror by absorbing him within the ashram movement. He desperately and not unsuccessfully tried to contain the appeal of Subhas Bose, still locked into the terrorist tradition in Bengal. The risk was to become all too apparent in the upsurge of violence in the Quit India satyagraha, Narayan highly active if terror against property rather than persons prevailed, and, far more sinisterly, in Subhas Bose’s fascist-style Indian National Army. It seemed all too horribly appropriate that Gandhi was in the end to lose his life to a terrorist.

The Origins of Muslim Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism does not inevitably lead to terror. But they are closely associated and it’s here we have to begin the exploration of terror and Islam. Given Gandhi’s sympathy for traditional culture and antipathy for the modernising west it makes sense to try to establish whether fundamentalism is rooted in the past of Islam or is a relatively recent and modern phenomenon.

Not that such generalisation about Islam is without difficulty. Samuel Huntingdon’s theory of a clash of civilisations(17), with its massive over-simplifications about Islam, may have served the need for the west to have an alternative ‘other’ to demonise with the collapse of the Soviet threat, but quite quickly this has been seen to be ‘sloppy and dangerous language’.(18) Jason Burke states:

‘It is facile and dangerous to talk of “a clash of civilisations”. The West and the Islamic world are not monolithic blocs where identity is based around religion or secularism, tyranny or democracy, human rights or repression, as all who have travelled in the Middle East know. Even the most devout do not define themselves by Islam alone.'(19)

In other words, we all have multiple identities. Islam clearly is a chameleon faith and expresses itself differently according to historical, socio-economic, political and cultural circumstances. Maybe what is so distinctive about the present wave of fundamentalism is just its attempt to take on a more monolithic character.

There are two paradigms for situating contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and terror, one that interprets it as a consequence of a wounded civilisation and sees at work here a revivalist movement, and those who view it as an entirely modern phenomenon, perversely drawing on modern western concepts to attack the West. To make sense of the first approach we have to undertake a kind of survey, if without the detail, of the story of Islam itself.(20)

In her bravura account of the world’s main religions, A History of God, Karen Armstrong can find little in the origins of Islam which legitimises today’s fundamentalism. It was a faith which emerged out of a recently urbanised Bedouin Arab society, experiencing at the time ‘widespread dissatisfaction and spiritual restlessness’,(21) and, surrounded as it was by monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, subject to ‘a feeling of spiritual inferiority’.

One way in which Mohammed answered those needs was through the extraordinary beauty of the revealed text of the Koran. Those who do not know Arabic can, Armstrong claims, have little idea of its power. It translates so poorly. (One of the reasons why the statements of current fundamentalists can seem so alien, one suspects, lies in just this same difficulty of translation.) Here was a faith which broke all the social rules, appealing to outsiders and the oppressed, women and slaves, and in crossing tribal boundaries, breaching an ultimate taboo in Arab society of an all embracing loyalty to the tribe. Islam reached out to the whole community or ummah.

Mohammed in no way made exclusive claims for his faith, being perfectly happy to work with Jews and Christians. Unfortunately in Medina, where he came more into contact with Jews than he had in Mecca, the dialogue broke, the Jews feeling threatened by the new faith, and this led to a divide. Mohammed now turned to Mecca rather than to Jerusalem in prayer. Here was a faith driven by social compassion, by ideals of brotherhood and justice, and one initially sympathetic to women though this was quickly lost sight of in the Abbasid period. It was from the start a political movement and Mohammed proved himself a gifted political leader. There was, however, but one brief occasion when in the defence of the new faith Mohammed resorted to jihad. Armstrong sees nothing threatening in the emergence in the 8/9th centuries of the sharia and the hadith:

‘they have proved able to bring a sacramental sense of the divine into the life of millions of Muslims over the centuries’.

It is always said of Islam that it lacked a Renaissance yet that is patently untrue. In the 9/10th centuries Arab scholars engaged with Hellenism, studying astronomy, alchemy, medicine and mathematics, and the Mutazalis believed the faith was wholly compatible with reason. An elite sect, the Falsafah, a kind of equivalent to the much later French philosophes, engaged with Greek philosophy and religion. Here is the explanation for the high achievements of Arab science and the flourishing culture of Almovarid Spain. But doubt set in as to the worth of this kalam or theology and the traditionalists and Azaharis led a fight back against reason. In his endlessly inventive and engagingly picaresque autobiographical account of his own journey through Islam Desperately Seeking Paradise Ziauddin Sardar would agree that the sources of Islam come across as `more critical and less certain of their opinions’ but likewise sees the role of reason under threat. To quote his interpretation:

Indeed, to a very large extent the history of Islam during the classical period, from the seventh to the fourteenth century, can be seen as one gigantic struggle between the Mutazilites and the Asharites. It was the clear-cut victory of the Asharites that sealed the fate of secular humanism in Islam; and hurled Muslim civilisation on its present trajectory.(22)

Islam was also to have its Reformation and its Luther was Muhammed ibn al-Wahhab (1703-1784). Here was a very Protestant attempt to return to the roots of Islam, to ‘the first ummah of the prophet and his companions’, as Armstrong puts it, together with a rejection of mysticism, Sufi saints, Shiah Imams, a cleansing of all accretions to the original revelation. Al-Wahhab converted Muhammad ibn Saud, ruler of a central Arabian principality. It was however a religion of social compassion. They fought a briefly successful jihad against the Ottomans. Wahhabism became ever more influential—it played a part in the 1857 rebellion in India—and one might ask if it is here that the iron entered the soul. Sardar is far more worried by this expression of Puritanism. Maybe it was ‘a message of humility, unity, morality and ethics motivated by equality and justice’ but by radically denying the complexity and diversity of Islamic history over time and vast areas of the world, and rejecting diverse, pluralistic interpretations of Islam, Wahhabism has stripped Islam of its ethical and moral content and reduced it to an arid list of do’s and don’ts.

It is seen as foreshadowing totalitarianism. But the malaise only really sets in with the assault on Muslim states from Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt onwards, together with the long decline of the Ottoman empire. Under the impact of colonialism and an orientalism which is seen as disparaging Islamic values—deemed ‘a fatalistic culture that was chronically opposed to progress’—and the later challenge from a western materialist and secular culture through globalisation ‘people felt disoriented and lost’. 1920 was seen as the year of disaster, when Britain and France took over the Middle East.

Fundamentalism is in large part a reaction to this humiliation and a retreat into the past, both to rediscover a former greatness and in search of strength. One major strategy was to bolster the sharia—the word in fact translates as ‘the path or road leading to water’—breeding, as one of Sardar’s conversationalists puts it, ‘a totalistic notion of Islam’. In many was all that was going on here was an appropriation of the sharia by the mullahs, a means of shoring up their own elite status through a monopolistic claim to the truth. Sardar has a frightening account of a visit to a maddrasah near Peshawar with its exclusivist Sunni outlook, in his view a veritable `hatchery of hate’ towards all other branches of Islam and other religions.

Another conversationalist explained fundamentalism in terms of Islam for the first time closely linking itself to the nation state:

‘cultural and social spaces are totally homogenized, everything is bull-dozed into a monotonous uniformity and that’s why the end product so often mirrors fascism … that’s why dictators and tyrants all over the Muslim world love the Shariah so much’.

From the Iranian revolution onwards, with western reaction to Khomeini’s fatwa against The Satanic Verses, the Gulf War of 1991 the Muslim world began to experience ‘an isolated, terrified siege mentality’. ‘Shell-shocked, they were making a journey back to Islam, seeking a refuge of sanity in their original identity’. But Armstrong only sees here, as she puts it, ‘a dangerous brew’. Political activism she interprets as ‘in retreat from God’. Here was ‘a belligerent righteousness’: ‘the idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God’.

Islam and Terror

The reason for privileging Muslim terrorist groups over others is that they peculiarly throw up the connection between religion and politics, a connection with which Gandhi was greatly concerned. Obviously almost any liberation struggle has attracted a terrorist element. There may be cause also to draw comparisons between terror in developing areas with those in developed. Or is it the case as some would argue that terror is peculiarly a product of modernity?

Whilst the connection between fundamentalism and the original spirit of Islam has been shown to be dubious, the connection between fundamentalism and terror is less difficult to demonstrate. There is probably little mileage in trying to show some historic link between the movement known as the Assassins, an 11th to 13th century sect, holed up in the Alamut valley north of Teheran, an Ismaili sect committed to the violent overthow of a Sunni Saljuk Persian dynasty. I suspect the Assassins have been glamorised out of all recognition in much the same way as the thuggees. But it does point to a suicidal tendency amongst the Shias, one of the hallmarks of contemporary Muslim terrorism. Looking at TV cover of September 11 Sardar reflected:

‘the terrorist in general and the suicide bomber in particular are a special breed. They stand outside normality, beyond reason. They justify their rage and actions with perverse self-righteousness and twisted religious notions—utterances and pieties as impenetrable to me as they are to many Muslims’.

But he does attribute some of the blame for their existence

‘to the Shariah-obsessed champions of the Islamic movement and the authoritarian thought of the mystic gurus who so dominate the Muslim world’.

‘Muslim civilisation’, he concludes of September 11, ‘was being offered suicide, both as method and metaphor’.

Other interpreters, however, insist on an entirely modern provenance for Muslim terror. John Gray asserts that:

‘No cliché is more stupefying than that which describes Al Qaeda as a throwback to medieval times’.(34)

His is a provocative interpretation which sees the roots of modern terror in the Enlightenment, with its messianic belief that science can transform humanity, a project taken up by Positivism, Marxism, Communism and Nazism, and so on into both radical Islam as well as the outlook of the neo-cons. If the Counter-Enlightenment is to be embraced within modernity, then the concept can seem slippery, for of its leading protagonists, the Vicomte de Bonald was surely narrowly traditionalist, though there is a Sadean and hence modern feel to De Maistre, his seeing the hangman as the necessary symbol for today’s authoritarian societies, and if Felicite de Lammennais looked back to an ultramontane catholicism he likewise had a modern flavour in his defence of democracy. John Gray sees in the rejection of reason and an emphasis on the will—Nietzche a critical influence here—the essential character of these modern chiliastic movements. ‘The gas chambers and the gulags’, he insists, ‘are modern’.

Muslim terrorism can be dated from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, an elementary school teacher, with its emphasis on military training and his belief that the Koran and military jihad were one and the same (curiously close in time to the founding in 1925 of the very similar RSS in India). The luminary of the movement proved to be an educational administrator and literary critic, Sayyid Qutb, born 1906. It was a two year stay in America in the 1940’s that convinced him. American liberalism had engendered a selfish individualism which was rotting the moral foundations of society and that at all cost the Muslim world must escape its pernicious influence. No doubt a prudish attitude to sex, for it was attending a church-sponsored dance in Colorado with smooching couples that did much to induce this hostility. In his best known work Social Justice in Islam he promoted jihad as the only way of overcoming the privileged groups that stood in the way of economic justice. It can be seen as all of a piece with the movements of Che Guevara and the Red Brigades and Bader-Meinhof. In December 1948 the Brotherhood assassinated the prime-minster of Egypt. Hassan al-Banna was killed February 1949. Sayyid Qutb had hopes of Nasser taking up his cause, only to find Nasser, a secularist and pragmatist, flirting with the Americans. So the Brotherhood attempted to murder Nasser 26 October 1954. It was as a result of the appalling torture he received in prison that Qutb in his next influential work Milestones came up with a damning account of Muslim society, its being infected by jahiliyya (absolute ignorance), and his declaring all-out war. He even had plans to flood the Nile. Now emerged the idea of a revolutionary jihadist vanguard. He was once again arrested for conspiracy and hanged 29 August 1966.

But a new generation took up his ideas. A Cairo paediatrician, from a rich aristocratic Egyptian-Saud family, Ayman Zawhiri, had been converted and was in time to plan the assassination of President Sadat, trial judge of Qutb in 1966, whose American inspired readiness to enter into negotiation in 1979 with Israel was seen as a total betrayal. But the masses did not rise up as the Brotherhood had anticipated and Zawahiri now saw Muslim society as itself so corrupted that it also became a legitmate target for murderous terrorism. Only this way would they be shocked into a recognition of the true path: you had to kill your way to perfection. Meanwhile Ayotallah Khomeini had put Qutb’s ideas into practice in Iran.

All of this directly links to Al Qaeda (The Base). Osama bin Laden was the 17th of 52 children of a rich Saudi dynastic family who had made their wealth as property developers in the hideously reconstructed holy cities of Mecca and Medina. At the University of Jeddah he had been taught by Mohammed Qutb, Sayyid’s brother. It was an experience of the fleshpots of Lebanon that led to a kind of conversion to a Puritanical fundamentalism. He came under the influence of Dr Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian Palestinian, a leading proponent of jihadism who drew up Al Qaeda’s founding charter 1987-8, though he may have played a part in his murder in 1989. One could entertain psychological explanations for Bin Laden’s fanaticism, in terms of outrage at the humiliation of his Syrian mother who was shabbily divorced by his father. Sardar met Bin Laden in Afghanistan—’he carried himself with a certain majesty and decorum’—and was not surprised by his being behind September 11 -‘it was the glint in his eyes, all those years ago, when I first caught sight of him in that fateful meeting of Mujahidin groups in Peshawar’. Zawhiri became his number 2.

Gray sees Al Qaeda as international, different from such regional terrorist groups as the PLO and Hamas, and only made possible by globalisation. It functions in much the same way as an international drug cartel. It can only flourish however through the weakness of states. He summarises it as

‘a peculiar hybrid of theocracy and anarchy … a by-product of western radical thought. Each of the protagonists in the current conflict is driven by beliefs that are opaque to it’.

Such terror movements will not go away, he warns, and we will have to come to some kind of long-term accommodation with such a threat as part of our imperfect society.

Is there a Gandhian response to Muslim terrorism?

There were obvious limits in any Gandhian response to extreme state terror. All he could suggest to European Jews confronted by Nazi genocide was recourse to non-violent passive resistance. Are their equally apparent limitations in satyagraha were it to address contemporary terrorism?

Part of any answer lies in how Gandhi dealt with terror during his own lifetime. Gandhi sought to wean Indian nationalists, above all its youth wing, from the appeal of terrorism. Persuading Jawarharal Nehru not to go along the same route as Subhas Bose was a huge symbolic triumph. Reining in this temptation to resort to violence required a constant effort. And if in 1942 he may have made a partial surrender to violence it was to be one he deeply regretted as his February 1943 fast unto death against the raj’s claim that he had condoned violence makes clear.

There is no evidence that Gandhi had any truck with the RSS and the rise of a new threat of violence from Hindu fundamentalism. Members of the Hindu Mahasabha were excluded from Congress. And Gandhi absolutely set his heart against the communal violence of terrorist groups from both communities that so stained independence. He was to undertake another fast unto death in Calcutta in August 1947.

So one senses Gandhi’s was a position of no compromise. He would not even sit down with the terrorists. In more speculative mode, Gandhi would surely have been sympathetic with that element in Muslim fundamentalism that reflected a painful sense of wounded pride and a need to recover the original moral vision of Islam. It makes sense to see Gandhi as himself in a line of great Hindu religious reformers from Vivekanada to Aurobindo. He met something akin to this Muslim fundamentalism in the Khilafat movement. But equally he would have found distasteful all those trappings of modernity that has led fundamentalism towards chiliastic violence.

The refusal, however, of present-day governments to negotiate with terrorists has the feel of hypocrisy. Such governments have, whenever it suited their purposes, done so in the past, with the IRA, Mau Mau, EOKA and other terrorist organisations. If approached in a spirit of compromise Gandhi was always ready to lift civil disobedience and enter into negotiations and this would still seem in today’s circumstances an appropriate readiness.

But up against the likes of the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musah al-Zarqawi and his Tawhid wal Jihad group, the murderers of Ken Bigley, Gandhism seems stymied and once again the limits of satyagraha become apparent. May be Gandhi’s ultimate weapon of the fast unto death is the only recourse he could have adopted. Just possibly the suicide bomber would recognise here an equal and matching intent.

But Gandhism is above all a message of hope. We would be wrong to exaggerate the threat of Islamic terrorism. We are indeed now being persuaded that this may be a deliberate political ploy by certain political leaders. There are transparently, for a start, other ways in which Muslim societies can experience revival. Admittedly secularism in the shape of Baathism in Iraq and Syria turned aggressively dictatorial. One of the more promising experiments in multiculturalism inspired by Ibrahim Anwar in Malaysia was cruelly stifled by his imprisonment on trumped up charges. The autobiography of Ziauddin Sardar is proof however that there are brave ambitions of Muslim intellectuals to fashion pluralist, tolerant and Islamic societies.

Terrorism is anyway driving itself up a blind alley. Osama bin Laden is holed up somewhere in Waziristan. Terrorism has not on the whole won over Muslim public opinion though in the extreme conditions of Gaza and the West Bank it is winning the moral high ground. Gandhi answered the terrorism of the swadeshi period by democratising the Congress movement. Democracy still holds out the best prospect of countering the appeal of self-appointed revolutionary vanguard elites.


  1. The Gandhi Foundation sponsors an annual lecture each October 2. This year the lecture was jointly given by Helen Steven and Ellen Moxley, both active CND workers in Scotland. They are best known for their campaign against the nuclear submarine base at Fasblane. The title of their lecture was “Our world at the Crossroads:Nonviolence or Nonexistence”.
  2. For a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding Ken Bigley’s murder see Tom Walker and Stephen Grey, Countdown to Murder, The Sunday Times 10 October 2004
  3. John Pilger News Statesman 20 September 2004 pp 23-24
  4. This is Lesley Blanch’s account in her Journey into the Mind’s Eye Ist published 1968 London: 2001 pp 297-99
  5. I have compiled the brief account of Indian terror from Bipan Chandra et al India’s Struggle for Independence New Delhi: 1999, Gordon Johnson Provincial Politics and Indian Nationalism: Bombay and the Indian National Congress 1880-1915 Cambridge:1973, Peter Heehs The Bomb in Bengal; The Rise of Revolutionary Terror in India 1900-1910 Pondicherry: 1993 (and still the best book on the subject) Robert Payne The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi New York: 1969
  6. Quoted Heehs p 46
  7. Heehs p 86
  8. Heehs p 216
  9. Payne p 202
  10. Ed. Anthony Parel Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings Cambridge:1997 p xxvi
  11. Payne p 204
  12. Payne p 208
  13. Heehs p 255
  14. Parel p xxvii
  15. Bipan Chandra p 154
  16. There is an interesting discussion of the Irish influence in Purnima Bose’s account of the Chittagong Armoury raid in Organizing Empire: Individualism, Collective Agency and Empire Durban and London: 2003
  17. Samuel P Huntindon The Clash of Civilisations and the Making of the New World Order London: 1997
  18. Editorial The Observer 10 October 2004
  19. Jason Burke We must ask why Ibid
  20. Although I had to read quite extensively on Islam for my study of the clash of Protestant Mission and Indian religions for my book Religions in Conflict: Ideology, Cultural Conflict and Conversion in Late Colonial India OUP: New Delhi 1997 here I have relied on three recent texts, Karen Armstrong A History of God (1st published 1993) Viking, London: 1999, Ziauddin Sardar Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim London; 2004 and John Gray Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern London: 2003
  21. Armstrong p 187
  22. Sardar pp 49,254
  23. Armstrong p 391
  24. Sardar, pp 144,149
  25. Armstrong p 414
  26. Sardar p 243
  27. Sardar p 224
  28. Sardar p 247
  29. Sardar pp 282, 295
  30. Armstrong p 422
  31. Armstrong p 457
  32. Sardar p 334
  33. Sardar p332
  34. Gray pp 1-2
  35. There was much useful information on Sayyid Qutb and his successors in Adam Curtis’s TV programme, The Power of Nightmares BBC 2, 20 October 2004
  36. Sardar pp 221, 334
  37. Gray p 117
  38. I am in part indebted here to ideas in a piece by William Pfaff, This Futile Fundamentalism, The Observer 17 October 2004

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