Tag Archives: Islam

What Happened at The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration Review

at St Ethelburga’s on 30th January 2012

By Mark Hoda, Chair & Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation

Mark Hoda addressing The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

It was really heartening to see such a large audience gather at St Ethelberga’s on a cold January evening. They heard  though provoking reflections on the environment and sustainability from a range of faith perspectives as well as on Gandhi’s influence on the green movement today, which continues to draw inspiration from his philosophy and satyagraha strategies.

Anglican Priest Father Ivor opened proceedings with a quote often attributed to Gandhi that “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need buy not anyone’s greed”. He also quoted from Tagore and the Upanishads before offering the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, who he said had much in common with Gandhi.

Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Graham Davey, set out how the Quaker Testimonies of simplicity, truth, equality and peace relate to care for the environment by espousing the values of moderation, sustainability and non violence and concern for the depletion of non renewable resources. The Quaker Book of Discipline calls for us to rejoice in God’s world but to appreciate that we are not its owners but its custodians.

Gandhi Foundation and Environmental Law foundation founder, Martin Polden, offered observations on the teachings of Judaism. He quoted the Old Testament’s injunction to “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and everything that moves on the Earth”. He said this should be read in conjunction  with chapter 2 verses 7-8, where Adam first appears, and is expressed to be ‘planted’ in the Garden of Eden, with a duty to ‘cultivate and keep it’, i.e. serve it and conserve it. Throughout the Torah, there is the injunction to take account of cultivation and obey good husbandry, said Polden.

He explained how Gandhi was influenced by the Jewish community in South Africa and how the 12th century philosopher Maimonides influenced E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed’. As a lawyer, Polden has worked with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists “on issues that concern the region and where each marks the other with respect and recognition of each as human beings, with the key of living together, as distinct from stereotypes”.

Martin Polden also said that our prayers with GF President Lord Attenborough, who is unwell. Trustee John Rowley also collected messages from the audience to send to him.

Reverend Nagase from the London Peace Pagoda, said that in Buddhism, there are two paths open to attain  Buddhahood; creating the  pure land, and to lead the people to the teachings of Buddhism. “When people become peaceful and affectionate, the land in which they live is also bound to become peaceful and affectionate in accordance…It may seem as if the path is separated into two: the land and the people, yet originally both are the realisations of a single truth”.

Reflecting on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, Rev Nagase said “If the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but  if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure, in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of people’s minds. It is the same with a Buddha and a common  mortal. While deluded, one is called a ‘common mortal’, but once  enlightened, is called a ‘Buddha’. Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished”.

Madhava Turumella from the Hindu Forum explained how he stayed at Gandhi’s Sevagram ashram after graduating from university. He said he found serenity there and appreciated the many faiths that influenced Gandhi. This religious pluralism in Turumella’s branch of Hinduism which believes in the universality of humanity and harmony with other belief systems. He echoed previous speakers when he said that the earth does not belong to anyone. He said all life is interconnected and we must not covet or steal its resources. He said that this is precisely what is happening today, however, and it is causing great damage to our world.

Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Omar Hayat, speaking about Islam, also echoed much of what previous speakers and highlighted the great commonality between faiths. Muslims are guided by the Koran and the teachings and conduct of the Prophet and Hayat gave examples of both to explain the faith’s environmental perspective. The Koran states that man is not at the centre of the world, but just one part of the environment. Islam emphasises the unity of creation and equality of all creation and the role of man as a trustee of the earth and its resources and calls for humility. The current environmental crisis reflects mankind’s spiritual crisis.

The teachings of the Prophet, emphasise that the earth must not be exploited or abused and flora, fauna and animals have equal rights to man as God’s dependants. Hayat concluded with a quote from Prophet Mohammed “Act in your life as though you are living forever and act for the Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow”.

Green London Assembly Member, Darren Johnson, explained the impact that Gandhi has had on modern environmentalists. Johnson said Gandhi was one of the first public figures to warn of environmental damage, warning of the consequences of pollution of air water and grain, and he described him as “A patron saint of the green movement”.

He said that Gandhi’s contemporary influence was based on his emphasis on sustainability, social justice, democratic participation and non-violence.  Johnson felt that Gandhi would approve of modern London’s multi-ethnic society but not the massive gap between rich and poor. Gandhi would understand the reason behind the current Occupy movement in the capital.

Gandhi’s non-violent methods have inspired civil rights movements across the world and are fundamental to the green movement today. Johnson said that we have a long way to go to realise Gandhi’s vision but his philosophy is as relevant as ever.

John Dal Din, representing the Catholic faith, like Father Ivor, offered a Franciscan prayer – the Canticle of Creation. He talked of the deep links between St Francis and Gandhi.

Ajit Singh explained the influence of the Sikh faith on Gandhi. He posed the question what is the world and our place within it. Quoting Guru Nanak and Sikh morning prayers, he said that God creates and sustains the earth but mankind is responsible for it and all its life forms. All life is interconnected and any damage done to the earth is damage to me, said Singh.

David Fazey from Village Action India talked about a month-long Ekta Parishad (an indian grassroots movement) Satyagraha march in October in India in which 100,000 people will participate. It is inspired by Gandhi and is being staged to highlight the plight of Indian rural communities who are being denied rights to their land, water and forests. This march builds on the Janadesh march in 2007.

Fazey said that if the March is to be successful, it must be witnessed and he called on all those present to raise awareness of the event. A leaflet on the march was circulated and further details are available at www.marchforjustice2012.org

There were further impromptu contributions at the end of the event; Margaret Waterward highlighted a march of 450 slum children dressed in Khadi in Kolkata the previous day, calling for education and a future free of poverty; a from a representative of the Jain faith, Sagar Sumaria, highlighting the environmental damage created by our demand for consumer electronics, such as mobile phones. A peace petition was also circulated on behalf of Newham Mosque.

Mark Hoda concluded the event by thanking Omar Hayat and GF Friend Jane Sill for all their help in organising this year’s Multifaith Celebration.

Speech given by Martin Polden at the Multifaith Celebration 2012

Speech given by Madhava Turumella at the Multifaith Celebration 2012

Speech given by Omar Hayat at the Multifaith Celebration 2012

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)

Rokeya’s Dream


Explore the world of Rokeya, the unconventional Ladyland ruled by women, and its contemporary connection and influence.

‘The books and religions are nothing but codes of conduct and directives prescribed by men. The rulings given by male sages would have been reversed had they been given by a female sage.’

Rokeya (1880-1932) was a social reformer, educationalist, prolific writer and a campaigner for human rights and gender equality in colonial Victorian India. She came from a village in the north of Bangladesh. Her writings and ideas have strongly influenced the development and emancipation of women in Bangladesh and India.

MAHILA SANGHA (South-East London Bangladeshi Women’s Group) in partnership with Rose Bruford College and TARA Arts presents:

Rokeya’s Dream

Based on the satire Sultana’s Dream written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) and her life and writings, the play will take you on a journey with three young British individuals and their path of discovery into Rokeya’s life and the stories of womens’ tribulations in the early 1900s in colonial Victorian Bengal  – delving into cultural choices, social pressures and overcoming extraordinary obstacles.

Rokeya was brought up in strict purdah, education was forbidden. Yet she crossed all barriers. A forward thinking visionary, influential writer and social reformer she even spoke of a sustainable environment and solar energy hundred years ago!

Join us in acknowledging this great woman’s fight and the rewards reaped from her struggle in empowering women and promoting education in South Asia. Come and experience Rokeya’s Dream.

Directed by: Mukul Ahmed
Script by: Rae Leaver

I looked at Rokeya
The inspiration she brought
Over a century later
For everything she fought

Don’t learn your language
To evil it will lead
Stay behind seclusion
Unable to read

Purdah and veil
The order of the day
Imposed by religion
That is what men say

Freedom! Oh Freedom!
We suffocate in the dark
Oppressed by men
But we did make our mark

Women magistrates and judges
If only we could be
But we have done better
Just look round and see

Don’t you oppress us
We demand our right
In Rokeya’s Ladyland
Men couldn’t rule with might

You dreamt of cohesion
Among women of all creed
Together we will work
To create the world we need

by Shaheen Westcombe MBE
Executive Committee Member
The Gandhi Foundation

Book Review – Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pukhtuns

Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pukhtuns
Rajmohan Gandhi Penguin/Viking 2004

Abdul Gaffar Kahn

Abdul Gaffar Kahn

Eknath Easwaran writes in his biography of Khan: “The definitive history of Khan’s life and movement remains to be written”. The current situation in the Pathan or Pakhtun area of Pakistan and Afghanistan makes a study of his life and culture particularly relevant.

There are a number of studies of Khan in existence:

  • D G Tendulkar’s Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Faith is a Battle has been considered as the ninth volume of his biography of Gandhi in eight volumes. (1967)
  • Pyarelal’s Pilgrimage for Peace: Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi among North West Frontier Pathans; by Gandhi’s former secretary and biographer.
  • Eknath Easwaran’s Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match his Mountains. (1984)
  • Khan’s own My Life and Struggle, narrated to K B Narang. (1969)
  • Mukulika Banarjee’s The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier is not a biography as such but an account of the rank and file members of the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God)founded by Khan.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, Khan’s thinking can be summed up in the following six points:

  1. The struggle he mobilised was nonviolent.
  2. Forgiveness was part of Islam; a passion to find an answer to the code of revenge to which Pathans appeared to be sworn.
  3. Non-Muslims were as important as Muslims.
  4. He wanted Pashtun women to study, work and lead; an example of this is sending his daughter to study in Britain.
  5. Although being a devout and loyal Muslim, he was also enthusiastic about his region’s older Buddhist history.
  6. Against the politics of ‘me first’ and double standards he asked his Khudai Khidmatgar to serve society and practice the values they espoused.

Although often called the Frontier Gandhi, Khan has always linked his nonviolence to Islam. At a meeting in Bardoli he said:

“There is nothing surprising in a Musalman or a Pathan like me subscribing to nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca… But we had so far forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us we thought he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon..”

Khan was certainly not a mere appendix to Gandhi. His nonviolence depended on his own thinking and he grounded his ideas of nonviolence on both Islam and the traditional thinking of his own people,what he called Pukhtunwali. Banerjee says that Khan’s nonviolence was based on this traditional code and Islam. Another author, Barbara Metcalf, refers to two ideas in Islam – “the lesser Jihad” which is related to the legitimate armed struggle against injustice, and to “the greater Jihad”, denoting the inner struggle of an individual to develop a true commitment to Islam and cultivating the necessary qualities which the Quran cherishes. The Khudai Khidmatgar therefore was neither Gandhian in inspiration nor a mere tactical manoeuvre but rather a creative ideological position. Pukhtunwali had its key-terms – shame, honour, refuge, and hospitality.

Another author, J P S Uberoi, has said;

“In order to be martyrs human beings have to possess the qualities of truthfulness, fearlessness, poverty and chastity.” Badshah Khan must have been converted to nonviolence in 1919-20. After 1920 he started telling Pukhtuns that their condition would never improve as long as they believed in “blood for blood”. “Violence creates hatred and fear,nonviolence generates love, makes one bold.”

Looking to the present, Rajmohan Gandhi writes:

“Placing contemporary Pakhtuns, whether resident in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere, in the setting of the real or imagined clash between Islam and the West-dominated modern world, they may ask whether Badshah Khan has anything to offer to an understanding of this presumed clash. Related to this clash is the discussion in which adherents and scholars of Islam are currently engaged: Does Badshah Khan contribute anything of value to the modern debate within the world of Islam?”

The Western world does not even consider this question. Yet Khan’s territory is again an area of intense fighting and many Western countries are involved. Rajmohan Gandhi concludes:

“Let us attempt to appraise him as a Pakhtun, as a subcontinental figure, as a Muslim and finally as a voice in today’s world”.

Piet Dijkstra

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future – by Martha C. Nussbaum

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future
Martha C. Nussbaum
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
29.95 euros

Martha C. Nussbaum is Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She worked for eight years (1985-93) with the Research Project of the UN World Institute for Development in Helsinki, focusing on the economic and cultural problems of India. She chose India when she wanted to write on human rights norms for women’s development worldwide. She was a consultant with the UN Development Programme’s New Delhi Office and in 2004 was a visiting Professor at the Centre for Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She lectured in various parts of India and wrote extensively on India’s legal and constitutional traditions. She travelled so many times to India that it now feels like her second home.

Her relationship with India is intensely political, focussed on issues of social justice, and she has had close contacts with Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1988. Three personalities in particular feature, namely, Nehru, Tagore and Gandhi. In her Preface she states: “This is a book about India for an American and European audience”. But it is not only about India but also about the present clash between Islam and the West.

She writes: “… that the real clash is not a civilisational one between ‘Islam and the West’, but instead a clash within virtually all modern nations – between people who are prepared to live with others who are different, on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity, achieved through the domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition”.

At a deeper level the thesis of this book is the Gandhian claim that the real struggle that democracy must wage is a struggle within the individual between the urge to dominate and defile the other, and to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

Nussbaum deals extensively with the ethnic/religious pogrom in Gujarat in February-March 2002 when approximately 2,000 Muslims were killed by Hindus. She analyses the Hindu nationalistic personality and finds sufficient hatred within to explain the Gujarat events. Her conclusion – based to a great extent on Gandhi’s thinking – is worth quoting:

“The ability to accept differences – differences of religion, of ethnicity, of race, of sexuality – requires first, the ability to accept something about oneself: that one is not lord of the world, that one is both adult and child, that no all-embracing collectivity will keep one safe from the vicissitudes of life, that others outside oneself have reality. This ability requires, in turn, the cultivation of a moral imagination that sees reality in other human beings, that does not see other human beings as mere instruments of one’s own power or threats to that power.”

She argues, in this highly passionate study, that ultimately the greatest threat comes not from a clash between civilisations, but from a clash within each of us.

Piet Dijkstra

Inter-Religious Approach to Communal Harmony – by M.R. Rajagopalan

While there are many causes of violence, religious differences have been historically one of them, in spite of their teachings of love, compassion and service to humanity.

As empires arose in different parts of the world, the kings claimed divinity and the priest class facilitated the process. Thus the link between religion and polities has continued all through history and religion has been in part an integrating or stabilising factor.

In India from the days of Ramayana (probably around ioth century BCE) kings claimed divine origin — either Surya (sun) or Chandra (moon) Vamsa — both sun and moon are gods in Hindu mythology. As the Pallava and Chola empires arose in south India around 7th century CE, the Bhakti cult also emerged and huge temples were constructed. The emperors often assumed the name of the presiding deity of the greatest temples. For the masses the king was indistinguishable from God.

At least in India the kings and society at large showed tolerance towards different faiths. Perhaps this was inherent in the ‘tenets’ of Hinduism itself. Though one of the oldest religions in the world, it does not have a single god head or a gospel or a single institution. Atheism was also born in India – the Charvaks who were atheists posed a challenge to the priestly class. They were tolerated. The word ‘Hinduism’ was born around 8-9th century and was used by the Arabs and Persians for those living beyond the river Indus. Prior to this, expressions like Sanatana Dharma, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shakti cult and so on were used.

Buddhism was just 2-3 centuries old during the reign of Asoka. After his victory in the Kalinga war in the 3rd century BCE he gave up violence and embraced Buddhism. His edicts enjoin that other sects deserve reverence. It is important to note that although Asoka became a Buddhist he did not announce Buddhism as the state religion. Hinduism and Jainism, which also arose around the time of Buddhism, flourished in Asoka’s empire.

In the south both under Pallavas and Cholas, Buddhist viharas and Jam temples were part of the town’s landscape along with the Hindu temples. There was freedom to choose one’s religion. The Bhakti cult that arose with the Nayanmars and Aiwars around the 7th century CE became over whelmingly popular in Tamilnadu, and Buddhism and Jainism started to decline. Perhaps these religions could not match the sagacity and popularity of the wandering minstrels singing the praises of the Hindu gods!

Akbar’s Divine Faith

An attempt was made by the great i6th century mogul emperor Akbar to integrate the different religions. Though he was not a man of letters – in fact he was illiterate — he established a library in his capital Agra and arranged for works like Ramayana and Maha Bharatha to be translated from Sanskrit into Persian. He acquired a deep and thorough knowledge of the religions of his time — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism by arranging recurring dialogues with scholars of these faiths. Akbar liked to reason about particular components of each multi-faceted religion. He was sceptical of the rituals of Jainism but he liked and opted for vegetarianism from that religion. Taking the essential elements from different faiths, Akbar founded a new religion — Din-e-ilahi, meaning ‘Divine Faith’ or ‘Religion of God’. He did not manage to popularise it among the masses; it remained academic. Yet its importance should not be underestimated. That the greatest emperor of his times devoted his time and energy to the study of religion and came up with the idea of a common religion is a landmark in human history. No king either before or after Akbar showed this constructive attitude towards religions.

Tolerance by other Muslim rulers

There is a popular belief that under Muslim rule conversions to Islam took place at the point of the sword. Since Hindus continued to be the majority population in the mogul capital Delhi and all over the empire even after five centuries of Muslim rule this cannot be true. In truth millions of Hindus especially Dalits and some classes of artisans who were denied entry to Hindu temples, embraced Islam since it offered brotherhood and inside the mosque all are equal before Allah.

Spain came under Muslim rule in the 1oth century and ruled the country for five centuries without forcible conversion. Today Muslims number less than five percent of the population of Spain.

The same religious tolerance was prevalent under the Ottoman empire which flourished from the 13th till early 20th century. Especially between 1500 and 1920 the Turks ruled over not only Arabia, central Asia and Greece but also the Slavic nations, and in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and so on a Christian population lived in peace.

Gandhiji’s views on Religion

In January 1935 Dr S Radhakrishnan asked Gandhiji three questions:

  1. What is your religion?
  2. How are you led to it?
  3. What is its bearing on social life?

Gandhiji’s reply was:

“My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me. I take it that the present tense in the second question has been purposely used instead of the past. I am being led to my religion through Truth and Nonviolence, ie love in the broadest sense. I often describe my religion as religion of Truth, Of late, instead of saying God is Truth, I have being saying Truth is God, in order more fully to define my religion. I used at one time to know by heart the thousand names of God which a booklet in Hinduism gives in verse form and which perhaps tens of thousands recite every morning. But nowadays nothing so completely describes my God as Truth. Denial of God we have known. Denial of Truth we have not known. The most ignorant among mankind have some truth in them.

The bearing of this religion on social life is, or has to be, seen in one’s daily social contact. To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life. Realisation of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me, there is no escape from social service; there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it. Social service here must be taken to include every department of life. In this scheme there is nothing low, nothing high. For, all is one, though we seem to be many.”

In his famous constructive programme, communal unity occupies the first place. In Gandhiji’s words: “Unity does not mean political unity which may be imposed. It means an unbreakable heart unity. The first thing essential for achieving such a unity is for every person, whatever his religion may be, to represent in his own person Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jew, etc In order to realise this, every person will cultivate personal friendship with persons representing faiths other than his own. He should have the same regard for the other faiths as he has for his own.”

The situation in the 21st century

Gandhiji would have derived great comfort and happiness about one significant aspect of the Indian situation today. With more than 8o% of the population being Hindu, India has a Prime Minister (Man Mohan Singh) from the Sikh religion, a President (Abdul Kalam) who is a Muslim, and the ruling party, Congress, being presided over by a woman from a Christian background (Sofia Gandhi). I wonder whether such a situation has ever existed in any other country with a democratic form of government?

A real danger in the world today is the tendency to segregate and identify people on the basis of religion. Almost every country in the world has become multi-ethnic and is home to people from different faiths. To segregate them as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists etc could create complications. We have to understand the reality that we have multiple identities based on language, religion, nation, gender, profession etc. The use of religious identity alone as a rubber stamp is improper and dangerous.

Nevertheless, we have to face the reality that after 11th September 2001 Muslims have to some extent become suspect. How do we overcome this situation? The word Jihad in the literal sense means effort, or a striving. Islamic scholars say that the Quran and Hadith ascribe two meanings to the term: ‘al-Jihad al Akhbar’ and ‘al-Jihad al Asghar’.

The former means the ‘greater warfare’, which is against one’s inner demon, while the latter means the ‘lesser warfare’ against infidels. The perception of jihad in the former sense is subjective and has moral implications. It involves a way of life in which fleeting temptations have no place. Individuals become discerning subjects who comprehend that worldly temptations are ephemeral and have to be fought. It is also the ability to suffer virtuously the afflictions caused by the foe by following the commandment of Allah and to preach, through education, art and literature, the precepts of Islam.

The second meaning of jihad is the religious war against ‘oppressive occupiers’ of the homeland of Islam, Dar-al-Islam. The jihad is a defensive act: it is a war of last resort dictated by circumstances and compulsions confronting Muslims. Yet unfortunately some Maulvis and Maulanas are obsessed with the politics of communal power and preach false interpretations of jihad as the fight against non-believers.

An agenda for peace and harmony

How do we ensure communal harmony and peace in this strife-torn world? The ball is in the court of the Gandhians and all social groups which stand for peace and harmony and above all — responsible leaders of different religions. Religious leaders have a tremendous responsibility. There is no religion in the world that does not speak about love, compassion and service to society. We have to go back to the days of Akbar and draw inspiration from his wisdom of bringing out the Religion of God. We cannot create a new religion and unify the population. But we can learn to tolerate and respect other religions. We have to sit together and draw up an agenda for peace and communal harmony. This agenda should take its cue from Gandhiji’s doctrines of Truth and Nonviolence.

M R Rajagopalan is Secretary of the Gandhigram Trust in Tamil Nadu.

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.


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