Tag Archives: Palestine

Help the Children of Gaza says Gandhi Foundation Patron Denis Halliday

smiles irish gaza

Going through some pictures from the recent weeks in Umm al Nasser, Northern Gaza.  Things are hard, very hard, for a lot of people in Gaza, in all of Palestine these days, but a child’s smile helps…. Although it was hard work, we (and obviously the children) had some fun… We decided the pictures, their smiles ought to be shared… Enjoy and remember to continue to help by donating.

-  Jenny and Derek Graham of Irish in Gaza

To donate: http://irishingaza.wordpress.com/donate-urgently-for-gaza/

For more information:  http://irishingaza.wordpress.com/

Book Review – What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage by Norman Finkelstein

What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage

Norman G Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein at Suffolk University in Massachusetts 2005 by Miguel de Icaza

Norman Finkelstein at Suffolk University in Massachusetts 2005 by Miguel de Icaza

OR Books: New York and London 2012 pp100

$10/£6

Reviewed by Antony Copley

Thinking through how a nonviolent protest might free the West Bank from Israeli occupation led the author to take a close look at Gandhi’s own writings to see just what he did say about nonviolence. One of his complaints is that Gandhi scholars in fact rarely do take a close look at the Collected Works, though surely this is transparently unfair in the case of Anthony Parel and, indeed, our own editor, George Paxton. As one would expect of a close friend of Noam Chomsky a razor-sharp intelligence is brought to bear on those writings. Finkelstein has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict and maybe predictably his major critique of Gandhi’s ideas lies in their ineffectiveness for dealing with Hitler and the Holocaust. But this is a highly sophisticated analysis and is far more ambivalent in the ways it looks at such questions as Gandhi’s consistency and at the psychology underlying these ideas, other historical conflicts, above all the freedom struggle, and this is a measured recommendation for a nonviolent approach at the time of the Arab spring and the Occupy movement.

It is easy enough for Finkelstein to expose Gandhi’s inconsistencies. Gandhi wrote of the hobgoblin of consistency and the author concedes that, for all the apparent contradictions, there were underlying core beliefs: “he probably never consciously lied. ” (p20 ). Finkelstein sees a fatal weakness in Gandhi’s reliance on intuition,his inner voice, and though I don’t wholly see the logic of his conclusion, sees this as bound to lead to authoritarianism: “to doubt Gandhi was to doubt God.” (p23) But then he corrects himself and sees Gandhi’s ideas as less abstract and incoherent and open to rational explication.

The most worrying inconsistency is the way Gandhi wavers between nonviolence and the need in certain circumstances to resort to violence. In some ways the whole play between nonviolence and violence could be recast in terms of courage versus cowardice. Gandhi surely rightly saw it as the highest form of courage to meet violence with nonviolence, even a readiness to die. Finkelstein sees Gandhi taking this to an extreme and encouraging a positive cult of death, almost revelling in the number of those who might lose their lives, say in a communal conflict with Muslims. Nothing was so shameful in his eyes than cowardice. Better to resort to violence than to be cowardly. To quote Finkelstein: “Gandhi’s Collected Works are filled with, on the one hand, scalding condemnations of ersatz nonviolence, and on the other, exhortations to violence if the only other option is craven retreat.” (p35) Gandhi is seen as almost sharing Nietzsche’s contempt for Christian passivity, its turning the other cheek.

Oddly the reason for such concern is staring us in the face. Gandhi’s was surely a response to an imperialist rhetoric which spoke of the lack of manliness, the effeminacy of Indians. The Raj here had the Bengalis in mind in contrast to the Indian martial races. Here was one way the Raj met the challenge of a nationalist movement initially inspired by the Bengalis. In many ways Gandhi had bought into the martial values of the Rajputs. Evidently the charge of effeminacy stung Gandhi and possibly he overcompensated. Of course there are more complex psychoanalytic explorations possible and Gandhi’s complex attitudes to sexuality, evidenced in brahmacharya, inevitably exposes him to such enquiry.

Finkelstein’s real concern is to test the effectiveness of nonviolence. The example he takes is the plight of European Jews in the Holocaust. Gandhi was obviously not alone in floundering before such crimes against humanity. Might he yet appeal to Hitler’s good nature ? Might mass nonviolent passive resistance by the Jews work on the conscience of the Nazis ? Finkelsteins’s argument is that the coercive power of satyagraha, its capacity to change minds, cannot work against a mind set such as the Nazi. They were impervious to such moral pressure. There is no evidence that the sight of millions of Jews being led to the crematoria ‘like lambs to the slaughter house’ had the slightest affect on the conscience of the Nazis. Noncooperation simply would not work in this case. He concludes, somewhat ambiguously, that Gandhi’s own unique moral force could prevail and “this was his great personal triumph, but also his great political failure. The tactic had no generalised value.” (p57) Gandhi himself, to quote his own words, believed “human nature in its essence is open and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.” (quoted p69) Finkelstein does not share this optimism. At this juncture he chooses not to explore the alternative tactic of violent Jewish resistance, both in the camps and ghettoes, a violence of course played up today by Israel itself, gripped by a rhetoric of survival. Nor does he mention Gandhi’s Jewish friends, Polak and Kallenbach, and Kallenbach’s failure to win Gandhi over in the 1930s to a more militant stand.

But then Finkelstein proceeds, along different lines, to try and explain how in fact a coercive nonviolent strategy does work. It is of course controversial to see nonviolence as morally coercive, which Gandhi always denied, for it seems in flat contradiction to its moral nature. A Gandhian strategy will only work, it is argued, if there is some susceptibility in the opponent either to its moral case or, just as probably, to a sense of its being in its own self interest. Finkelstein puts this well: “the thrust of his campaign was clearly to energize a latently sympathetic public via selfsuffering.” (pp61-2) Gandhi might prevail in a temperance campaign, for the Indian public saw the ravages of alcohol, but not against gambling, for here the Indian public were far too committed to gambling for any campaign to work. And of course the classic campaign was the nonviolent freedom struggle itself. But here once again Finkelstein takes a controversial line. He does not believe that it was ‘love power’ that persuaded the British to leave. There was no successful appeal to their moral conscience. Gandhi himself realised that the way to get the British to leave was to make India ungovernable and hence unprofitable. It was not a case of melting British hearts: “instead he set out to coerce them, albeit non-violently, into submission.” “It was not the power of love but the juggernaut of power that cleared the path to India’s independence.” (p78) Of course this is to overlook metropolitan British moral disquiet at the Amritsar massacre and the Christian conscience of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin.

This short, incisive work has to be taken very seriously. In the end Finkelstein, however ambiguous his whole interpretation, seems to come down on Gandhi’s side. He looks at the world today and decides on balance a nonviolent struggle leads to less loss of life than a violent. (cf the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt compared to what happened in Libya.) But does it set the bar of courage too high ? Is it necessarily more ethical than a violent struggle ? (Obviously here he has the Second World War in mind). But he proceeds: “but what can be said with confidence is that the results of violent resistance have at best been mixed.” So just how far will a nonviolent struggle take us ? He argues: “the further along it gets nonviolently, the more likely it is that the new world will be a better one.” (pp79-81)

Finkelstein’s interpretation of the limitations of Gandhism confronting Nazism reminds me of Ernest Gellner’s critique of moral relativism. Confronted by Nazism one has no alternative but to believe in an absolute right and wrong. You cannot in anyway qualify Hitlerism. And the debateover the need for fearlessness, Gandhi’s belief that could the British overcometheir fear of loss of Empire they would happily surrender, reminds me of Aung San Suu Kyi’s belief that could the Army in Burma lose its fear of the loss of power, they would come into line with more progressive policies. It is in Burma that the Gandhian ideal is currently being put most critically to the test.

Antony Copley is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent and Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation

The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2012

The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2012

has been awarded to

The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group

For their humanitarian work in very difficult circumstances and for bringing people together through that work for the betterment of all.

The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital team receiving the 2012 Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award award from the President of the Gandhi Foundation, Lord Bhikhu Parekh

In a letter to Philip Hardaker, Peace Award Committee Convenor Omar Hayat wrote that, “The Trustees felt that the Eye Hospital has been guided by one of the highest forms of humanitarian ideals, that of bringing medical care to an impoverished and politically unstable area.”

After acknowledging the cost of preventable blindness to the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and the poverty-relieving nature of the work that they do, Omar Hayat continued, “The charity in performing this work has engaged all communities in that area and in doing so, we believe, is helping to find common ground between the different people of that region.”

The Joint Teaching Programmes with the Hadassah and Shaare Zedek Medical Centres in Israeli West Jerusalem have not only permitted the local Palestinian Residents to benefit from outstanding educational opportunities, but have brought them into direct and intimate contact with their Israeli neighbours for over ten years now.

In response to news of the award, Mr Hardaker said, “We have always hoped that – in some small way – this project was helping to facilitate trust and understanding.  The Hospital Group is both delighted and humbled to have been awarded this symbolic honour.”

http://www.stjohneyehospital.org/

World Civilian Coalition Gathers for Global March to Jerusalem

World Civilian Coalition Gathers
for Global March to Jerusalem

Beirut -The International Executive Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem announces the completion of the preparations for the Second International Conference where the representatives of the International Committees involved in the organization of the Global March to Jerusalem will meet. The conference will be held in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon on Tuesday and Wednesday 17th-18th January 2012.


This meeting will be held to implement the decisions of the previous meeting, held in Amman last month, in which there was a consensus to form an International Central Committee representing all regions of the world and an International Advisory Board of eminent international figures for the march. The date for the onset of the March was agreed to be on the 30th of March, 2012, which marks the 36th anniversary of Palestinian Land Day, when peaceful protest against massive expropriation of Palestinian land was brutally met with deadly force by Zionist troops. About 40 delegates representing the International Committees throughout the seven continents of the world will be attending the meeting in Beirut.

The conference will adopt a structural process for the March, and its committee structure will be filled with appointees. The general policies for the international actions will be mandated in Beirut to ensure their success. The conference will also discuss the national events and actions that will be launched in all countries starting from mid January, 2012 and until the date of the march towards Jerusalem or the nearest possible point to it, from inside Palestine and the neighbouring Arab countries, as well as the convoys from Asia, Africa and Europe that will converge on the march date. In addition to that it will coordinate international activities that will coincide with the March in different countries.

The committee would like to confirm that the Global March to Jerusalem and all the accompanying local events and actions aim to shed light on the issue of Jerusalem (the City of Peace) as the key to peace and war in the region and the world. The racist Judaisation policies of the occupation and its ethnic cleansing practices against Jerusalem, its people and holy sites threaten this peace. Such practices are internationally recognized not only as crimes against Palestinians but as crimes against the whole of humanity.

The International Executive Committee also emphasized that through this peaceful march they envisage to mobilize Arab and Muslim nations alongside all freedom loving peoples of the world to put an end to Israeli violations of international law through its continuous occupation of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestinian Land. Israel’s persistence in continuing its racist and ethnic cleansing practices through the construction of the Apartheid wall, the expansion of settlements and the escalation of killing, destruction, displacement and Judaisation reveals the extent of its crime. This kind of behaviour demands an international rally to support the right of Palestinians to freedom, independence, self-determination and the right of return. This peaceful march is inspired by our belief and the belief of those who support our cause throughout the world that the massive participation of the people of the world is a practical, nonviolent way to achieve justice and preserve peace by ending the Israeli occupation in Palestine and its capital Jerusalem.

The International Executive Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem GMJ-ICC 
Jan. 10th 2012

For more information, please contact:
Zaher Birawi: +44 7850 896 057 OR Dr. Paul Larudee +1 510 224 3518.

 

The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award and Annual Lecture 2010

To be presented to the
Parents Circle Families Forum

Wednesday 3rd November

6 – 8pm (seated by 5.45pm)

at The House of Lords
Room 4A

This year the Annual Lecture will take the form of a panel discussion with the following distinguished members:

  • The Parents Circle Families Forum (2 representatives: 1 Israeli and 1 Palestinian)
  • Denis Halliday – former Assistant General Secretary of the UN, who was on the recent flotilla to Gaza
  • Huw Irranca-Davies – Labour MP for Ogmore
  • Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh – Chair.

The panel will discuss nonviolent solutions to the situation in the Middle East.

The Gandhi Foundation Trustees felt that the Parents Circle Families Forum has been guided by one of the highest forms of Gandhian ideals, that of dialoguing with and understanding the adversary’s point of view and finding common ground on which to base a solution. The PCFF is also working to influence public and political opinion on aspects of reconciliation as a means to finally resolving the problems of security, historical lineage and common inheritance. The bereaved families on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have united in their common grief, have had the courage to advocate that further violence is not a solution and are striving peacefully to prevent future bereavements.

Tickets are free, but there is limited availability and those wishing to attend should contact Omar Hayat at: omarhayat@chemecol.net

Book Review – Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests

Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests
Simone Panter-Brick
I B Tauris 2008 pp193
IBSN 978 1 84511 584 5 HB
£47.50

This study deals with Gandhi’s involvement with the politics of the Middle East and in particular Palestine. There were two periods when Gandhi became involved in Middle Eastern politics. The first was following the Great War when the victorious nations wished to abolish the Caliphate, i.e. the leadership of the Muslim world which was in recent times held by the Ottoman Sultan. Gandhi took up the cause as it was one that Indian Muslims were very concerned about and it would help to maintain good Hindu/Muslim relations. However, it was a rather outdated cause and the Turks led by the secular leader Ataturk themselves eventually abolished the Caliphate and Gandhi’s involvement in the Middle East then ceased.

The second, which is the focus of this book, was around 1937. During WWI various promises were made to both Jews and Arabs about the post-war settlement. One of the most important was the statement by Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, concerning the establishment of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The leading Zionist, Chaim Weitzmann, hoped that immigration would lead to 4-5 million Jews settling there and therefore a Jewish state would become viable. In 1922 the British fixed immigration quotas and the numbers settling rose until the late 1920s when numbers dropped off with the world recession. A Jewish Agency was set up to operate as a non-official government which even developed a military wing.

In 1929 trouble began when there was rioting in Jerusalem as it looked as if the Jews would rebuild the Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock. In the 1930s immigration greatly increased so that by WWII Jews constituted about 30% of the population. In 1936 a Higher Arab Committee was established to include all Arab parties and it was chaired by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin. They opposed the Jewish settlement and a violent revolt erupted in April 1936 which lasted about 6 months. In response the Jews expanded their defence force, the Haganah, and developed a more extreme off-shoot, the Irgun.

In 1936 Gandhi began to involve himself again. Hermann Kallenbach had been Gandhi’s closest colleague in South Africa and he was Jewish, and he knew the representative of the Jewish Agency, Immanuel Olsvanger, who was also from South Africa. Dr Olsvanger went to see Gandhi in October 1936 and was supposed to be accompanied by Kallenbach, who was pro-Zionist, but he could not manage. Olsvanger was not favourably impressed by Gandhi’s views and considered him to be naive. Kallenbach came to London in April 1937 to meet Olsvanger and also Weizmann and Maurice Shertok, head of the Political Department, then went on to Palestine before going on to see Gandhi. Gandhi promised Kallenbach he would study Zionist literature which he would be sent.

Gandhi’s position was that Palestine was Arab territory and if Jews settled there they should not expect the protection of a colonial power (Britain). But Jews and Christians who were already there should have equal rights to the Arabs. The dependence of Jewish settlers on the colonial power became clear when 30,000 troops were sent during the 1936-39 rebellion. Gandhi’s position was even more strongly held by Nehru who saw the Arab struggle and the Indian anti-colonial struggle as essentially the same.

In July 1937 Kallenbach left India taking a proposal from Gandhi to Shertok in Jerusalem and by letter to Weizmann in London. The letter by Kallenbach to Weizmann offered mediation between Jews and Arabs by Nehru, Azad (President of Congress) and Gandhi. In July also the British Government’s Peel Report was published recommending partition, something which the Arabs did not like, and the Jews were disappointed about too because of the small size of territory proposed. Nevertheless the Zionists accepted it, as did the League of Nations, but the Arabs totally rejected it.

In September the British Commissioner of Galilee was assassinated and for 18 months there was virtual civil war. 3,ooo Jews were recruited to the police, the Irgun resorted to terrorism against Arab and British, 200 Arab leaders were arrested. In the 26 November, 1938 edition of Harijan Gandhi published an article called ‘The Jews’. In it he wrote: “My sympathies are all with the Jews” calling them the untouchables of Christianity. However, he continued: “The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” He wrote that “The Palestine of the Biblical concept is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts”. However if they do feel that they should settle in the geographical Palestine it should only be done with the approval of the Arabs there and done nonviolently and without the support of British arms. This met with much criticism and it was clear that Gandhi’s advice would be ignored. Gandhi’s attempts to influence the politics of the Middle East in the 1930s were a complete failure. However the history of Palestine has been a sorry one indeed, with intermittent war for 80 years, but one that could have been predicted given the inflexibilty of the protagonists.

Simone Panter-Brick’s book tells us about a relatively obscure part of Gandhi’s life but the reader will learn much about the Middle East and she does not neglect contemporaneous events in India. It is a complex story she tells which helps us to understand the events in Israel/Palestine today and the problem that the Jews, the Arabs and the world community still have to solve.

George Paxton

Gandhi in the 21st Century – by Prof. Bhikhu Parekh

The Second Fred Blum Memorial Lecture

If  I were to sum up Gandhi in just one phrase (his phrase) I would say he committed his life, as he called it,

“to grow from truth to truth”.

In other words, as a human being he said he only had partial perceptions of ultimate reality, or what is truth about anything, and life consists in our constantly rising above our limitations, our prejudices, exposing ourselves to others, and – in the process – growing “from truth to truth”.  In fact, I think that sums up the Mahatma’s life, and in my view it also sums up the life of Fred Blum.

Now, what about Mahatma in the 21st century?  I think the best way to approach the topic would be to ask what are the important questions with which the 20th century began, and which will haunt us for the next hundred years, if not more?  And of the many issues I have thought about, I would say four are critically important:

  1. Clash of cultures and civilisations
  2. The role of religion in public life
  3. Is there an alternative to violence ?
  4. Is there a place for personal integrity ?

Clash of cultures and civilisations

Let’s take the first one: clash of civilisations. Thanks to globalisation, different cultures and civilisations come together.  As they do so they encounter incomprehension and misunderstanding.  What do we do about it ?  Although many say a clash is inevitable, Gandhi had a different kind of answer.  When “9/11” happened in 2001, a lot of people said this was due to a clash of civilisations, and what has happened since has gone on to confirm this.  And therefore – they say – all we can hope to do is to manage the world as well as we can, hold on to our values, keep enemies at bay, and try to make sure that the world remains reasonably stable but be prepared for the clashes to occur from time to time.  Gandhi’s arguments were: (a) no kind of clash is inevitable; (b) by believing they are, you are demonising your opponent, turning them into inhuman monsters.  Therefore you put them outside the pale of human community and, because you have dehumanised them, you feel you can do anything with them because they “are not human beings”.  Therefore you can hunt them down.  Many Middle Eastern countries acquire “plus points” for every individual they can lock up or kill, so long as they are described as “terrorist Al Qaida supporters”.  In other words, once you dehumanise people you begin to dehumanise yourself, because that is the only way you think you can deal with them.  Therefore the moral inhibitions and scruples, which normally govern your life, seem to disappear.

I think this kind of Gandhian analysis has come true because if you look at the way, for example, that President Bush talks about Al Qaida, and the way in which Osama bin Laden talks about the Americans, there’s a complete symmetry.  Osama will say “Your capitalist American society in the West is an axis of evil, you are a degenerate society”.  Bush says the same in reverse.  Osama will say: “None of you are innocent because you are all complicit in the guilt and the harm that you are inflicting on us.”  Bush says the same: “You are either for us or against us”.

Gandhi said again and again – in his fights against racism in South Africa, the under-privileged in India or against the British – that he discovered increasingly how you become the “mirror-image” of your enemy.  So that is a no-win situation.  In trying to defeat an enemy, you defeat something very vital within yourself.  So Gandhi’s answer was that what we need is dialogue between cultures, trying to understand each other and in the process recognise that other human beings are not “others” or strangers or enemies – they are “us” in a different form – and we share a common community.

But that’s easy to say, and I want to explore the specificity of the kind of dialogue that is taking place in this and other forums – where you simply talk in a mainly gentle, courteous kind of way: I listen to you, you listen to me – and we go home exactly the same as before !  Mahatma says that that is dishonest.  That is not a dialogue – it’s simply a series of monologues.  We think each other “a nice chap or girl” and we never critically engage with each other’s beliefs.  The Mahatma’s concern was what I talked about earlier – “going from truth to truth”.  Gandhi said true dialogue is important because (a) I want to understand “what makes you tick” – what is the world of thought from within you from which you look at the world ?  and (b) what can I learn from you ?  True dialogue grows out of the desire to grow, to expand one’s universe, to enrich oneself.  Which leads to a further question: Why do you want to enrich yourself ?  Where did that desire come from ?  And Gandhi says it comes from the fact that you recognise your own limitations.  In other words, self-criticism is the foundation of a dialogue.  I, reflecting upon myself, find certain limitations in my own culture, in myself.  I want therefore to open up myself to others and see what they have to tell me; to incorporate those things into my ways of thinking and, in the process, to grow.

Let me give an example of this kind of creative and critical engagement the Mahatma was talking about.  All his life he looked at his own civilisation and was enormously impressed with the fact that of all the civilisations, the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains had been the greatest votaries of nonviolence, ahimsa.  So from his own civilisation he took some of the ideas of nonviolence.  But, as he reflected, he realised that this idea is negative because it is passive.  Nonviolence for the Indian means not doing harm to anybody.  It doesn’t mean going out and helping and, therefore, is passive.  It does not have the active spirit of social service and love. So Gandhi turns to Christianity.  In the 21-odd years he was in South Africa that was one religion that was extremely close to him.  From Christianity he gathers the idea of caritas or love.  Active love.  So he takes over the Hindu idea of nonviolence, combines it with the Christian idea of caritas and arrives at the idea of “active service for the love of human beings”.  But then – as he reflects further – he is slightly unhappy with the Christian idea of love on the grounds that it is emotional, and he was looking for a kind of love which leads to no internal emotional disturbance.  So he turns again to the Hindu idea of “non-attachment” – and arrives at the idea of “detached but active engagement in the world, in the spirit of love for your fellow human beings”.  So what you see here is a man who plays with ideas drawn from different religions.   Added to this are his fasts, which can only be born out of a creative tension between the two traditions.  So this is the kind of thing Gandhi was talking about when he talks about a dialogue between civilisations.

“And this means,” says Gandhi, “that because other civilisations are my interlocutors they are the sources of my inspiration.  I wish them well.  I want them to flourish.”  So this dialogue results in universal sympathy for different points of view and a desire to see them grow and flourish.

The role of religion in public life

The second question – what is the role of religion in public life? Now, many of us are scared when religion is brought into public life ! We know what happens – it can either lead to Ayatollah Khomenei, or to the BJP in India, or to evangelicals in the USA when they tried to persuade Reagan to take on the so-called evil Soviet Union, etc. Religion is frightening. Therefore the liberal impulse is to say “please keep it out of politics”, every time they see a religious figure or hear a religious statement: “You are welcome to live by it but don’t bring it into the political circle Because you will raise atavistic passions, you will be making absolutist demands because religion talks in the language of absolute emotions, like the evangelicals. Which is not like politics. Because politics is about compromise, about what is negotiable, what can be talked through”. Now the difficulty here is that for religious people, religion simply cannot be privatised. It is not simply meant to ensure contemplation between you and the Almighty – religion is a matter of fundamentally held values. You want to live by those values – these values inform you, and therefore they inform the public life. Therefore religion simply cannot be excluded from public life. But at the same time, religion can cross a limit when it becomes a ‘state religion’: then the state begins to enforce certain religious values – as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. So the question for us – and the answer I look for from the Mahatma – is, how is it possible to recognise religion as a significant factor in the public and personal life of the religious person, but at the same time prevent it from taking over the state and becoming authoritarian and illiberal?

Here I think Gandhi had some important things to say. First, he says religion has a central place in public life, but should have nothing to do with the state. In other words, central to Gandhi’s religious thought is the distinction between the public realm and institutions of the state. So, religion has a legitimate place in public life, but the institutions of the state should have nothing to do with religion. They should be secular. Gandhi, for example, surprised many people by being opposed to the state funding religious schools or religious organisations, as it is not the state’s business. Any form of religious organisation that cannot be kept going by their own members, is dead. If you are really committed to religion, you raise the funds to keep it going. So his first important argument was that we need a secular state, with religion playing an important part in public life.

The second important thing he was saying is that one must recognise that no religion is perfect – in the same way that no country is perfect. Now, there are highly complex arguments, not to be gone into here, when religions claim to be ‘revelations’, direct from the Almighty – e.g. Allah dictating the Qur’an, Jesus being the Son of God. These religions would claim to be ‘perfect’, so they would have a big bone to pick with the Mahatma when he said that by definition, no religion can be perfect. His argument went something like this: God is infinite: the finite human mind cannot capture the infinite: therefore all our perceptions are inherently limited. Even if there is a direct revelation, that revelation is in a human language, with all its limitations to a human being, a particular human being, a prophet or whatever, who have their own limitations and therefore Gandhi says that every religion captures a particular vision of human life. That is its strength. But, in so far as it excludes other visions of human life, these are its limitations. Therefore every religion benefits from systematic and critical dialogue with God and with other religions. This is because your understanding of other religions, your understanding of the ultimate reality of God, deepens as you engage with other religions in trying to see how they perceive the infinite.

Gandhi would often cite the famous example from the Jain tradition where you have seven blind men trying to describe an elephant. One gets hold of the trunk and says God is this kind of thing, another takes hold of his foot and says an elephant is like a castle – and so on. Gandhi would say each of them captures something, but each of them is limited. Even if you are describing a scene that all of us have seen, we would each describe it differently from our own perspectives – how could it be otherwise in relation to the infinite and in relation to God?

Therefore the proper attitude of one religion to another is not to try and convert people, but rather to engage in a critical dialogue, so that each can benefit from the other. In this way you make a fraternity – a solidarity of different religious believers – rather than hostilities.

The alternative to violence

My third question – does the Mahatma have an alternative to violence? Of course he was totally opposed to violence in principle – although in practice he condoned acts of violence from time to time on the grounds that when human beings were desperate and pressed beyond a certain point, they might react, and that is understandable, although it might be unjustified. We must fight against injustice – of that there can be no compromise. So you can’t be a pacifist in the sense that you are not bothered about the state of the world. Injustices address you, and you must do something about them. But is violence the answer ? Gandhi says no, because violence itself is a form of injustice. It also involves hatred and it can create nothing lasting because its legacy is always going to be of ill-will. Therefore, while violence is not the answer, justice must be fought for.

The only answer is rational discussion. But Gandhi said there is one important lesson he learnt in life and that is that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point, but as he kept saying, when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work. What you need is the unity of head and heart. Reason can only appeal to the head – you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognise you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realise.

So – what are the alternatives ? You will know about satyagraha – the ‘surgery of the soul’, reason connected with the head and nonviolent resistance connected with the heart. In other words, in the moment, the perpetrator of injustice does not recognise the victim as a human being and the questions are “How can we activate his/her conscience? How can we get him/her to recognise that both are human beings and therefore both have certain rights?” Gandhi’s answer is for you to take upon yourself the burden of other people’s sins and nonviolent suffering. If you look at satyagraha, or the way of engaging in nonviolence, it consisted mainly of three methods or ways of acting, evolved over time:

  1. Non-cooperation. People would see an evil regime, realise their own complicity in keeping it in being, and refuse to cooperate with it.
  2. Boycott. For example, the boycott of British cloth in favour of Indian homespun.
  3. Civil disobedience, where you break the law because your conscience would not allow you to comply, and you would accept punishment but not give in.

It is amazing how this kind of civil disobedience and form of noncooperation is coming back into the 21st century in a big way. I have been involved – not directly, but by passive participation – in many discussions when people have been asking about the Iraq War: over a million people protested in Britain, scores of millions protested all over the world, religious people were against it … and yet the war went on. What could we have done to stop it? And if something like this were to occur again, what should we be doing to stop it? Increasingly people are beginning to say civil disobedience might be the answer: we will not pay our taxes; we will not co-operate with you. And if a million people, instead of marching, had done this, what would have happened?

The same thing is beginning to happen in the States. A fine Gandhian scholar and friend of mine, Professor Douglas Allen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine, a few months ago, together with academic colleagues and students, staged a peaceful demonstration outside the office of their Senator. They were arrested, tried and have been sentenced to community service. Douglas was telling me that many people in the US are beginning to feel increasingly that if something like Iraq were again to loom on the horizon, the level of practical action will have to be raised to the next gear – and that’s the sort of thing Gandhi was doing. I think the question for us to ask is are these methods which Gandhi employed the only ones or are there other ways in which we can try to activate the conscience of the opponent, or put pressure on the Government when it is trying to do something which is unjust? What other methods can be added to the Gandhian part of it?

When I was in Israel not long ago I asked several Arab hosts of mine about the possibility of their using nonviolence against Israelis, because they will always react against violence. But what if, I suggested, you were to engage in nonviolent resistance of the Gandhian type – civil disobedience, non-cooperation – telling the Israelis you will not harm them but want injustices remedied: If you want to shoot us, do so. Do you think the Israeli Government would have shot down a thousand people or more? If such a nonviolent movement had been mounted, with the world watching, I wonder what its success would have been? The Gandhian method can be tried in complex intractable situations, which is not to say it would always succeed. For instance, against Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, nonviolence would probably not have worked because there were no witnesses capable of reporting to the world. But the point is, this is not the case in the 21st century. Given the fact of the internet with access to almost any part of the world, I think the Gandhian method has a considerable chance of working.

The place for personal integrity

Let’s look at my fourth main question, Is there a place for personal integrity ? We have seen that our values are constantly being revised in the light of what we come across. But once they are revised and you are reasonably satisfied, then you say in the language of the theologian Martin Luther,

“I can do nothing else. This is my life, the values on which my life is constructed, I want to live by it”.

And Gandhi’s point was – and this I think is an unusual way of looking at it – that these values define you. They constitute your truth: the truth of my life is the truth of the values I want to live by. And therefore integrity for him basically means: How can I live by my truth? By the truth as I see it, recognising that I will constantly be going ‘from truth to truth’. Gandhi would say, for example, that both capitalism and communism are evil but there is no use in just campaigning against it – if it is evil does it show in your own life or not? So, for example, he considered the evil of capitalism was the idea of possessiveness, buying property and so on. So he had no private property and when he died all he left behind were his sandals, spittoon and his three monkeys – no insurance policy, writings, royalty or copyright – nothing. Another example was untouchability in India. Gandhi complained about it, fought against it but then asked himself whether he was also living it? So he went and lived among the untouchables and adopted an untouchable daughter.

Being a deeply religious person, Gandhi believed he must ultimately be able to trust God. And therefore he refused to have security of any kind, and no bodyguards. And when there were several attacks on his life, and the Government of India insisted he had physical protection, Gandhi said,

“The day I seek physical protection, I would rather not live”.

At a prayer meeting, when a bomb was thrown and the crowd began to disperse, Gandhi sat unmovingly and said to the crowd,

“Frightened of a mere bomb?”

and carried on with his prayer. This was the integrity of the man. It was such a profound integrity that when India became independent this man was to be seen nowhere near New Delhi. When the Prime Minister of India said that Gandhi should be the President of India in a position of power, he thought it was a joke! He said:

“My place is among the victims of Muslim/Hindu violence”.

This, I think, is the lesson that can be learnt from his life: personal integrity and when he said,

“My life is my message”

I think his life ultimately was the message of absolute, uncompromising personal integrity:

“This is where I stand. This is how I shall live. And unless I am convinced that it is wrong (and I could be convinced that it is wrong), then this is how I shall live”.

I think the different ways I have tried to take you through these four questions, go to show that the Mahatma is not ready to disappear in the 21st century!

A translated version of this lecture is available in Bengali by clicking on the link below. Copyright for this translation is strictly the property of Prof. Anwarullah Bhuiyan, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, 1342.

Bengali translation of  ‘Gandhi in the 21st century’

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