Gandhi, Gandhism and Terrorism – by Antony Copley

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

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

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

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

State terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

Israel, for example, he brands as a perpetrator of

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

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

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

Terrorist Movements in Gandhi’s Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gandhi’s Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Origins of Muslim Fundamentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam and Terror

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

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

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

But he does attribute some of the blame for their existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a Gandhian response to Muslim terrorism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Categories: Middle East, Terrorism


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