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What the Muslim World Can Teach Us About Nonviolence


It might be a bad dream but it feels real enough. The mantle of warfare slips seamlessly from one president to another, from one party to another, from one decade to another, from one generation to another. The impetus of national aggression transcends race, creed, socio-economic status, age, and geography. Our collective sin is the bald lie that we all live and perpetuate from moment to moment, year upon year, from our past to the days ahead: the misbegotten belief that we are a peaceful people.

 

Yes, we are good and peaceful, and they (whatever “they” we’re focused on today) are ruthless and evil. Institutionally, these values are operationalized every day. Drone attacks, propped-up murderers and dictators, weapons manufacturing and distribution, clandestine death squads, full-on warfare, neglect of starvation and disease, collateral damage, structural adjustments, black holes of torture, targeting civilians — this is the essence of our foreign policy, and to borrow the frank words of Madeleine Albright when asked about the deaths of a half million Iraqis due to imposed sanctions, “we think the price was worth it.” Since we operate in the name of democracy and freedom, all is forgiven.

 

Despite this litany, for many Americans it is undoubtedly the case that “Islamic terrorists” represent the greatest threat on the planet, approaching the status of evil incarnate. Even in the best of cases Westerners will inquire, as Bono recently did in the New York Times, where the Muslim Gandhi or King is to help overcome the “rage and despair” that define the Islamic nations. In these formulations, as historian John Bacher wrote two decades ago, any sense of “nonviolence on the part of Muslims has been too often ignored, while attention has been focused instead on extremist sects of Islam.” At the same time, we disregard our own complicity with violence and instead wonder why “the other” won’t change their ways and become peace- and freedom-loving people just like us.

 

These conceptions ignore the deep history of Islamic nonviolence and the myriad ways it is still practiced across the region. In fact, many positive examples of such nonviolent actions already exist throughout the Muslim world, such as the little-known work of La’Onf in Iraq and the almost wholly unreported peacemaking efforts in Palestine and Israel. Undoubtedly, the deployment of nonviolence on a regional scale would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape by highlighting the brutality of the invading forces and simultaneously calling upon the better instincts among them. In this sense, nonviolence is about both ethics and pragmatics. While many view iconic figures like Gandhi as somehow saintly, rest assured that Mohandas was politically savvy and strategically adept. To be sure, nonviolence contains a moralistic impulse, but more to the point is the realization that it actually works. You can’t grow food or find shelter merely on a moral high ground, as useful as that would be to establish — it also takes liberated spaces and action in concert to enable communities to flourish.

 

Gandhi knew that the poor people of India could never defeat the mighty British Empire militarily, and that the only force capable of defeating such an oppressor is that held by the oppressors themselves. Gandhi would turn their bullets and batons back on them, metaphorically speaking, by refusing to comply and thus forcing them to experience the unsanitized brutality of their ways. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in the South recognized precisely this same truism. Moreover, as in other such instances, a widespread nonviolence movement in the Muslim world would likewise have the further benefit of marginalizing the fanatics and terrorists in these regions who are merely providing warmaking fodder for the U.S. and subjecting their own people to the repercussions.

 

Please don’t get stuck on the standard lines that “all these people understand is violence” and “their religion is based on violence.” If we are to judge Muslims as a whole based on the actions of a small sample of fanatics, then we have to apply the same gaze to ourselves, and it isn’t a pretty reflection looking back. Terrorists have hijacked Islam just as they putatively have our airplanes and civil liberties here in America. Every religion, especially the monotheistic ones, can be used to justify aggression, but it’s equally true that at the core of each faith is a nod toward the virtues of peace and love. All that Gandhi really did was to take this core and deploy it in actual practice, touching that same part of the aggressor and asking his own people to embrace the essence of nonviolence unflinchingly and unequivocally. It worked in India and it could work again in the beset nations of the Muslim world.

 

Indeed, there is a profound impetus toward nonviolence in Islam that is given short shrift in Western conceptions of the faith. As Chaiwat Satha-Anand notes in an essay discussing Eight Theses on Muslim Nonviolent Actions, “Islam already possesses the whole catalogue of qualities necessary for the conduct of successful nonviolent actions…. Muslim nonviolent action [is] essential to peace in this world and the true meaning of Islam.” Perhaps the most compelling assessment of the potential for widespread Islamic nonviolence comes from scholar and practitioner Mohammed Abu-Nimer:

 

“The two primary questions that peace activists are asked in the Muslim world when introducing Islamic nonviolent resistance are do nonviolence methods work in an Islamic context? and is Islam theologically compatible with the practice and philosophy of nonviolence? To understand the compatibility of Islamic values and beliefs with nonviolence we have first to dispel the myth that nonviolence is a form of surrender in which the victim waits to be slaughtered and accepts such a fate…. Nonviolence is about active rejection of violence and full engagement in resisting oppression through plausible means that challenge domination and any other form of injustice, without inflicting injuries on the opponent…. There is complete compatibility between such methods of nonviolence and Islamic values and beliefs. These instruct the faithful to resist injustice and oppression, to pursue justice and sabr (patience), to protect the sacredness of human dignity, and to be willing to sacrifice their lives for this cause. To fulfill and follow such values, the Islamic approach to nonviolence can only be based on active rejection of and resistance to zulm (aggression) and injustice.… The power of Islamic nonviolent resistance is its appeal to the morality and humanity in every person, even the occupying soldiers…. Islamic nonviolent methods can ‘force and persuade’ the aggressors through unity and steadfastness in the just cause…. Such nonviolent methods can also prevent further dehumanization of Palestinians and Muslims around the world and convey a more powerful and sacred Islamic message of resistance….”

 

Still, some will point out that Gandhian nonviolence has been utilized in places like Palestine but with disastrous results, and that its practitioners have mostly wound up in “graves and prisons,” as Alison Weir observes. This is true to an extent, although as noted above there have been successful examples as well. The diagnosis offered in these critiques is also valid, namely that without visibility, as Weir notes, “its practitioners are in deadly danger, and their efforts to use nonviolence against injustice are doomed.” But this is where the regional and international approach suggested here could work to change the dynamics of isolation and erasure that have taken hold in many such instances. A 2003 article by Ali Abunimah on Palestineaptly frames the larger argument for Muslim nonviolence:

 

“What is needed is a strong, popular campaign of resistance, based on non-violence and civil disobedience, involving the entire population. Such a strategy would be unable to eliminate all violence, but it would offer an alternative to the hopeless, and a powerful moral challenge to the occupier. It may also help transform the passive global support for the Palestinian cause into concrete actions.”

 

There’s also a forgotten history of Islamic nonviolence, including examples occurring not far from one of the very hotspots where we’re presently mired, as the Muslim Peace Fellowship explains:

 

“The Arabic term for nonviolence as a life decision is islam. The Arabic term for nonviolence as a method is jihad. The Arabic term for the principle underlying both aspects of nonviolence is tawhid, the affirmation of the unity of God. For a Muslim, no principles are more basic — or more contested. Because of the tremendous influence of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the course of 20th century liberation efforts, many people, especially Muslims, assume that nonviolence must be a Hindu or a Christian concept. That’s not true. In fact, it’s a kind of a trick that keeps us from thinking clearly about nonviolence…. Gandhi’s great colleague in the struggle for the freedom of Indian peoples from British colonial rule was Abdul-Ghaffar Khan, who developed his nonviolent understanding independently of Gandhi, through reading the Qur’an in jail. Abdul-Ghaffar Khan raised an army of 100,000 unarmed soldiers, the Khudai Khidmatgar, from the same villages that today yield many fewer young men up to the Taliban.”

 

As a professor of International Peace & Conflict Resolution, Abu-Nimer further elaborates on the account of this important lesson from the past:

 

“Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Muslim leader from the Pashtun tribe who was imprisoned by the British for over fifteen years, managed to mobilize 100,000 nonviolent Muslim soldiers. This army was called the Servants of God, and they were essential to the winning of Indian independence. All of them signed a ten-point pledge in which they swore to serve God, to sacrifice their lives and wealth for their people, to oppose hatred, to live by nonviolent principles, not to expect or desire rewards for their service, and to seek to please God in all their undertakings. As a devout Muslim leader, Khan successfully unleashed the nonviolent force of Islam. ‘I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it,’ he told them. ‘It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.’”

 

Gandhi himself was actually inspired by Khan’s example, and the admiration was returned in kind: “I believed in Gandhi’s ahimsa long before…. Surely there is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to this creed. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca. And it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off the oppressor’s yoke. But we had so far forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us, we thought that he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon.” As Eknath Easwaran writes in his biography of the man known as “Badshah” to his followers (quoted in a 2005 article by Tim Flinders for the journal Peace Power and titled “A Muslim Gandhi?”):

 

“Badshah Khan based his life and work on the profound principle of nonviolence, raising an army of courageous men and women who translated it into action. Were his example better known, the world might come to recognize that the highest religious values of Islam are deeply compatible with a nonviolence that has the power to resolve conflicts even against heavy odds.”

 

In the final analysis, there are persuasive moral, tactical, and historical arguments to be made for the adoption of widespread nonviolence among Muslims around the world as a response to Western aggression in the Global War on Terror. We can learn much from these exemplars, and endeavor to transform our own behaviors and policies in the process. What is the alternative to seeking nonviolence among both ourselves and others? Open-ended wars, unchecked persecution of civilians, permanently occupied territories, hopelessness feeding desperation, terrorism feeding militarism … and on and on.

 

Dr. Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Muslim Observer and Vice President of the Muslim Council of America, strives to connect the dots from words and principles to actions and practices:

 

“The need of the hour is bigger than issuing a few statements against violence. The need of the hour is to organize a non-violent movement at all levels to bring about desired change. The religious leadership must be seen spearheading this movement in order to convince the masses that the divine guidance is meant to preserve life and not to destroy it. There is a difference between non-violent methods of change and pacifist approach. A pacifist accepts the status quo and resigns to non-action, while an advocate of non-violence believes that only appealing to the humanity of the aggressors people stand a better chance to change the situation. This view is supported by the Quran that says, ‘respond with dignity and gentleness (to all acts of hostility) as this is the only way to turn the conflict into a reconciliation.’ The time has come when Muslim words for a peaceful world must reflect the actions. Without that, they would remain part of a never-ending cycle of violence with no end in sight.”

 

At this point, someone must have the courage, discipline, and foresight to once and for all attempt to break the cycle of worldwide conflict and warfare, lest we all perish in its midst. The practitioners of Islam that we oftentimes have caricatured as “evildoers” actually have deep roots in the essence of nonviolence. This realization may well be the last, best hope for ending the global war without end.

 

 

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009). Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action

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