Is a Muslim Gandhi Possible?

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The world that we live in today is witnessing conflicts and large-scale violence. Innocent people are losing their lives and many are being forced to leave their homes. In such a scenario, the need for peace and nonviolence is deeply felt. Though many are skeptical about the relevance of nonviolence in today’s world, some people continue to believe that nonviolence is still relevant in an age of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. As the global challenges and dangers have increased so has people’s commitment to nonviolence. As such, non-violence has a tremendous opportunity in today’s strife-ridden world, because its failure has not been proven in every case, but the failure of violence has been proven in a many cases. It is said that world history is full of “ifs” and “buts” and it is commonly assumed that if only a certain action had been taken, history would have been different. But as the saying goes: “If “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” Nonviolence is not an easy option.

At the time of choosing non-violence as an integral part of our societies, we need to be aware of the gulf which separates our everyday violence up to now, and the way we need to organize nonviolence from now on. Having said that, we are not dealing here with a utopia, but with a deliberate and effective struggle against the evil of violence. And here we may note that religious individuals have often played a role in checking the levels of violence and opposing it both within their own communities and within others. It is true that religious communities justify the use of violence by the state and often maintain silence in the face of violence. There are many reasons for such action, including, the concern for the survival of their own doctrine or simply dogmatic and monistic ways of looking at the two concepts of Truth and God. Some religious traditions have violent images of the Divine, which may imply a hard and harsh interpretation of reality and a framing of the worth of one’s faith in terms of the lesser worth of other faiths.

Though during centuries thousands of people have been killed in the name of religion, it can not be denied that some religious people like Lord Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. have played a positive role in removing sense of hatred and violence in human culture and developed a sense of moral values and love for others. The lives and thoughts of the prophets of nonviolence is a beautiful and moral frame for thinking otherwise in our contemporary violent order and very dangerous world. A frame where our concern with our lives and the lives of others around us is placed between the choice of morality and the choice of violence. All cultures have for goal and ideal the first, but end up by structuring, maintaining and legitimizing the second. This is where a third element appears between the moral ideal of humanity and its history as a violent reality. This middle element is the work of nonviolent individuals who rise from the heart of violent cultures. That is certainly a paradox, a rational and logical paradox, but not a spiritual one. This has to do with the fact that nonviolence is more a moral and spiritual development of a faith than an imperative part of it. It is in this context that one can understand when Gandhi affirmed that “The only people of earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.” In other words, nonviolence is a moral imperative which is grounded not in the dogmatic and institutional structures of religions, but in the individual readings and approaches to these religions.

The image of a fanatic and violent Muslim has become a dominant stereotype since 11 September 2001 and the changing global tempo around this issue weighs on the relation between Islam and public sphere. Such an approach is in alignment with the generalization of Islam as a faith motivated and practiced by bloodlust and violence and the misunderstanding and misevaluation of Muslim diversity. As such, in the contemporary world Muslim experiences of peace-making and nonviolence are lost to the stronger media made images of Islam as a religion of conflict and war. In this case the challenge is to generate an account of the possibility of a Muslim public sphere with its relationship to tension management and violence taming. Understanding the practice of nonviolence and peace building from such a perspective is useful for countering the prevailing tendency to generically regard Muslim public spheres as potential spaces of foe and violence. However, before identifying the empirical experiences of Muslim nonviolence and their pragmatic applicability to Muslim public spheres, we need to distinguish between nonviolence and religious pacifism. One difficulty with religious pacifism as an absolute principle to participate in wars is that unlike nonviolent strategies it refuses a political engagement and intervention in the world. As for nonviolence, it can provide a powerful platform from which to make political choices. Nonviolence as a specific form of political praxis is singularly distinguishable from Carl Schmitt’s understanding of the political as “dominion” and “mastery”. Schmitt elaborates a concept of the political that can be understood autonomously in terms of the friend-and-enemy grouping. However, Schmitt’s desire to ground the political in an autonomous field of meaning—where the political achieves mastery over all other domains—reduces the political down to a juridical moment presupposing a decisionist discourse of sovereignty with no ethical underpinnings of political freedom and political agency.

But what happens to the public sphere when the Schmittian friend-enemy distinctions are being questioned in the context of an “ethicalization” or “spiritualization” of politics, where ethical values such as tolerance and nonviolence are used to discuss political issues. The failure to successfully answer this question reverberates at a higher level, touching one of the most delicate issues in modern political thought: the relation between toleration and exclusion, conflict and consensus, justice and power. Two questions which begin to emerge from this point are: how does one deal with the enemies of Islam? And how does one deal with the enemies of democracy? In other words, how could one push debates in the Muslim public sphere in the opposite direction from the one charted by Schmitt by putting the “paradigm of enmity” into question and by generating a process of re-examination of the Muslim public sphere through a mechanism of tension management and violence taming in different societies?

One of the reasons that political Islam has such ideological cachet in Muslim societies is the historical failure of secular absolutism in the region. Post-colonial modernist governments founded on secular rationality were too often violent and belligerent in their project of modernization, uncompromising toward religion and worst of all, rigidly dictatorial. However, the fact that secularism as a form of national identity remains high across the region should not be underestimated. But this should not lead us to the simplistic conclusion that the failure of secularism in Muslim societies is somehow a failure of democratization. Those who in the West and the East support the ongoing incompatibility of Muslim societies and democracy have the ongoing example of regime-change from above through means of violence and military invasion. But the two points that ought to be drawn from the “clash thesis” is that tolerance and mutual respect cannot occur in a state of war, and second, democracy as a commitment to nonviolent social change through dialogical mechanisms needs to be flourished in a site where public issues are discussed freely.

In this respect, it becomes theoretically fruitful to conceptualize nonviolence as a dialogical mechanism that upsets, but also re-examines the existing power relations in Muslim societies. This is captured by the shift in focus from the question of how to think violence in Muslim societies or among Muslims and non-Muslims to the question of how to transform the conditions in which they take place. Therefore, the shift from “belligerent citizenship” to “dialogical citizenship” in Islam, affects not only the political construction of the Muslim public space, but also the scope of democratic deliberation in Islam. Thus, the nonviolent process in Muslim societies has, or should have, epistemological implications: because it defines the basic categories through which members of Muslim societies understand themselves and the others. The dialogue that nonviolent Islam generates is not among participants in a Muslim public sphere but also with the public sphere of other cultures and traditions. Therefore, nonviolence in the context of Muslim public sphere is a political tendency that is embedded in the idea of dialogue with the other while reconsidering and reevaluating our understanding and application of Islam in various historical and political contexts.

Related to this idea of a critical reevaluation of Islamic history in the nonviolent process of recognition of others is the idea of “moral togetherness” as a capacity for dialogue and action within a community of shared moral values. Nonviolent Islam is a kind of dialogical narrative which can contribute to the political achievement of this community of shared moral values. Sharing moral togetherness in an Islamic context, then, means sharing an ethical territory of interconnection and interdependence with others, without the exclusion of the religious argument from the public sphere. What is at stake here is neither an “absolute secularization” nor a “theologization” of the Muslim public sphere, but a dialogical governance of plurality of discourses in it. The exclusion of religious argument from the Muslim public sphere is not only unjust, but it can destruct a fabric of continuity that holds the Muslim community together and provides it with a history. The empathic accommodation of religious citizens with a secular Muslim public sphere can only take place in a critical process of self-reflection of secularism in terms of a moral togetherness. In that case, there is not only one public discourse that gives public partnership its meaning and its unity, but a diversity of criss-crossing and contested discourses through which religious and non-religious citizens participate in and identify with the Muslim public sphere. Without this reciprocity, Muslim public sphere will remain segmented along the dividing line of theological-political and secular-political and the sharing necessary for an inclusive partnership based on a moral minimum will be impossible.

My general claim is that dialogical pluralism or nonviolent governance approach provides a more productive solution to the inherent dilemma of ethical accommodation of secular reasoning and spiritual experience in Muslim public sphere compared with two other absolutist approaches. On the one hand, “secular absolutism” that imposes an unfair choice between “individual rights” and “religious traditions” through state-imposed laws. On the other hand, “religious particularism” or unbound and uncritical theologization of public sphere, defending complete dependence of citizenship in Muslim societies to the nomos of religious groups. So if the real issue is to find a third way between secular authoritarianism and Muslim fundamentalism, we need to think of joint governance that is compatible with the recognition of a minimal secular nomos and a minimal spiritual ethos as constitutive elements of a Muslim public sphere. This is how religious and non-religious citizens can understand and debate each other’s perspectives in the framework of a dialogical reciprocity. In fact, in such a socio-political context “moral recognition” of the religious mind or the secular mind consists of recognizing the impossibility of our fully knowing or accepting the point of others and therefore listening to the voice of others with a spirit of openness to learning from difference. In such a case we have to be careful not to recognize the absolute primacy of the secular reason over Muslim historical narratives. The spiritual view of Muslims is not just a stock of information, it is also a process of “coming to know” and it is a certain experience that continues to resist translation into secular and rational discourses. In this position, the illegitimate exercise of secular power could be understood as a prevention of an open exchange of reasons by actively excluding certain points of view from the public debate or by silencing religious voices. In turn in a public sphere that is committed to the nonviolent ideals of tension management and public discussion, more debate is the only effective remedy against such uses of power by secular or religious forces.

Furthermore, a democratic Muslim public sphere should be understood as an ongoing process of reaching an equilibrium between the religious and the secular where asymmetries of public reasons can be corrected in a dynamic interaction of citizens. That is to say, if we understand democracy as a process and not an ideal then the tactics of getting to this ideal are themselves part of the democratic process in the Muslim public sphere and not independent of it. This demands a new shift in Muslim historical consciousness in order to trace nonviolence as an operating principle of shared political morality in the Muslim public sphere.

With the coming of age of a nonviolent reading of Muslim historical and political experiences, it is now clear that earlier understanding of the Muslim public sphere as a culturally threatening issue can no more be a theoretical starting point for thinking the relation between Islam and democracy. Then the real question becomes: Do nonviolent methods work in Islamic context? There is no moral or political reason that Islamic society could not take a lead in developing nonviolence today and there is every reason that most of them should. In promoting the paradigm of nonviolence in Islam, Muslims can look back to the contemporary examples of leaders like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who through their rejection of violence and revenge and their readiness to live, cooperate and construct with non-Muslims added up to a valuable legacy of our violent times. This legacy may be of a great help in the task of overcoming divides between seculars and religious citizens in the Muslim world, but also in the making of a deliberative and empathic Muslim public sphere.
Many consider Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as a Pashtun nationalist, rather than as a proponent of nonviolent Islam. Ghaffar Khan started forming his philosophy of nonviolence before he came into contact with Gandhi, His nonviolent action drew its inspiration from the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, in contrast to Gandhi, whose ideals were largely inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, the New Testament and the writings of Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy. Abdul Ghaffar Khan used to say: “I did not learn secularism from Bapu. I found it in the Qur’an.” As such, Ghaffar Khan dominated the political scene of Indian struggle for independence and freedom at a crucial time which coincided with the Gandhian era of Satyagraha. Truth, love and service were central to Ghaffar Khan’s conception of a spiritualized public sphere, where each faith would play an important role. Therefore, a very significant aspect of his thought and action was to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity.

That is why he was firmly opposed to the creation of Pakistan, as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. On this as on many other issues, he shared the vision of Maulana Azad to build an India in which ethnic identities would flourish. Both the leaders interpreted and practiced Islam as a religion of “patience” (Sabr) and “mutual toleration”. Azad, like Ghaffar Khan, was a passionate advocate of tolerance as one of the basic values of life and deeply believed in the essential similarity of the main teachings of all great religions. For him the real goal of religion was not to divide but to unite. The unity of religions as interpreted by Maulana Azad, is not the identity of religions, nor uniformity in beliefs. Religions, for Azad, are different roads converging to the same goal. That is to say, the same fundamental truths have been revealed by God in different scriptures, in different languages, through different Prophets and in different nations. Therefore, as Azad says in his Tarjuman-ul-Quran: “It is not proper to consider these differences as the yardstick for truth and falsehood.”

In fact, Azad distinguishes between “Din” and “Shariah”. According to Azad “Shariah” may differ from people to people, depending on time and place and modes of living in differing conditions, but “Din”, which is essence of religion or faith, is one among all. In other words, Azad’s questioning (which is also that of Ghaffar Khan) is that if religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be differences and conflicts among those professing different religions? By saying this, Azad defines “secularism” not as a lack of religion and spirituality in the public sphere, but as equal respect for all religions. The reason behind this approach is to criticize a mono-religious or a mono-secular public sphere. So in his pluralist approach Azad invites Muslims , Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. Parsis and Christians to live together in an enlightened climate of understanding, tolerance, amity, mutual respect and regard for each other. That was also the dream of Mahatma Gandhi. For both of them, the real challenge was to ensure that the secular public sphere could uphold the Constitutional rights for all religious minorities. In the mind of Muslim Gandhis like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, a secular public sphere meant separation of religion from the political, economic, cultural and social aspects of life, religion being treated as a purely personal matter. It meant dissociation of the state from religion. It meant full freedom and respect for all religions. It meant equal opportunities for followers of all religions and no discrimination on the grounds of religion. Most of all, it meant firm opposition to communalism of all kinds. In the current context of Islam, it is this aspect of secularism that is most critical. The real battleground for a pluralist and nonviolent Muslim public sphere is an engagement-influenced tolerance, a tolerance that is born out of constant communication and interaction between the secular and the religious. It is actually a struggle between those who wish to preserve the essence of their religious beliefs and those who seek to deliberately distort that essence into a theocratic element.

To create and preserve political pluralism in Islamic societies, it is important for Muslims to learn from the experience of Muslim nonviolent thinkers and activists like Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad even though their experience is far from perfect. I believe it is a matter of time for Muslims to really respect political pluralism as a consequence of a pluralistic society. Fanaticism, fundamentalism and similar other religion- related traits may be combated and contained more by promoting a nonviolent experience of Islam. However, as mentioned previously, secularism, distanced from spiritualized politics, is not a very sure method to achieve that welcome goal. Nonviolent Islam could give a new turn to secularism in Muslim societies. It could help the Muslim public sphere to be away from institutionalized religion, its theoretical formulations and its unlived utopias. It is in such a context that secularism should be re-conceptualized, not as a principle of absolute separation between the Muslim public sphere and religion, but as a principle of even-handed treatment by the Muslim public sphere of all religions. The realization of the ideals of nonviolence is a perennial struggle for Islamic communities around the world. It is the only for Muslims to understand and appreciate the real significance of men like Maulana Azad and Ghaffar Khan and to prepare the terrain for the advent of Muslim Gandhis in a near future.

Quoted in Sohoni, Shrinivas Rao S. “Badshah Khan: Islam and Non-violence”, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: A Centennial Tribute, Har-Anand Publications, Delhi 1995, page 48

Azad, A.K., Tarjuman-ul-Quran, vol.I, Page 375

1 Comment

  • At 2010.09.27 06:45, Ahmed said:

    The realist question should be whether Muslims or the world need any Gandhi. Gandhi is most criticized person among oppressed Hindu communities whom Gandhi used to call HARIJAN. Also success of Gandhi as political leader is doubtful. He carefully managed partition of India in 1947 in which he bargained very well. Gandhi was a utopia which never existed in practice.

    The best way to stop violence is to give right to veto the violence. Only equally powerful or equally weak people, nations can maintain peace. There is no peace between Gun and stones.

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