Nonviolence, Muslim Style: From Ghaffar Khan to Tahrir Square

When the mass nonviolent movements that brought down longtime U.S.-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt this year captured the world’s attention, The Progressive’s managing editor Amitabh Pal joked that it made his new book, “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today, both “more topical and dated at the same time.”  

While many books will no doubt be written about the momentous events that are unfolding in the Middle East, many of them will doubtless leave out the prehistory. By exploring the rich tradition of nonviolent resistance in the Muslim world—from Palestine and Pakistan, to Kosovo and the Maldives—Pal dispels the oft-repeated misconception that what we are witnessing in the Arab Spring is without precedent. He recently spoke with Religion Dispatches about why Islam has been so maligned in the West, what makes the religion compatible with nonviolence, and the important role that women are playing in the ongoing struggles for democracy and social justice in the Middle East.  

What first made you want to write a book about nonviolence and Islam—as neither a Muslim yourself nor a scholar of the religion?  

I didn’t initially approach the subject as that of Islam but as nonviolence. When the events of September 11 happened and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I remembered as a young man hearing about an associate of Gandhi named Ghaffar Khan. So I thought I’d write about him. Through a series of contacts I was able to actually speak to his family in Peshawar, where they control a political party. They are not exactly living up to his ideals—they claim to, but it’s dubious. His grandson was happy to speak with me. I wrote an article about him, and that is how I got interested in Islam and nonviolence.  

What was it about him that made you want to explore the subject more? 

Ghaffar Khan was an incredible personality. From the 1920s through at least the 1940s, he led a movement of 100,000 Pashtuns for independence from the British and social reform, religious tolerance, and women’s rights—maybe not complete equality, but very progressive for his time.

How well known is he in Muslim world?  

I wish he were better known in the Muslim world, although some people have tried to popularize his ideas. After the partition of India, he evolved (or devolved) into becoming a Pashtun nationalist—nonviolent, I must emphasize, to the end—but that did not exactly endear him to the Pakistani authorities. Fifteen of the thirty years he spent in jail were under the Pakistani government. He was almost erased from official Pakistani history as a result, except in the Pashtun areas, where he is still known as a Pashtun nationalist, mainly. In India, rather that being seen as someone who was an amazing figure in his own right, he is seen as an adjunct of Gandhi, which sort of belittles him in my opinion. He drew his inspiration primarily from Islam, not from Gandhi.

The way Islam is so often talked about, you’d think that wouldn’t be possible. 

If you start delving into the theology of every religion, I think, you can give arguments for violence or for peace. What matters is whether there has been room in practice, in certain societies, for the practice of nonviolence. I’ve tried to show in the book, through repeated examples, that in Muslim societies there is room for the large-scale practice of nonviolence. 

Why has Islam become so misunderstood and associated with intolerance and violence in the U.S.?  

My aim is not to whitewash Islam. My aim is not to engage in a blanket defense of Islam. Let us not pretend that there aren’t violent episodes in the Muslim world. What has happened, though, is that historically the episodes of violence in Islam have been magnified because the West came into conflict with Islam in a way that it did not, at least to that extent, with Buddhism, Hinduism or the other religions.  

In modern times, the episodes of violence by al Qaeda and the Taliban are the ones that people in the West hear so much about. To use a crude analogy: if one plane crashes in a day, it’s of course big news. Ninety-nine planes don’t and they don’t make the news. The episodes of mass peaceful protest within the Muslim world for the most part have not made the news, with the exception of what’s happened over the past six or eight months.  

Do you think the Arab Spring is changing this negative perception of Islam?

Now, if you talk to an average or semi-well informed American, you don’t have to explain yourself when you talk about mass nonviolent movements in the Middle East, because they will immediately associate that with Egypt and Tunisia. So the American image of the Middle East is changing, but I don’t think it’s changed enough. Still I think there is a lot of fear of Islam and negativity towards Islam. 

What are most overlooked elements of Islam that can make it conducive to nonviolent resistance movements? 

I would emphasize two primary qualities. One which is interesting is steadfastness. Ghaffar Khan used to cite the Prophet Muhammad’s steadfastness, his forbearance in suffering violence and not retaliating, again and again. The Prophet Muhammad is thought of as quite a violent figure in the Western imagination, but for the thirteen years he was in Mecca, he refused to retaliate in spite of all the humiliation and violence inflicted on him and his followers. Thirteen years is a long time.  

The other is this notion of solidarity among Muslims—that the Muslim community is one—which basically makes you have empathy for other Muslims who are suffering and enjoins upon you to join in nonviolent mass resistance. One might also add that, in Sunni Islam—at least in theory—the absence of a hierarchy like the Catholic Church also can lend itself to a mass movement, which is much more egalitarian and consultative in nature.  

Gandhi grew up among Muslims in India, as you did. To what extent was his understanding of nonviolence impacted by the Muslim figures around him or his other interactions with Muslims?  

Gandhi was in contact with Islam right from his youth. He had a Muslim childhood friend. He went to South Africa and worked for a Muslim. He had Muslims with him in the struggle in South Africa. He came back to India and had Muslims with him in the struggle for Indian independence, including Ghaffar Khan and many others I mention in the book. Unfortunately, even within South Asia, some of that has been obscured by the fact that his chief antagonist or counterpart was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who had a different vision for Indian Muslims than Gandhi and wanted a separate country. The fact that India is still a secular state is at least partly a legacy of the role that these Indian Muslims played in the independence struggle. That made it so much easier for Nehru and Gandhi to argue that India should not be a Hindu nation.  

Gandhi drew a lot of inspiration from Islam. He thought of Muhammad as combining piety with creative action during his time in Mecca and Medina. He equated Muhammad’s notion of a just society with the Hindu notion of an ideal society, what is called in Hindu terminology Ram Raj, the rule of the Lord Ram. He admired the Muslim notions of steadfastness, forbearance, and patience as evidenced by the month of fasting for Ramadan. And, of course, the epigraph and title of my book come from Gandhi himself. He said, “My reading of the Qur’an has convinced me that the basis of Islam is not violence but unadulterated peace.” 

Would you say most of the Muslims who have been involved in nonviolent struggle in the cases you explore in the book chose nonviolence primarily for strategic reasons or because they were committed to it on religious grounds? 

I don’t want to answer your question with a riddle or cryptically, but Gene Sharp, a wonderful scholar of nonviolence in Boston, claims—and I at least partially agree with him—that even Gandhi primarily chose nonviolence because he thought of it to be effective, not because he was wedded to it in principle. Now, you and I may agree or disagree with that, but when that argument can be made even for Gandhi, who is thought to be the most principled follower of nonviolence, I think that in all instances it is a mix. I don’t think there is any harm in that. 

I would argue that maybe in the case of Ghaffar Khan, the choice was quite principled. He was really wedded to it in principle. In the case of many others it was at least partly strategic, because they knew that if they adopted violence they would be met with much harsher repression and it would lessen their chances of success.  

What role have women played in nonviolent movements in Muslim countries? How might their greater participation in these actions and campaigns change the gender dynamics in these countries? 

I can answer this historically. In the case of Ghaffar Khan’s movement there was the participation of a surprising number of women, given how conservative—and you can even argue misogynist—Pashtun society had been traditionally. They allowed women to participate because he said so and his honor and stature was such that they couldn’t resist. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, women used to lead their marches! This is just incredible. What power and influence he must have had to convince them to allow that to happen! Did that lead to a large scale change in the way that women were perceived in Pashtun society? No, probably not. Did that perhaps lead to a small, tiny change? Hopefully yes.  

If we leap forward to what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia, women have participated in very large numbers. I think it’s been a very positive development and I think they will form the bulwark against a regression on women’s rights and ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk will not be able to seize power and push women to the back room. They have been empowered and I don’t think they’re going to give up their rights, at least in these two countries, very easily. That’s positive and hopeful. Historically, Tunisia has been one of the most progressive in the Arab world in terms of women’s rights, and I think women there are determined to keep it that way.


Front-page image: An Egyptian anti-government activist kisses a riot police officer following clashes in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis.