This piece ran in this space eleven years ago. I am offering it again because of the attack on “Charlie Hedbo” in Paris last week.
In popular culture, Islam is a caricature.
Journalism and politicians have learned the skill of pitting us against Muslims by emphasizing all the worst events and figures of Islamic history and by marginalizing the complexities of Islam from our knowledge, the admirable figures of the faith from our view.
Imagine if Gandhi were unknown to us. Think how much his life and example have leavened our view of Hinduism. Imagine how distorted our view of that faith would be if we did not have him as a bridge to understanding.
The Taliban is mainly Pathan, meaning they are natives of the region along the Afghan/Pakistan border. So was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The Pathans have for centuries been known as fierce warriors. Kipling wrote admiringly of their prowess.
When India was still intact, Ghaffar Khan led Pathans from militarism to nonviolent action. In 1930, after an Indian declaration of independence in defiance of British occupation, Ghaffar and his followers, the Servants of God, set the city of Peshawar on its ear with nonviolence. The British had never seen anything like it, least of all among the ferocious Pathans.
When a group of resisters was fired on, according to one account, the wounded fell down and “those behind came forward and with their breasts bared, exposed themselves to the fire … so that some got as many as 21 bullet holes in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic.”
Awed by the courage of the resisters, a renowned British regiment refused orders to participate further in the slaughter. (All the anger of the British empire in decline fell on those gallant, unfortunate soldiers – arrests, courts martial, long prison terms, and, in one case, exile to a penal colony.) The regiment had been inspired by the nonviolent example of the resisters.
Ghaffar Khan deplored purdah, the tradition of repression of women. Nor did he view religion as simplistically or restrictively as many Christians do. (How many Christians would want George W. Bush to typify Christianity?).
As the British were being driven out of India by nonviolence in the 1940s, London (which had helped carve up Czechoslovakia for Hitler) wanted India slashed in two. For years, the Servants of God controlled the northwest region, defying and frustrating this western scheme to invent another nation. And they did it peacefully. Ghaffar’s followers swore an oath: “I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.”
That the Pathans with their brutal culture and history could so easily adapt to nonviolence – and succeed at it! – mystified Ghaffar Khan himself.
“I started teaching the Pathans nonviolence only a short time ago,” he told Gandhi. “Yet in comparison the Pathans seem to have learned this lesson and grasped the idea of nonviolence much quicker and much better than the Indians…How do you explain that?”
Gandhi responded, “Nonviolence is not for cowards. It is for the brave, the courageous. And the Pathans are more brave and courageous than the Hindus. That is the reason why the Pathans were able to remain nonviolent.”
The Pathans’ territorial triumphs were lost in negotiation and the nation was carved up into India and Pakistan. The partition pitted Muslims (who dominated Pakistan) against Hindus and Sikhs (who dominated India) and triggered war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
In the ensuing years, though he lived until 1988 (he died in Peshawar under house arrest), Ghaffar Khan vanished from view, expunged from the history he did so much to make. The obliteration of Ghaffar Khan from history has two consequences.
First, those of us in the west are robbed of history that would contradict our stereotypical view of Islam. Second, the glittering example of Ghaffar Khan could have given Muslims an alternative to those leaders who appealed to their worst instincts. Imagine if George Wallace were remembered in U.S. history books while Martin King was obliterated.
Ghaffar Khan and his supporters can now serve as a reminder that it is not possible to define all Islam as violent.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.