As the world witnesses revolution erupting throughout North Africa and the Middle East and watches autocrats give way to people power, there is increasing fascination in the West with the nonviolent nature of many of these movements. From policy-makers to the press, no one seems immune to the temptation to tease out the origins of this nonviolent protest. The Defense Department studied the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,” Professor Gene Sharp, and his strategic thinking on nonviolent action to uncover lessons for the Pentagon’s Special Operations teams. The New York Times posited that this same professor created the playbook for the Arab revolutions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed validation of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles on the streets of Cairo. Sadly, each action above carries an implicit disbelief that the Muslim streets could ever organize nonviolently, and an explicit belief that protests in the Muslim world were inspired by external, non-Muslim sources.
The propensity in the United States to conflate Islam with violence precludes, in many Americans’ minds, the possibility of nonviolent Muslim protest motivated by an internal incentive, be it secular or religious (both of which characterize current revolts). However, the concept of nonviolence is not foreign or new to Muslims.
This American proclivity is not simply attributable to post-9/11 panic, though it is certainly exacerbated by it. In March Representative Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, tapped into 9/11 sentiment by hosting McCarthyesque hearings on the “radicalization of the American Muslim community,” claiming there are too many mosques in America and that 80 percent are run by extremists. Conservatives like Somali-Dutch activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali then queue to confirm King’s critique by citing Koranic scripture that aids in the characterization of Islam as inherently violent, ignoring that most religious texts—Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other—maintain a discomfiting mix of violent and nonviolent teachings. Muslim imams, mullahs and muftis respond to people like King and Ali by publicly condemning violence and promoting nonviolence but are crowded out by the cacophony of the fearmongering crowds.
Although 9/11 made the proliferation of this prejudice possible, it pre-dated 9/11. The storytellers and narrators of history are equally culpable. Thumb through America’s lexicon of nonviolent leaders and you will find figures from other religions leading the fight—like Christianity’s Martin Luther King Jr., Buddhism’s Dalai Lama, Hinduism’s Gandhi—yet Islam is apparently left leaderless.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It may surprise even some Muslims that Islam is replete with role models. It does not take too much digging to find them. Residing in what many consider the most dangerous place on earth—now the Pakistani region bordering Afghanistan—one nonviolent Muslim leader structured his entire revolution on Islamic principles of nonviolence. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” built a 100,000-strong nonviolent resistance movement out of local tribal people.
Not unlike the revolutions occurring in the Middle East and North Africa, Khan wanted to free his oppressed people from the yoke of the King Abdullahs and al-Khalifas of that day. In Khan’s case, it was the British Empire, which had divided his Pashtun community—the world’s largest ethnically homogeneous tribal group, estimated now at 40 million—with the arbitrarily drawn Durand Line, separating colonial British India (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan. As with today’s monarchies, this divide-and-conquer tactic was complemented by chronic neglect of basic services and needs, leaving the tribes severely impoverished and unemployed.
In calling on his comrades to “arise and rebuild” their house, which had “fallen into ruin,” Khan tapped into a wellspring of discontent and formed the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) in the 1920s. In fighting back, however, this band of red-shirted revolutionaries—which eventually allied with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress in the fight for independence—pledged not to spill one drop of British blood. The Khidmatgar oath was nonviolent; every possible thought, word or deed was included in their commitment to nonviolence.