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.
Khan’s campaign, while reinforced by religious rigor, was also strategically brilliant, quickly garnering global attention. Then, as now, the international community cried foul as it watched the British respond to the Red Shirts with a Qaddafi-like retribution: bombing, killing, torturing, castrating, raping, poisoning and drowning the Khidmatgars. Unsurprisingly, then, as now, a quizzical world questioned the relationship between Islam and nonviolence, to which Khan quickly countered, “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan [Pashtun] like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.”
Khan was intentional about sourcing his nonviolent teachings and inspiration in the Koran, a practice his grandson Asfandyar Wali Khan continues to this day as head of the Awami National Party in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier (recently renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkwa). The preamble to the party’s platform, in fact, is an unequivocal commitment to the principles of nonviolence, the teachings of Khan and the cause of the Khidmatgars.
Beyond Pakistan, the raison d’être of Khan’s red-shirted revolution still resonates, as protests of equal proportion and principle pepper many Muslim streets today. What is critical to keep in mind, as Americans pay homage to the rolling wave of democracy washing over the Muslim world, is that the nonviolent nature of some protests is not foreign to Islam, its teachings or its culture. Khan was quick to make note of this. Mohammed, Khan quipped, taught that a Muslim is one “who never hurts anyone by word or deed,” a principle the Prophet repeats in his last sermon: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”
Khan’s movement remains notable given its size and scope, but he was not alone in his mission. Fast-forward to Khan’s counterparts in more recent years, such as the nonviolent leadership of Syrian-born Sheik Jawdat Said, whose 1964 book The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam articulates for the modern Islamic movement the concept of nonviolence. Or prominent Muslim-American human rights lawyer and writer Arsalan Iftikhar, whose upcoming Islamic Pacifism: Confessions of a Muslim Gandhi highlights the legacies of Islam’s nonviolent leaders. Iftikhar’s book, due out around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, profiles numerous notables, including the “Chechen Mahatma Gandhi,” Kunta-haji Kishiev, an ideologue of nonviolence and passive resistance.
The scribes chronicling history-in-the-making in the Arab and Muslim world would do well to make note of this. What is happening in the streets of Cairo and Sanaa and Damascus is not the work of Gene Sharp or Gandhi. As Americans angle to amplify nonviolent Muslim voices, a good start would be to give credit where credit is due: the seeds sprouting this Arab Spring are native born.