Jobs @ MG
Two Islamic soldiers - ii
By Damon Lynch
The Khudai Khidmatgaars were formed from a largely illiterate society. So in addition to publishing a journal, the Pakhtun, in the early years Khan spread his message of sacrifice, work and forgiveness by personally visiting 500 Pathan villages. While his people may not have been educated, they could recognize selfless action when they saw it. Khan valued selfless service to others as a foundation of religious action. He wrote, with the authority of his life's example, "Religion is also a movement. If selfless, undemanding and holy men and women join this movement and dedicate themselves to the service of their country and the people, this movement is bound to be successful. Such people will be a blessing to mankind. Through their contribution their country and their people will flourish and prosper."
Most of all, Khan directly challenged the role of revenge in society. The culture of the Pathans was tribal, and as Eqbal Ahmad points out, "The tribal code of ethics consists of two words: loyalty and revenge. You are my friend. You keep your word. I am loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of revenge." Pathans were long adherents to taking revenge to uphold honor, being somewhat notorious for engaging in bitter family and tribal feuds that could last generations. Khan directly appealed for his people to forgo revenge, and adopt nonviolence. It was an explicit precondition of joining his army. In a society where not to take revenge, and therefore lose one's honor, was considered worse than death, this was a stunning achievement.
Lessons for the Present
What lessons can we learn from the lives of General Akhtar and Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the movements they were associated with if we are to take peace seriously? That is, what do their respective approaches to resolving conflicts and achieving justice tell us about how we can move forward in the present situation?
The first, and most obvious lesson to be learned is that when religion is viewed as being communal, it can rapidly be turned into a highly destructive force. "Crowd psychology is a blind force," wisely remarked renowned Indian literary figure Rabindranath Tagore. "Like steam and other physical forces, it can be utilized for creating a tremendous amount of power. And therefore rulers of men, who out of greed and fear, are bent upon turning their peoples into machines of power, try to train this crowd psychology for their special purposes. They hold it to be their duty to foster in the popular mind universal panic, unreasoning pride in their own race, and hatred of others."
While the same communal forces that almost killed Akhtar at the time of India's partition were overwhelming in much of Northern India, the Khudai Khidmatgaars patrolled their communities protecting people who belonged to minority religions, saving many lives.
Communalism builds on the belief that one religion is superior to another, or the belief that religious truths are mutually exclusive between religions. These beliefs are in fact the official doctrinal positions of many religious institutions, all of which claim to be speaking with divine authority. For many believers, they are a common sense truth about their beliefs. Khan specifically opposed such brazen foolishness. He proclaimed, "My religion is truth, love, and service to God and humanity." It was his "firm belief" that all religions are based on the same truth, and should be given equal respect. He remained a devout Muslim while eager to learn from other religions. Regarding those who promote communalism--of which he saw a great deal in his life, and the vast suffering it inflicted--he commented "those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, those whose hearts are empty of love, those who do not know the meaning of brotherhood, those who harbor hatred and resentment in their hearts, do not know the meaning of Religion."
The fact is, beliefs of religious superiority are a prime target for extremists to expropriate and twist into their terrible logic. If instead religious believers held a common notion that beneath the surface, all religions teach much the same--naturally with differences reflecting temperament, culture and time--then it would be nonsensical for extremists to claim that alleged divine wrath is on their side. Only fools would take them seriously.
As we have already noted, Akhtar was unable to forgive Hindus and Sikhs when they massacred Muslims (just as many Hindus and Sikhs were unable to forgive Muslims when they were likewise massacred). Instead, he worked to strengthen institutions that depend fundamentally upon revenge, just as the U.S. and British governments are currently doing. The leaders of the Taliban do the same themselves.
Much of the time the U.S. and British governments hide their vengeful focus behind language like "retaliatory strikes," or "bring the perpetrators to justice," and so forth, but revenge is essentially their focus. Ditto for the Taliban. The three are determined to convince respective recipients of their propaganda that this path is the only effective way forward to provide security and make up for the death of their people, irrespective of their falsehood.
It is wise, however, to learn from the experts on revenge before confidently asserting this to be true and proceeding to kill people. The Pathans are experts on revenge. They practiced it fearlessly for hundreds of years, against outsiders and amongst themselves. They celebrated it in their poetry, sang of it in their songs. Presumably all cultures are familiar with husbands taking revenge against adulterous wives and their lovers by killing them, but how many have tales of women rallying their menfolk to take revenge long after the men have been exhausted by it? The huge numbers of Pathans who joined the Khudai Khidmatgaars did not give up revenge simply because they admired their leader. They did so because they appreciated the grueling cost of revenge to their society, how it tore apart their families and tribes, and in the context of outside domination, made them susceptible to divide and rule. The Khudai Khidmatgaars renounced revenge not from a position of weakness, but one of strength and courage. They held strongly to this belief in the face of severe humiliation and destruction. As outsiders, we can choose to learn from them, and apply the universal insights they worked with to our own lives, or we can ignore them and inflict the consequences upon others and ourselves.
What are these universal insights? Revenge occurs when those who hold onto their hate, and have the ability to channel it into action, do so. Hatred and resentment prosper where there is no forgiveness. To seek protection from violent revenge, a person, family or country can try to suppress it through further violence, or work to create conditions for forgiveness. Essentially, there is no alternative to these two. The consequences of further violence are often quite certain: more violence. As Gandhi once famously remarked, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
These insights have already been demonstrated in Afghanistan since September 11. As soon as retaliatory violence in Afghanistan was initiated, bin Laden's followers immediately threatened further violence in return. The U.S. and its allies will try to crush them, but as many observers have tirelessly pointed out, a terrorist operation is extremely difficult to crush, and the violent response is an ideal recruiting drive for more terrorists. Terrorism in fact, thrives on revenge.
A counterargument to all of this, of course, is that the bin Laden's of this world are so extreme and their view of their religion or ethnicity is so deranged, that only war will keep decent people of the world safe from such rogues. This is where it becomes vital to remember the forces that created bin Laden to begin with. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence services masterminded the war in Afghanistan, the same war bin Laden was recruited for and sharpened his teeth in. It is not important whether bin Laden received training directly from American, British or Pakistani officials (he certainly interacted with them), but what is important to acknowledge is that the type of resistance towards the Soviets aggressively promoted by the U.S., British and Pakistan governments was not the only choice. Yes, the Soviet invasion was a brutal one, but no more brutal than that of the British in the region not so long before. As the Khudai Khidmatgaars proved, war was not the only possible response: a more protracted, nonviolent resistance could have saved a lot more lives on both sides, and done much to improve the future development of Afghanistan.
Of course, institutions like the CIA and ISI do not include nonviolent soldiers among their soldiers of choice. This is not a reflection of the effectiveness of nonviolence. Rather, it is merely another indication of the danger of the narrow mindset that is nurtured by such institutions, and if these institutions cannot change their approach, a call for their replacement should be made.
Rational, detached arguments against the follies of war and revenge are all very well, some claim. But people are profoundly angry, they point out: enraged in the United States, and enraged in the Middle East. Their anger is justified, so the argument goes (a point claimed by all sides in the conflict). Justice must be done.
Now, remarkable as it may seem to some people, religion actually has something rather useful to say about this (Richard Dawkins, are you listening?). It is perhaps most eloquently expressed by Gandhi: "I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world."
The struggle to contain and transform anger is an inner struggle. Through the centuries, inner struggles like this have been the specialized domain of the spiritual dimension of religion. It is worthwhile spending a little time pondering this, for in this matter, religion itself is confusing and contradictory.
We can start by taking another look at Khan's statement about those who do not know the meaning of religion. By Khan's reckoning, people like Akhtar are religious only in the sense they identify themselves as belonging to a religion, and perhaps carry out its rituals and customs, and believe in its dogmas. But they have failed to undertake the arduous task of transforming natural feelings of fear and anger, and the desire to retaliate, into positive forces that genuinely contribute to life, rather than take away from it. In short, they identify as religious, but are not spiritual. (Contd.)