view: Lessons from King and Gandhi —Saleem H Ali
Concerted military struggles against an oppressive regime are clearly plausible as was the case in the World Wars but when the matter comes down to anarchic violence that is unable to differentiate civilians from military foes, the moral legitimacy of any such activities is eroded
As much of the world celebrated the victory of Barack Obama, I was drawn to the grave of the man who most singularly can be credited for making this victory possible. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, whose struggle for civil rights cost him his life forty years ago, showed the world how a nonviolent movement against prejudice could eventually prevail so long as there was citizenry and legal capacity for reform.
Dr King’s charismatic oratory galvanised millions to action across the racial divide and still draws thousands of people to a rather rundown part of Atlanta, Georgia, where he is buried. Auburn Street and its environs have become emblematic of the Civil Rights struggle, which brought America out of the dark age of oppression. The United States government has declared this neighbourhood a National Historic Site and several buildings in the area commemorate the struggle for equal rights for African Americans.
Dr King’s home and church are situated in this precinct, but most significantly, this is now the headquarters of the King Centre for Nonviolent Social Change. A tranquil pool greets visitors to the centre with the elevated crypt containing the remains of Dr King and his beloved wife Coretta Scott King (who died in 2006). Along one side of the complex is a pavement with memorial plaques, with footprints of some of the great civil rights activists who assisted Dr King.
Just before one comes to the entrance of the visitors centre, there is a bronze statue of Mohandas Kamarchand Gandhi — a man whom Dr King credited as an inspiration towards nonviolent activism. The statue was donated by the Indian embassy but it is clearly well-placed in this memorial.
Pakistanis have a very distorted image of Mr Gandhi, which has to change as we embrace pluralism, and get more objective exposure to the history of the struggle for independence. Despite the revisions to our history texts during the Musharraf era, Gandhi is still portrayed as a somewhat shady character who wanted a united India and did not particularly get along with Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
While it is true that Gandhi was not supportive of the establishment of Pakistan, let us not forget that this was a man who also sacrificed his life to support peaceful relations between Muslims and Hindus. He was willing to keep a fast unto death to stop post-partition violence and was killed by a Hindu fanatic for having too many sympathies with Muslims and Pakistanis. It is thus particularly tragic that Pakistanis do not have greater respect for this monumental figure in human history. Despite his initial misgivings, he accepted Pakistan’s establishment and embraced the cause of peace unequivocally.
Beside Gandhi’s statue at the King Centre in Atlanta is a quotation by Albert Einstein in memory of Gandhi, which still rings true: “generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as [Gandhi] ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Even though the two icons of nonviolence never met each other, Dr King made a special visit to India in 1959 to learn Gandhian nonviolent techniques of civil disobedience. While revisionist historians may claim that the fall of the British Empire was more likely caused by the crumbling of resources following World War II, the impact of Gandhi’s struggle on Dr King and the American Civil Rights Movement can never be underplayed. It was because of the strategy of nonviolence that Dr. King was able to garner so much support and ultimately prevail as opposed to other violent means that would have perpetuated the struggle by marginalising activists as “terrorists”.
Alas this lesson is still not being learned by many in the Muslim world, who still feel that violence is the only path to victory. They are quick to give examples of how Hizbullah succeeded to expel the Israeli army through violence and the relative ineptitude of the Tibetans in working out any deals with China because of their sole reliance on nonviolence.
Yet they miss an important point in making these comparisons. Concerted military struggles against an oppressive regime are clearly plausible as was the case in the World Wars but when the matter comes down to anarchic violence that is unable to differentiate civilians from military foes, the moral legitimacy of any such activities is eroded.
Furthermore, when there are clear institutions in place, such as courts, parliamentary bodies with accountability and civil society organisations to channelise nonviolent struggles, then the chances of success by a nonviolent path are far greater than with a violent one. Thus terrorist activities are not only morally wrong but also strategically flawed in most circumstances.
These distinctions were well perceived by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as well, since he always fought organised battles as a last resort and no matter how severe the oppression, there is no record of any Muslims during that golden age ever kidnapping or sabotaging civilians from the other side.
This struggle between strategies was clearly prevalent in the American Civil Rights movement as well. Leaders such as Malcolm X advocated more violent means to reach their goals in contrast to Dr King. Malcolm X initially became a member of the black supremacist Nation of Islam, but subsequently converted to mainstream Islam. Interestingly enough, his pilgrimage to Mecca was a transformational experience as it moderated his views from violence to nonviolence and from prejudice to egalitarianism. He too was assassinated but towards the end of his life, his views appeared to be more in line with Dr King’s in terms of approaching the oppressor at a human level rather than dehumanising the conflict through random violence.
As Pakistanis try to make sense of when violence is justified and who is a martyr — a victim, an oppressor, a freedom fighter or a terrorist — let us keep in perspective these lessons from across the border and across the Atlantic.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. www.saleemali.net