Nearly two years after the emergence of the “Green Movement” protesting election results in Tehran, new nonviolent uprisings against repressive regimes are spreading across the region from Tunisia to Yemen and, most importantly, Egypt. Despite their geographic and cultural diversity, these nonviolent movements across the Muslim world exhibit a remarkable similarity to Gandhi’s strategy for checking power and opposing violence in India decades ago. This raises the hopeful prospect that nonviolent campaigns for democracy might be the essential paradigm of change in the Middle East and Maghreb – areas of the world that have been marked by violence for so long.
Many in the West are familiar with the nonviolent strategies that, helped bring civil rights to the United States as well as democracy to Eastern Europe. But this path has been discounted in the Muslim world where the media has perpetuated stereotypes of Muslims as dangerous and violent fanatics. The present movements certainly challenge that stereotype and may indeed remind the world that many nonviolent Muslim activists and thinkers have played a role in opposing and checking the levels of violence both within their own communities and against others.
Gandhi had the good fortune to have among his companions two important Muslim figures: Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Both Azad and Ghaffar Khan had a great impact on Gandhi. They in turn were deeply influenced by Gandhi’s character and his philosophy of nonviolence, accepting the Gandhian invitation to self-examination and self-criticism which stemmed from his belief that no one possesses the whole truth. For Gandhi, truth emerges only through empathetic encounter with “the Other.”
The time may be right for the emergence of a Muslim Gandhi for the 21st century.
Today, political Islam is largely an ideological response to the dominance of the West in our time. The success political Islam has enjoyed in recent times has largely been a result of the failure of the secular state, modeled on the West, to provide a space where democratic culture and faith traditions can both thrive.
Post-colonial secular governments have often been aggressive in their project of modernization, lacking in sensitivity toward religion and forcefully authoritarian in their politics. As such, they have failed to capture the allegiance of faithful Muslims.
This does not mean that Muslim societies are somehow averse to democracy, pluralism, and nonviolence. It only means democracy and modernization must arrive organically, from the grass roots up, not the top down. Indeed, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, we have seen how dynamic a society can be when faith and democracy are not shut out by authoritarian modernization.
The nonviolent campaigns erupting across the Muslim world today, largely based among the middle class, clearly indicate the practical success of an ethical commitment to norms of transparency, negotiation, compromise, and mutual respect. Their links to the networks of global civil society, tied together by information technologies from Facebook to YouTube, reinforce a universal ethic, as Gandhi preached, which transcends religious and cultural particularities even as it is channeled through local grass-roots movements.
This is where the Gandhian spiritual approach to politics can be distinguished from the fundamentalist approaches to religion. Far from being utopian, the Gandhian emphasis on an ethical politics based on nonviolence and mutual respect may be the most practical path to achieve democracy in a region exhausted from the seemingly endless repression and bloodshed that has resulted from the belief that violence is the real source of power.
“Even the most despotic government cannot stand except for the consent of the governed, which consent is often forcibly procured by the despot,” Gandhi wrote. “When the subject ceases to fear the despotic force, the power is immediately gone.”
What we have seen in Tunisia, and what we are seeing on the streets of Cairo today, suggests that Gandhi understood power better than the autocrats and ayatollahs who are now trying to hang on.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s best-known dissidents, headed the contemporary studies department of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran until his arrest in April 2006. He was released that August and now lives in exile in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.