What would Gandhi think of our world today?

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Recalling Gandhi’s legacy, Marina Mahathir calls on us to make use of the power that we all have to insist that we be ruled only by those who wage peace at all times.

Mahatma Gandhi - Photograph: Wikipedia

To many people, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Mahatma Gandhi is of course his doctrine of non-violence. I think by far this is his greatest contribution to the world, that rebellion against injustice can be achieved through non-violent means. That to protest against such injustices is a human right, because injustice itself is a violation of human rights. And because injustice is often violent, to protest in a non-violent manner is also a statement in itself.

Not that the world, despite its admiration for Gandhi, has been able to follow his doctrine in practice at all. When we look at the amount of violence today all round the world, we have to wonder what the Mahatma would have thought. Violence today has become more widespread, more sophisticated and more diversified. We are seeing every day different types of violence perpetrated by different people using different means. Are any of them justified and would all of them merit the same non-violent responses?

Violence in the world

In Gandhi’s day, his main concern was the sort of violence perpetrated by colonisers against the colonised. This included both the British government’s colonisation of India and the demand by Indians for self-determination as well as the social colonisation of the haves in Indian society over the have-nots, especially those from the untouchable classes.

Perhaps less well-known is that Gandhi was also an opponent of the formation of the state of Israel. Although he sympathised greatly with the plight of Jews who were being persecuted in Germany, nevertheless Gandhi thought the answer was not the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine. “The Palestine of the Biblical conception,” he said, “ is not a geographical tract. It is in their (Jewish) hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the
goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart.”

As we know, nobody listened then to Gandhi and the Palestine issue is still with us today. As indeed colonialism still is, and taking on more violent forms than ever before. Today we have at least two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, with hundreds of foreign soldiers on their soil attempting unsuccessfully to bring peace to those countries. Instead of development, both Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid waste to violence and are unable to govern themselves for some time to come. Furthermore the violence perpetuated is today much more sophisticated, operated from a distance and causing many more deaths and injuries on civilian populations than ever before. How many times have we seen reports of drone attacks causing many civilian deaths in Afghanistan or suicide bombers killing and injuring innocent people?

Weapons of war

Today too we have seen more diverse forms of weaponry, not just more technologically sophisticated ones but also chemical weapons, even those declared illegal by the international community. In Gaza, doctors treating the injured reported the use of white phosphorus, which burns the skin as long as oxygen is available. These doctors also reported the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), a type of bomb fired from Israeli planes, which hit the ground, bounce up again and then explode sending out hundreds of sharp blades and shrapnel. The injuries caused by these shrapnel include amputated legs, arms and heads; needless to say, DIME does not differentiate between adults and children, soldiers and civilians.

Let us not forget that the threat of nuclear weapons still looms over us today. Despite the global anti-nuclear movement, today there are still several countries that insist on having nuclear weapons including the United States and Israel. Additionally, the conventional arms trade is today estimated to be valued at USD1.5 trillion yearly or 2.7 per cent of the world’s GDP. The United States alone accounts for 42.8 per cent of the world’s defence spending and 4.8 per cent of its GDP. It is also the largest exporter of armaments, thus spreading violence and death all round the world.

As the director Michael Moore pointed out in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, in an environment where it is not considered unusual to manufacture, buy and sell weaponry, violence becomes an idea that seeps into the community and the minds of individuals, with fatal consequences for many innocent victims.

The Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, former President of Costa Rica, a country without an army, noted the same phenomenon: “When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach.

“Our international regulations allow almost three-quarters of all global arms sales to pour into the developing world with no binding international guidelines whatsoever. Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious.”

Thus the world in 2011 is much more awash in the means to violence than in the days of Gandhi, even though he lived to see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was a sharp critic of the use of nuclear bombs. In 1946, he remarked: “I regard the employment of the atom bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women, and children as the most diabolical use of science.” Sadly this diabolical use of science continues unabated today.

Causes of violence

What about the causes of violent conflict today? No longer is it just colonisation that is causing conflict but different issues have arisen of late that may not have existed in Gandhi’s day. Globalisation has linked the countries of the world as never before but its benefits have not been evenly distributed over all countries. The divide between rich and poor nations remains large; developing nations still suffer a bigger share of the world’s poverty, illiteracy and ill health. They are less able to cope with shocks in the world’s economic system; if the developed world to which they export suffers a recession, they suffer worse from the effects of those cutbacks.

These types of economic inequalities lead to a new phenomena, human migration, where people move from their own region or country to another to seek a better life. If badly managed, this can lead to conflicts with the native people of the host countries. Migrants now make up 214m people who leave their countries for work or to seek refuge from crises in their own countries, including conflicts. According to the International Organisation for Migration, this means that one in every 33 people in the world is an international migrant. As displaced people and refugees, or even simply as foreign workers in a country, these migrants become vulnerable to violence as well as other disadvantages such as lack of access to health care.

Additionally there are the effects of relatively new phenomena such as climate change. When people are displaced by environmental disasters caused by climate change such as drought or floods, they encroach on other people’s land. Conflicts arise when more people are forced to find food from the same limited resources. Refugees forced to live in deplorable conditions invariably rebel and start to fight with both fellow refugees and their unwilling hosts. What is happening in Somalia is a case in point where hundreds of thousands of famine-stricken people have been forced to move in search of food, sparking an immense humanitarian crisis.

In many cases, compared to Gandhi’s day, the perpetrators of violence have also diversified. Where before it was often states that inflicted violence on people, today there may be non-state actors or even communities that may cause such violence. For instance, the existence of networks of people who believe that violence is the only response to injustice, thus leading to events such as 9/11, the Bali bombings and other violent events such as the suicide bombing of houses of worship. Gender-based violence has also been well-documented for example in Bosnia, in Indonesia in 1998, and more recently in the Congo and in Libya. The targets of such violence are also diverse; sometimes it is certain communities, sometimes the more vulnerable sections of the population such as women and sometimes targets are randomly picked.

Media’s obsession with violence

In all this, let us not forget the role of the media in both highlighting, perpetuating and sometimes even possibly encouraging violence. Violence is almost always sensational and if one reads the news, it is possible to think that everyone around the world is inclined towards violence. Every day there is a suicide bomber blowing up someone or a murder is committed yet again somewhere. On television we see both factual and fictional violence so seamlessly broadcast together that for a while we find it hard to differentiate between what is real and what is not. This is why our first reaction to the planes flying into the World Trade Centre on Sept 11, 2001 was uncertainty as to whether it was computer-generated imaging or real, so used are we to disaster movies.

The media fascination with violence has two main effects. Firstly it inures us to violence so much so that we become less and less able to empathise when something dreadful happens. We no longer remember that every person killed through conflict is someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife or friend. We may count bodies but we don’t see them as someone’s loved one lost to violence. As long as it’s not anyone we know, we don’t care too much.

Secondly, media tends to persuade us that the only answer to violence is more violence. Picture the cheers that went up among many Americans when the news got out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It seemed a natural ‘progression’ if you can call it that, from a response that has been just as violent if not more, and in fact has caused more casualties than were killed in the September 11 attacks alone. According to the costs-of-war project at Brown University, a “very conservative” estimate is that about 137000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and that the wars have created more than 7.8m refugees in these countries. And to prove Oscar Arias Sanchez’s words, the Brown project also puts the wars’ ultimate cost, including interest payments and veterans’ care, to the United States at up to US$4 trillion—equivalent to the country’s cumulative budget deficits for the six years from 2005 to 2010.

Inspiring untold stories

The media’s obsessive attention to violence thus has a cyclical effect in that it only promotes further violence, which in turn continually feeds the media’s hunger for sensationalism. Yet what the media chooses to highlight is far from the entire story of any news item. Gandhian principles of non-violence are alive and well today, even though they may not seem as newsworthy to media corporations. Allow me to talk about some of them.

Julia Bacha is a young filmmaker who made a documentary on non-violence resistance in the West Bank. In her TEDTalks lecture, she makes the case for greater attention to non-violent protests in Palestine because she believes that it inspires people to replicate the same model and therefore break the cycle of violence around them. Her documentary tells the story of the Palestinian village of Budrus that embarked on a ten-month long non-violent protest against the building of a barrier by the Israelis that cut across their olive groves. Their persistence, perseverance and resolute committal to non-violence eventually paid off. What’s more, when Julia’s documentary was shown to other villages, it spurred those villages to embark on the same type of protest in the hope that these would yield the same results.

Media attention to such a movement would serve several purposes. It would present another side to the story of Palestine, that rather than the usual violence one sees on-screen, there are people who are demanding their rights in a peaceful manner. It would also do much to dispel stereotypes, both of the aggressive stone-throwing Palestinian who seems uninterested in peace as well as show that there are a lot of Israelis who also support Palestinian rights. Indeed few people know of the non-violent Israeli peace movement that has always been opposed to the Israeli government’s approach to the Palestine issue.

Today too, non-violent protests are taking place on Wall Street to protest against the disastrous impact that financiers have had on the lives of ordinary people not just in the US but all over the world. These financiers have continued to demand government bail-outs and reward themselves with gargantuan bonuses. The Occupy Wall Street movement started with only a few people and was ignored by most of the media until luminaries such as Cornell West joined them. Predictably enough once it started to grow, the response from the police has been swift and violent, with 700 people arrested yesterday. But today the movement is spreading with other peaceful occupations planned for other cities in the coming weeks.

Women step forward

Violence also takes many forms. Similarly non-violent responses can also take diverse forms. One of the worst forms of violence against women is female genital cutting, a traditional customary practice in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. Meant to control women’s sexuality; it causes many forms of health problems in the young girls who undergo it, including HIV infection from unclean knives used for cutting.

Changing such a long-held custom, which some believe is required by religion, is not easy because it often challenges the authority of village heads, religious leaders and the cutters themselves who have much social standing because of their jobs. But an NGO in Senegal called Tostan has managed to stop this practice in more than 40 villages not by confrontational means but by a process of engaging and educating village and community leaders. Working with religious leaders both Muslim and Christian, Tostan workers go from village to village to talk to communities about their right to health and how female genital cutting violates that right. So successful has this non-violent response to a violent tradition been that even former cutters have become strong advocates against it, convincing villagers to take public pledges to end the practice. While protecting women’s health, it has also helped to empower village women and given them a sense that they too have rights.

Indeed women have often been at the forefront of many peaceful protests both for their own rights, and for society at large. In such diverse places as Saudi Arabia where women have protested for the right to vote, to stand for municipal elections and to drive; Indonesia, where recently women protested against attitudes which blamed women for their own rapes; and to Iran, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, where thousands of women have been a central part of the peaceful protests for change.

Building bridges

Which brings us to the recent phenomenon known as the Arab Spring. As imperfect as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have been, they did much to dispel many stereotypes about Arabs and about protests that the world has had until now. For one thing, it was clear that Arabs want the same things as the rest of the world – freedom, justice, equality and human rights – and showed that none of these demands are exclusive to Westerners. For another, it was also clear in these two countries, that it was possible to overthrow a hated government peacefully, especially if there is no interference from outside. Sadly this is not a lesson some dictatorial governments appreciate, as we can see by the tragic examples of Libya, Syria and Bahrain.

There have also been examples of peaceful protest here in our country. Two years ago, after some people paraded a cow-head to protest against a Hindu temple being moved to their neighbourhood, many Malaysians participated in ‘Fast for the Nation’, where both Muslims and non-Muslims here and abroad came together for the imsak meal just before dawn, then fasted all day and then broke their fast together at dusk. Many of the participants, both Muslim and non-Muslim, said that fasting together made them feel united despite attempts by some quarters to divide us on religious and communal lines.

In January 2010, after a church was burnt, about 200 young people answered a call through social media to participate in an event called Tali Tenang, a peaceful rally for unity during a time of heightened tensions. It says a lot that neither event was organised by any politician; instead they were a mobilisation of civil society, mostly young people, to rebel in a peaceful manner against racism and discrimination.

Non-violent resistance

I would be remiss if I did not talk about the most recent non-violent protest here in Malaysia of which I was a proud participant. Bersih 2.0 is the most recent example where Malaysians from all walks of life and all ages came out to peacefully march for clean and fair elections. The Bersih rally showed up the stark differences between perceptions of peaceful action by the government and by ordinary people.

The government and the police seemed to believe that no Malaysians could gather to protest anything without resorting to violence, and therefore peace could only be maintained by the cancellation of the rally. Nor could they believe that participants had anything but a political agenda.

Yet if we read the many personal accounts of the Bersih rally written by the ordinary people who participated, it is clear that most of them were moved by a sense that an injustice was being done to them by not allowing them a voice, and they were determined that the rally would be a peaceful and disciplined one. Faced with teargas, water cannons and batons, however, the participants behaved in true Gandhian spirit, refusing to retaliate with violence themselves. Whatever the outcome, ordinary Malaysians won a great moral victory that day.

In conclusion, Gandhi’s non-violent form of resistance is alive and well today, perpetuated by all people around the world seeking freedom, justice or simply the truth. Sadly, as we have seen, governments rarely think in Gandhian terms and instead fall into the trap of matching violence with violence, arming themselves with ever more sophisticated weaponry in anticipation of potential warfare. At the same time they sometimes make war against their own citizens.

Perhaps the only way to change this is to make use of the power that we all have to insist that we be ruled only by those who wage peace at all times. Let us insist that our leaders, whoever they may be, should be those who refuse to bow to the violence and divisiveness that political gamesmanship invariably yields and instead work for the equal rights of all our citizens.

As the Mahatma said, non-violence “is a rule of conduct for society if it is to live consistently with human dignity and make progress towards the attainment of peace for which it has been yearning for ages past.” If we, governments, communities and individuals, truly want to live in peace, there is no other way to go.

Marina Mahathir of Sisters in Islam delivered this address at the 2nd Gandhi Memorial Lecture, organised by the Gandhi Memorial Trust at the Royal Lake Club, Kuala Lumpur on 3 October 2011.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. if only the human race can understand themselves, and live “love thy neighbour”, it will not employ weapons of mass destruction.
    why should its own human race, go against itself ?
    this a big question to the nature of the being.
    even the race have inequality of live, we should understand and have wisdom to live with contentment.

  2. Ghandi’s policy of non violence will not work when we are dealing with rouge and gangster nations like Israel and USA.

  3. A good thought provoking speech. Very seldom we get a chance to read articles such as this with different perspective. Opinions and ideas like this will make youngters to look at things from different angle and make them contribute to a civil society.

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