© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 3, 2011
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It is due to a stunningly simple and ultimately tragic combination of geography and economics that led the Pashtun people to be the violent tribe that they are known to be. For centuries they had lived in an isolated valley of the Himalayas. But as world events progressed, it turned out that the scrap of land that they had always called home - the mountainous, hardscrabble Khyber Pass and Swat Valley below that they had learned to work with and eke out a life within - turned out to be the magical connector through the mountains between Europe and the jewel of India. And suddenly, these long isolated and proud people were defeated, conquered, and humiliated by these white men and their rifles, these British infantry. And while all of India bristled under the harsh rule of the English Crown, the hardened and motivated Pashtun were unique in their never-ending attempts to fight an always bloody and increasingly futile war against the occupier.
With every assault, with every struggle and spasm for freedom, a new cycle of violence was begun. As the Pashtun warriors would fight to avenge the death of their brothers, their mothers, their sisters, and their babies, the British would time and time again answer with ever growing volleys of pain: rape, massacre, plundering of stored foods, and destruction of crops. Each spring and summer the British troops would exact as much pain as they could, retreating just before the winter winds and leaving an ever more humiliated and broken people behind. For decades this pattern continued without change except for each campaign's growing ferocity. Pashtun blood watered the fields of the Khyber Pass as much as the spring snowmelt, and no end to the horrible and destructive cycle could even be imagined.
Although the British rule of India was never welcomed in any quarter, it was certainly not like this throughout most of the country. Unlike the Pashtun, most Indians accepted their fate against the better-armed and trained British forces. Rarely was violence used by most of the Hindu people against their occupiers, and it was considered more a nuisance than a surprise when one man, one small, humble man of deep faith taught an entire country how to harness a power they didn't even know they had. We all know how this incredible story of Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagraha - his soul force - his non-violent super power, played out and eventually led the people of India to finally throw off the shackles of British rule. But the story of the Pashtun is much less known, yet even more important to the current events of our time.
These new ideas of Gandhi - that non-violence was the most powerful force of all, and that every person could harness this power within themselves - seemingly held no promise of taking hold in the violent war-torn land of the proud Pashtun. For they were a people who believed they were bound by sacred duty, by their honor to protect themselves with ferocious violence.
But in that valley grew a young man who was every bit a Pashtun, but who understood this duty in a radically different way than his fellow tribesmen. Whereas, for generations, violent response was the only accepted way to take on this duty, Ghaffar Khan, the son of a wealthy and prominent Pashtun, felt that his duty, his honor was to be found in saving his people by truly empowering them to rise out of their ignorant ways. Due to his father's elevated status he was spared military duty and, although it was frowned upon by others within his village, he attended a special school run by missionaries.
Upon graduation from the equivalent of high school, Ghaffar Khan began building schools himself. And young Ghaffar was such a successful planter of schools in the hills of the Swat Valley that he was imprisoned by the British and ordered to stop. For the next several years Ghaffar began a dance with the authorities that would go on for most of his life, spending a year in jail basically for every year he spent in freedom for the next sixty years of life.
Through his work and his repeated jail terms he became a living legend to his people, who began calling him Bhadshah Khan, the Khan of Khans - their leader. And as he would walk from village to village visiting and planting schools, he would be met with this title sung from the lips of all the children. Finally, after generations of longing to be free, the Pashtun had hope.
At the age of 35, Ghaffar learned of the work of the humble servant of India, the one they were calling the Mahatma, and how effective he and his non-violence had been in several struggles against the British. He quickly realized that this man's ability to spread his incredible commitment to non-violence to those he was trying to empower and free, was the missing ingredient in his own work. But of course to say that the idea of non-violence would be a tough sell to his people, to the long-suffering and always ready-to-fight-till-the-death Pasthun, is the understatement of a lifetime.
But this is one of those instances in life when I am reminded that we have no need for scriptures beyond the words and deeds of incredible but fully human people like Ghaffar Khan. What Khan realized was that the heart and soul of his people was not violence, but rather honor. And that honor had been traditionally bound up with a violent response to a perceived instance of dishonor, but that it did not have to be that way.
Finally, he realized how he was to accomplish this miracle. After a particularly rousing speech at an assembly of tribal leaders, Khan was awoken early the next morning by a young man he had roused to action but who wasn't sure what to do next. As they chatted around morning tea, the idea hit Khan like all great inspiration does, out of nowhere, yet suddenly so obvious: he was to create an army of soldiers, but they were to be highly trained non-violent soldiers of Islam. He would create an army unlike the world had ever seen before: a giant, non-violent force and, of all people, they would be Pashtun. He would take the teachings of the Prophet and bring them to life in the most beautiful manifestation possible. Or, as he said in village after village as he made his rounds recruiting his soldiers:
"I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.
"When you go back to your villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God and it's weapon is patience. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise patience, victory will be yours."
By cloaking his call to non-violent service in the language of aggression and Islam, he was able to begin a rewiring of the Pashtun mind that he knew was essential to their empowerment. He would continue to stoke their fire for honor, their commitment to accomplish the impossible, and their training to endure pain beyond pain. But he would disconnect this impulse from their violent foundations and reconnect them to the commitment to non-violence that he and Gandhi espoused.
And like a damn breaking forth, a once proud people finally found their path. Thousands upon thousands rushed to join this new movement and its spiritual leader, Bhadshah Khan. Almost overnight Khan organized thousands of Pashtun into regiments connected to different villages, and deployed trained leaders to each group to work the new recruits hard on the fundamentals of non-violence. They called themselves Khidai Khidmatgars, or the Servants of God, and upon completion of this grueling mental and physical training each Pashtun would recite this pledge:
"I am a Khidai Khidmatgar, and as God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God. I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge. I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty. I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity. I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend. I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue and to refrain from evil. I promise to practice good manners and good behavior and not to lead a life of idleness. I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work."
And with that pledge, the rewiring was complete. A people who had once seen honor only within the context of bloodshed had been given new eyes with which to see and new ears with which to hear. They now understood that their salvation and their honor would be found not in a violent conflict they could never win, but rather in a righteous, non-violent struggle that with their new training and foundation, they could not lose.
And just as the great hour of need came, just as all of India followed their eloquent Gandhi into civil disobedience by the revolutionary act of making their own salt in opposition to the British law and monopoly, the Servants of God were ready to fire the first non-violent shot ever launched in the bloody Swat valley.
As the British regiments grew in fear of this newly organized army of God, they finally got the order they had been waiting for. Due to the anti-British activities sweeping India, they were ordered to take down the Pashtun once and for all, before they could join the fight. And predictably, they went for the head first, arresting Khan and locking him in jail before he could give any last words of inspiration to his followers.
Just as the British hoped, an enormous crowd began to gather around the jail demanding Khan's release. All they needed was a slight agitation and they would feel justified in mowing down the Pashtun. But to their dismay the crowd remained non-violent, and suddenly word spread through the city that a general strike was to be immediately honored, no one should work in any manner until their Khan was released. The frightened British panicked and began indiscriminately shooting into the crowd.
And then a strange thing occurred, unlike anything the British troops had ever seen, certainly nothing they could have ever imagined in the Swat valley from the Pashtun. Line after line of Pashtun slowly marched forward and took their place directly in front of the British troops and simply stood there and took the brunt of the firepower. When one line had fully crumpled, they were quickly replaced by another. One after another, the waves of non-violent Pashtun came, and from 11 am until 5 pm this continued, until the bodies were piled too high to be brought to the hospital. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured, but the show of resistance that involved not guns but the self-sacrifice of their own bodies unnerved the British like nothing they had ever experienced.
And as much as it unnerved the British, it empowered the Pashtun even more. In the past year Khan had recruited and trained thousands, but this incredible display of resistance to British violence quickly swelled the ranks to over 80,000. By the time the British finally left India several years later, the Non-Violent Soldiers of Islam grew in numbers to well over 100,000. And while they were far from the only force that compelled the British to leave India, they were undoubtedly the least likely and among the most persuasive and painfully tested.
The struggle continued from this point for several more years before the Indian people finally expelled the British, and somewhere between that moment and today, this incredible story - of the most violent people of the earth being rapidly retrained to harness the righteous power of non-violence to free themselves - somehow got lost along the way.
Today our images of Muslims are far too dominated by this same old concept of violence. It is now our eyes and ears that need to be rewired. About a month ago I was at a screening of Fremont, USA, the documentary Harvard University made about the incredible demographic shift in Fremont over the past 30 years. It was the five-year anniversary of the film, and after the showing the audience had a question-and-answer session with a panel made up of several religious leaders from the Tri-Cities. When asked what in Fremont has changed and what has not over the five years since the documentary came out, a leader of the Tri-Cities Islamic community, Moina Sheik, responded that she was still very concerned about the imagery most Americans encounter in pop culture of who Muslims are. Despite the extremist wing of Islam making up far less than 1% of the world-wide Muslim population, that is still the group that dominates our understanding of this faith.
At our recent General Assembly I heard Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a renowned American Muslim cleric and spokesperson, also known in the media as the force behind the Ground Zero Mosque, share the same emotion. As he said, this would be like knowing Christianity only through the lens of the KKK, one of the more extreme groups claiming association to that faith.
And this story of Bhadshah Khan and his non-violent soldiers of Islam is the antidote to this misperception. It is but one of a countless number of stories, images and narratives from the Islamic faith that we must grow more familiar with if we are ever to truly see our Muslim brothers and sisters as the fully flesh-and-blood humans that they are, rather than as mirrors reflecting our deepest fears.
May you hold this story, and may you share it with others, in the hopes that it may contribute one small piece of this transformation.
May it be so. Ashe.
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