Oh the humanity

December 29, 2008

Robyn Creswell contemplates the provocations of Faisal Devji, whose fascinating new book, “The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics,” upturns conventional accounts of al Qa’eda by investigating ‘the rich inner life of jihad’. From the National:

To Faisal Devji, Gandhi is the embodiment of a kind of humanitarian sacrifice, and ‘would probably have welcomed the comparison between his methods and those of Osama bin Laden, whose practices he might have seen as the evil perversion of his own.’ Courtesy Corbis

To Faisal Devji, Gandhi is the embodiment of a kind of humanitarian sacrifice, and ‘would probably have welcomed the comparison between his methods and those of Osama bin Laden, whose practices he might have seen as the evil perversion of his own.’ Courtesy Corbis

The field of jihadi studies, situated at the crossroads of policy-making, intelligence work, journalism and academic research, sprang up almost overnight following the attacks of September 11. It now boasts all the infrastructure that comes with the discovery of a glittering new frontier, as fascinating in its way as superstrings or Martian ice. Conferences, courses and research centres are devoted to explaining the intricacies of holy war. Amidst this mushroom patch of interlocking institutions and individuals, the work of Faisal Devji – an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – sticks out like a rare flower. Devji’s studies, which focus on the doings and sayings of al Qa’eda, are so at odds with what passes for common sense in this field that one sometimes wonders if he isn’t merely thumbing his nose at received wisdom. In his latest book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, he suggests that al Qa’eda has in some sense inherited the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. He also argues that the ideology of jihad is a “humanitarian” one, and that the militants of al Qa’eda are “the intellectual peers” of environmentalists and pacifists. What does he mean by such provocations?

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is in many ways a sequel to Devji’s equally provocative 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. In that work, rather than concentrating on the spectacular violence that has been the focus of most experts, Devji argues that al Qa’eda’s real achievement is to have created “a new kind of Muslim”, one whose attachments to the traditions and institutions of Islam are radically unlike those of his predecessors. The new militancy cannot be understood by inserting it into a now-familiar history of Islamic extremism (Wahhabism, Sayyid Qutb, the Taliban, etc.), because what is significant about the jihadis of today is their relation to the present, or even to the future. “Al Qa’eda’s importance in the long run,” Devji writes, “lies not in its pioneering a new form of networked militancy… but instead in its fragmentation of traditional structures of Muslim authority within new global landscapes.”

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Mahatma Gandhi: A rare English recording

July 3, 2008

There were only two occasions when Mahatma Gandhi was recorded speaking in English. Once in the 1930s and the second, especially historic because it was just a few months before Gandhi was assassinated, was made on April 2, 1947. This second speech has been largely lost to the world. Recently, however, the second speech surfaced in — of all places — downtown Washington. Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post:

Gandhi’s speech — made with the uneven diction of an elderly man who sounds as though he has lost most of his teeth — had the same themes he visited over and over throughout his life: the importance of nonviolence, the eradication of the caste system in Hindu society, amity between South Asia’s Hindus and Muslims, and a world united against violence and exploitation.

“A friend asked yesterday, did I believe in one world?” Gandhi says at one point in the speech. “Of course I believe in World One. And how can I possibly do otherwise? . . . You can redeliver that message now in this age of democracy, in the age of awakening of the poorest of the poor.”

Click here for the rest of the story and here to listen to the rare recording:


Imperial bedfellows

June 5, 2008

At commentarymagazine.com, a review of Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age:

Gandhi’s particular genius was to see how to weave together the two opposing strands in a manner that would appeal to Anglicized upper-class Indians and illiterate villagers alike. By 1927 he had managed to bring together in his Congress party Hindu nationalists, Bengali nationalists, Sikh separatists, old-line loyalists, and cutting-edge socialists. He also had the good fortune to launch his movement at a moment when, thanks to the devastation of World War I, Europeans were losing faith in their own civilization. The environment in London, Paris, and Berlin was ripe for new ideologies and styles of life, and was fascinated by non-Western cultures.

Gandhi was introduced to a wide reading public through the Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, who produced an adoring biography of him in 1924. Even more important, he was the first third-world politician to understand how to exploit and manipulate the credulity of Western media. As early as 1912, when he left South Africa for good, he ceased to wear British clothes, and was often photographed with his spinning wheel. For most of his life his diet consisted of fruits, nuts, and goat’s milk, a token of the saintly image he sought to convey. His famous “march to the sea” to protest the Raj’s salt tax was staged mainly for the benefit of newsreel cameras, which conveyed the images around the world.

To be sure, not everybody was impressed. Churchill, for one, regarded Gandhi as “a fanatic and an ascetic of the fakir type well known in the East”-a judgment not altogether true, but not altogether false, either.

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Gandhi, Glass, and Satyagraha

April 11, 2008

From The Metropolitan Opera:

Philip Glass wrote his third opera, the seminal Satyagraha, in 1979. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa and the development of his philosophy, the work has its Met premiere on 11 April in a new production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The 70-year-old composer, a veteran of 20 operas, told the Met’s Elena Park what moved him to address the subject-and what Gandhi’s message can teach us today.

Q:What does the concept of satyagraha mean to you now?

Being inspired by social change through non-violence was authentic. I can identify with that idea as strongly today as I did when I wrote the opera. I was in my 40s at that time, so I wasn’t like a kid. But I’m in a very different place now. For one thing, I’ve seen the world change in a dramatic and not particularly good way. We’re in a more desperate situation than we were 30 years ago.

[Photo: Drawing from the Bhagavad Gita, the opera opens on a mythical battlefield where two royal families prepare to wage a fierce war.]

[via Mint]

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And here, Mahatma Gahdhi’s granddaughter Ela Gandhi talks about his legacy, her family’s work on Indian Opinion, the newspaper founded by Gandhi, and her own youth in South Africa.Do you think an opera about satyagraha can educate and enlighten?

Q: Do you think an opera about satyagraha can educate and enlighten?
Music, opera, drama, and other forms of art convey feelings and reflect the times. While words can express things openly and in a way that people can easily understand, the arts express the same things in a more subtle way. Over the years many great poets, musicians, and dancers all expressed their feelings about societal issues and it made an impact on the community.

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Remembering Bapu

January 30, 2008

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On Gandhi’s death anniversary today: Rev Jesse Jackson visits India and there is quite a bit of introspection on the legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his relevance to the world today.

First, historian and author (India After Gandhi) Ramachandra Guha argues in the Hindustan Times that Gandhi cannot be understood without the context of his faith and religious belief but it was a faith that was of vital assistance in promoting peace and harmony between people who worship different Gods, or no God at all:

Many years ago, I had an argument with the philosopher Ramchandra (Ramu) Gandhi about his grandfather’s faith. I had always admired the Mahatma, but my secular-socialist self sought to rid him of the spiritual baggage which seemed unnecessary to his broader message. Could we not follow Gandhi in his empathy for the poor and his insistence on non-violence while rejecting the religious idiom in which these ideas were cloaked? Ramu Gandhi argued that the attempt to secularise Gandhi was both mistaken and misleading. If you take the Mahatma’s faith out of him, he told me, then Gandhi would not be the Mahatma. His religious beliefs were central to his political and social philosophy – in this respect, the man was the message.

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In the Times of India, political psychologist Ashis Nandy analyses the ‘fear of Gandhi’ and the middle-class antipathy towards him that has only become stronger in the global knowledge industry:

On the 60th year of the murder of Mohandas Gandhi, we must recognise the ambivalence towards him in India’s modernising middle classes. Gandhi was not killed by British imperialism or Muslim fanatics, but by middle-class Hindu nationalists committed to conventional concepts of statecraft, progress and diplomacy. He was not killed by a lunatic, as Nehru alleged, but by one who represented ‘normality’ and ‘sanity’.

The middle-class antipathy to Gandhi cuts across ideologies. During one of her earlier tenures, Mayawati precipitated a first-class public controversy by attacking Gandhi. But she was only joining a long line of distinguished critics of Gandhi, stretching from Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the classical liberal turned Muslim nationalist, to Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena. New, aggressive critics of Gandhi are now being thrown up by the knights of globalisation in India.

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And, finally, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express argues that Gandhi achieved more in death than in his life, which in the 1940s had become marginal to the new forms of Indian politics:

Gandhi’s gloriously original and inventive life continues to be extraordinarily fascinating. But his assassination remains shrouded in embarrassed silence. At the Indira Gandhi memorial, visitors are subjected to the details of her assassination. Gandhi, on the other hand is memorialised, but not primarily through Birla House, a monument that still does not have its rightful place in the historical itineraries of Delhi. There is a simple story we have told about the assassination: Gandhi was killed by a fanatic representing the fringes of society, and that is that. But for a life whose every gesture was overloaded with meaning, the interpretive silence over Gandhi’s assassination itself begs for interpretation. Was it the enormity of that crime that silences us? Or was it its marginality? Were the perpetrators distant from us? Or was there a wider complicity, if not with the assassination itself, with the sentiments that fuelled it? The question, ‘Why was Gandhi killed’, is an easy one to answer only if we deliberately shut ourselves to the complex political realities of the time.

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Gandhi’s grandson stirs a controversy

January 27, 2008

The grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has resigned as president of the board of a conflict resolution institute after writing an online essay on a Washington Post blog calling Jews and Israel “the biggest players” in a global culture of violence.

In his resignation letter to the board of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, founder Arun Gandhi wrote that his Jan. 7 essay “was couched in language that was hurtful and contrary to the principles of nonviolence. My intention was to generate a healthy discussion on the proliferation of violence. Clearly I did not achieve my goal. Instead, unintentionally, my words have resulted in pain, anger, confusion and embarrassment.”

Gandhi’s piece, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence”, was part of a discussion about the future of Jewish identity on the religion blog On Faith at washingtonpost.com.

The Washington Post:

Arun Gandhi’s piece:


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