Speaking in my hometown, Oxford, on Tuesday, Qatar’s Shaikha Moza told an audience at the university that Muslims are being “dehumanised” by Western media coverage of violent Islamic extremism and identified as “something fearful and unknowable”.
I have to agree and do not consider this phenomenon to be particularly new. The British tabloids have worked hard to present Muslims at home and abroad as backward and hostile. I imagine this makes it easier to kill them when we send bombs and armed drones into Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
It is not only the media, but our preparation of History itself that obscures the peaceful, thoughtful and creative Muslim.
Having Muslim friends who were being made to feel extremely uncomfortable after 9/11, I began to wonder if there were any Muslim pacifists. I discovered that there were, and principal among them was the Pashtun ‘peace warrior’ Badshah Abdul Gaffar Khan, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi — who described him as ‘a miracle’ — and, in every sense, his Muslim counterpart.
What a remarkable and stunning role model he should be for Muslim youth; yet while a statue of Gandhi was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square in March this year, few today have even heard of Badshah Abdul Gaffar Khan.
In the 1940s, while sectarian conflict was tearing India apart, this gentle Pashtun giant of a man established a 100,000-strong ‘Islamic Peace Army’ composed of unarmed men and a few brave women.
Working side by side with Gandhi, Badshah Khan campaigned for peace and an end to British occupation. His followers mounted huge demonstrations and offered no retaliation when scores of their number were shot dead by the British
Badshah Khan was considered so powerful, so notorious, and such a threat to British colonial rule that he was repeatedly imprisoned for sedition, spending many of his 96 years in jail where, even as an old man, he was tortured.
Why then has Badshah Khan been forgotten?
Part of the blame must lie with his own countrymen and fellow religionists for not taking ownership of their history; allowing it, instead, to be repackaged within the parameters of foreign agendas.
Since the ‘Cold War’ ended twenty five years ago there has been no real, existential, threat to Western countries ... but without a ‘war’ there is no need for arms. We needed a new enemy and, having deployed the mujaheddin as their main weapon against the USSR in Afghanistan, the West (America in particular) swiftly repackaged Islamic extremism as public enemy number one little more than a decade later.
Islam has replaced communism in the global political paradigm — terrifying, brutal, ruthless and alien. This image has been propagated by the state and media alike to the extent that the notion of a peace-loving Muslim has become oxymoronic, while peace-loving Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews abound.
War is a lucrative business and in the absence of a tangible enemy, the ‘War on Terror’ (read Islamic extremism) keeps the global arms industry — currently worth $1.3 trillion (Dh4.77 trillion) a year — in clover; we cannot have a cuddly Islam any more than we could have had cuddly Communism. Muslim peace icons like Badshah Khan, then, are simply not welcome in this monetised rewriting of history.
There is also the problem of sectarianism which fragments and dilutes Islam and lies at the heart of the current chaos across the Middle East. Badshah Khan fought against sectarianism and the movement he pioneered was inclusive and tolerant.
What a formidable force the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims would constitute if they were united. Would Israel continue to steal land belonging to the Palestinians and attack the imprisoned people of Gaza with impunity? Would Western companies continue to extract the profits from the region’s natural resources which could be used instead to the benefit of its people? Would there be any further need for the region’s gargantuan defence spending?
You can see where I am going with this ... ‘divide and rule’ — the term was first used by that ‘friend of the Arabs’, T.E. Lawrence — proved to be an effective formula in preventing (or at least postponing) effective rebellion against colonialism in the Middle East and was applied in India too.
It is my hope that, in rediscovering Badshah Khan, the Muslim world will reclaim its own peaceful role model; an Islamic icon, the Muslim Gandhi.
* Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior an investigative poem by Heathcote Williams will be published by Thin Man Press on June 2, 2015 and is available on Amazon.