Lessons From South Asia

by Ali Gohar and Lisa Schirch

CPT Associate Ali Gohar is a rahbar (guide) and founder of Just Peace International in Peshawar, Pakistan.  Lisa Schirch is professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.  Excerpts reprinted with permission from Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

People power and the use of mass nonviolent action are not new to Muslims.  Even before Gandhi, political and spiritual leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan – now more widely referred to as “Bacha Khan” – was drawing on Islamic and tribal teachings to train “nonviolent soldiers” in 1920s India (now Pakistan) to rely on their honour, courage and the truthfulness of their cause to confront the powerfully armed British Empire.

...Khan grew up circa 1900 watching the exploitive relationship between landowners and poor tenant farmers in Peshawar Valley...  After completing his secondary education, Khan refused to be part of a prestigious corps of Pukhtoon (also known as Pashtun) soldiers in the British Army.  

Searching for more authentic religious leaders, he discovered Islamic values of peace and charity toward others by studying the teachings of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Khan promoted education and social reform, teaching about core values of Islam and Pukhtoonwali, the cultural values and way of life of the Pukhtoon tribe.  He started 70 schools that taught both boys and girls, including his own daughter, even though this went against the norms of the Pukhtoon culture of the day.

In 1928 he started the newspaper PUKHTOON, teaching sacrifice, courage, nonviolence and charity towards others.  Building upon this media outreach, he organised tribal leaders to start a nonviolent movement called the “Servants of God.”  Wearing red shirts and walking in straight rows, these unarmed youth were deeply spiritual, studied Islam and practiced nonviolent drills daily to test their ability to endure repression without retaliation.

The British tried to silence the Red Shirts by firing on them, imprisoning and torturing them.  They suffered like today’s brave citizens across the Middle East.  But unlike some of today’s rapidly developing social movements from Bahrain to Syria, the Red Shirts spent years training and connecting their religious values in nonviolence with a clearly articulated set of political, social and economic alternatives.  This holistic approach fostered incredible group discipline to prevent instigators from provoking them to violence.

At its height, the red-shirted Servants of God numbered 100,000, more than any other “nonviolent army” in the history of humanity.