The joke goes like this: The nervous patient asks the surgeon if the operation is a risky one. The surgeon replies that he has performed the operation a hundred times already. The patient sighs with relief before the surgeon continues: «…so one time I must succeed».
Well, fighting for peace and reconciliation never was easy. The joke was told by Henrik Syse on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi (2.10.1869), recently held at the Bjørknes College in Oslo.
Among the distinguished guests, we met the Indian Neekalanta Radhakrishnan, one of the world’s most renowned Gandhi scholars. He spoke about how Martin Luther King and the Japanese Daisaku Ikeda has continued Gandhi’s creed of non-violence. They both set out from the premise that religion is a doctrine of emancipation, transforming love into political action. Such people have a vision of a world of tolerance, where ethnic diversity is embraced and where all people are equal citizens. Even if it can’t happen today, it remains a dream on behalf of our grandchildren.
«Enemy images are seductive mechanisms – where others deserve punishment».
India, often termed the biggest democracy in the world, is described as «fascist» by the Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. India’s prime minister favors the Hindus. In February he chose to bomb the province of Kashmir for the first time in half a century, followed by more acts of violence. As Khan recently expressed towards the United Nation’s general assembly in New York, the two nuclear power are now bordering on a possible large-scale-conflict – and internet and cellphone networks are blocked in the area in an attempt to curb the conflict.
Now, more than 70 years after Gandhi led the liberation of India, old concepts of the enemy are still very much alive among Hindus and Muslims. Should we therefore assume that it was a naïve congregation that shared its ideas at the event in Oslo, where love, unity, brotherhood, cooperation and other maxims were once again emphasized by the children of Gandhi – the proponents of peace?
For at another seminar in September in Oslo, political scientist Iver B. Neuman described another culture, warlike and hierarchical, with a history of no less than 6000 years, described in the book entitled The Steppe Tradition in International Relations, Russians, Turks and European State Building 4000 BC-2017 CE. First we are presented with the most successful among the cattle herders, who helped others, people who ended up becoming their subjects through a system of debt. Later there were warriors on horseback, appropriating territories. Empires were built and outdid others. Not exactly the pacifist horizontal Gandhian culture of sharing. As Neumanns co-author pointed out – patron-client relations have existed for thousands of years. What that means is a few oppressors and a large number of oppressed people.
From these steppes between the Black Sea and the Japanese Otari mountains a tradition emerged where criticism and disagreement were seen as gross and punishable acts of disloyalty. Gandhian concepts of equality were not on the table. The crucial point that the book drives home is that such attitudes are still harbored by current leaders, such as Putin and Erdogan.
In addition to campaigning for liberation of India, Gandhi fought against racism in South Africa, against the caste system, against sexual suppression and for people’s dignity and freedom from all oppression.
So which parts of Gandhi’s legacy and method have been kept alive today? The Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung opens the collection of writings in his anthology We are all brothers and sisters (1999/63), with the observations on how violence is counter-productive: «Violence is a means for the hero in a short term perspective [… ] before the consequences manifest themselves in full». No, we don’t need to be religious to realize that the desire for vengeance and retribution gets planted deeply in the soul of the defeated, or that the fervor of victory sparks an urge for further conquest. Violence also creates a vicious circle. Galtung also reminded us of lord Mauntbattan, who divided India between Hindus and Muslims, establishing the state of Pakistan. «Wars are still going on and both sides have nuclear arms. Was even the realpolitik realistic?» What Galtung wrote 20 years ago is even more relevant today, as the UN recently reminded us.
The crux in Gandhi’s method is the option of non-cooperation and nonviolent protest. You refrain from confirming the ruling power through civil disobedience or «passive resistance».
Non-violence as a strategy and a method actually came from Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893). Both Tolstoy and Gandhi came from upper-class families but chose to abandon their privileged lifestyle. Gandhi says that Tolstoy’s «endless love can be a beacon and an unending source of inspiration». Tolstoy humbly acknowledged that his ideals were not met in reality. Gandhi was also a pragmatic politician but unyieldingly held on to his deepest truths – for which he was willing to die.
In his essay on peace between peoples in We are all brothers and sisters, Gandhi writes about non-violence as a principle to be deployed in conflicts between nations. Not exactly what India and Pakistan practice today. The lesson should be that for peace and cooperation to be sustainable, oppression and exploitation of the others can never be tolerated: «A drowning man can’t save another» – nations should be self-sustained in most crucial respects before initiating fruitful co-operation with others. There was no place for imperialism in Gandhi’s vision of life.
He also promoted disarmament «in Europe, if we are to avoid the region’s self-extermination». Some had to go ahead with an example.
Just as relevant are the topics explored by the Norwegian journal Arr (Idea history, Oslo) in their special issue on Enemy Images. Even a neighboring island can be seen as the enemy, as Norwegian peace researcher and author Inge Eidsvåg describes in his portrait of the community he grew up in on the western coast. He emphasizes how enemy images become oppressive – referring to Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Hitler’s willing executioners or the massacres of Rwanda. The point is that ordinary people are influenced «by two factors in particular: obedience and conformity. Enemy images are seductive mechanisms – where others deserve punishment». Steinar Bryn, also from the same Nansen College at Hamar in Norway, has struggled with enemy images in his prolonged efforts for peace and dialogue in Europe’s toughest zones of conflict. His point is that enemy images live on long after the conflicts they sprung from are seemingly resolved. If you want to get rid of enmity and opposition, you have to focus on the local community, on homes and schools – a part of the job that he criticizes the West for neglecting in Kosovo.
When, for instance, will Israel humbly teach their schoolchildren about nakba, the expulsion of the Palestinians? Or the Turks about the genocide of the Armenians? Enemy images are kept up in daily communications, or, as is mentioned in the Journal, in contemporary hate-inducing social media.
In Arr, there are references to Julie Kristeva’s book Strangers to Ourselves, about the feeling of being a stranger, as she was herself in France. The figure of the stranger is embedded in the sediments of language, the myths we inhabit. The unknown outside, «unheimlich» and uncanny, engenders fear of strangers. But as Ragni Indahl points out in her essay on Kristeva, there once was a strong tradition to be hospitable to those seeking protection, the pleading strangers, refugees that implored those at home to come inside – whether it was the walls of the city or into their communities.
The non-violence approach of Tolstoy and Gandhi has been pursued today with great results. This peacemaking really works. For example, the American Rene Sharp stands for a non-violence philosophy. Yet, in the recently published book Gandhi the Organizer by Bob Overy, Sharp is criticized for being more interested in «power breaking» than in the parallel and subsequent organization which Gandhi always emphasized. The book argues that alongside the non-violence and non-co-operation, autonomous groups should always be established when you confront and resist existing power-structures. As with Gandhi, alternative structures are necessary: «Autonomous structures can gradually be expanded […] by adopting existing organizations and more generally by expanding the sphere for an oppositional civil society». Gandhi envisioned small, self-sustaining villages, an idea which in our current world can be expanded to the townships, districts, blocks and units of the city, as Galtung emphasizes in his commune-ism.
Finally: A few thousand years ago, even on the steppes, there was an institutionalized hospitality towards guests, where gifts were exchanged and where the strangers were received and given lodgings – an exchange which later developed into trade. Today, the question is if these traditions of brotherhood, friendship and solidarity can be established among the majorities – in an age where isolationism, expulsion and populism becomes the order of the day. Perhaps friendship and hospitality will mostly be found only among the minorities in smaller – maybe anarchistically inclined and inspired – communities.