Ghandhi & Terrorism: Tackling the “Mad Idea”

BradleyCollege Papers, History, Undergraduate Work8 Comments

With globalization being so popular an idea these days, we often seem to forget that nations do have sovereignty over their own territory.  That sovereignty comes with the ability to live in ways that don’t necessarily agree with our own values, expectations or religion and to create law systems that have a foundation on something other than a mirror of our (US) constitution.  One example that comes to mind right away is the shocked reaction that everyone had when Egyptians decided they wanted to replace Mubarak’s tyranny with a government based on Islamic values.

I mention sovereignty because it seems to me that most of the world’s problems come from unrealistic expectations that ones’ own way is not only the best way, but the only way.  If anyone doesn’t want our way, we use it as an excuse to force it on them for their own good while exploiting them for economic gain.  In India, that behavior led to a revolution that, thankfully, wound up being more peaceful than it would have been due to the hard work of a man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma.  In the Middle East, Western meddling planted the seeds that would eventually grow into global terrorism on a grand scale.

Tying Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent non-cooperation into modern day problems with terrorism was the focus of a class I took over Winter Session.  It was 3 weeks of class, 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, that culminated in an oral presentation and a 10 page paper after having read 3 books on Gandhi’s philosophy and 1 on the rise of religious terrorism.  It was difficult, but educational.  Looking at the paper now, I wish I’d had more time to directly compare Gandhi’s goals with bin Laden’s goals, and to compare their use of religion as a tool to achieve an end.  Instead, I tried to explain the mentality of religious violence and how meeting that violence with more violence only perpetuates the cycle and, even worse, justifies and empowers the terrorist ideology of hatred.  In a way, meeting violence with violence is cooperating with the terrorists, and after you read this you might have a better understanding of why.

[Sources and footnotes are listed at the bottom.]
The Gandhi Memorial Statue in Union Square, New York City

The Gandhi Memorial Statue in Union Square, New York City

On August 15, 1947, India acquired independence from the British Empire. The country’s road to freedom was paved not with violence, but with Satyagraha, a method of non-violent non-cooperation employed and promulgated by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian Mahatma (Great Soul) who expanded on this unique style of civil disobedience in South Africa.[1] The word Satyagraha is a Sanskrit composite formed from satya and agraha. Satya implies love and agraha firmness, which is synonymous with force in terms of the force born of “Truth and Love or Non-Violence…”[2] Gandhi didn’t claim to have invented Satyagraha. Rather, he just named it. Gandhi was certain of the existence of Satyagraha prior to his use of it by the very fact that the world still lived on, despite the constant warfare. He cited Satyagraha as the force that amiably dissolves the quarrels of millions of families daily and emphasized that the only reason it’s not mentioned in history books is because history itself is a record of the disruptions of Satyagraha, or ahimsa, which is the natural course of nature.[3]

Mahatma Gandhi successfully used Satyagraha to fight for Indian rights in South Africa. He used it again to win independence from the British Empire for India. Dr. Martin Luther King adapted Gandhi’s ideology to his own movement and successfully fought for equal rights for African Americans. Without using weapons, Gandhi’s Satyagraha has been proven to work. So, does that mean it has applications for today’s modern war on terrorism? And how would we go about making the changes necessary to effectively employ this force against the ‘enemy’ and bring about a peaceful resolution of conflicts?

Gandhi with a spinning wheel in India

Gandhi with a spinning wheel in India

Gandhi said, “…if we are Satyagrahis and offer Satyagraha, believing ourselves to be strong…we grow stronger and stronger every day.”[4] Satyagraha is an ideology of empowerment that places emphasis on maintaining the moral high ground through “self-help, self-sacrifice and faith in God…”[5] Naturally, this is something one must do oneself for it to work properly, which is why Gandhi said that Satyagraha is for self-help and declined the assistance of foreigners in fighting for India’s freedom, except insomuch as he wanted their attention and sympathy.

Gandhi believed that the process of Satyagraha could only happen if one maintained a total absence of violence, both in one’s actions and one’s thoughts. For Gandhi, a “struggle could be forceful…but it could not be violent,” so willing self-sacrifice played a key role in achieving one’s goal.[6] Through non-violent self-sacrifice a movement gains both public sympathy and the admiration and respect of the aggressor, eventually inducing a change of heart and an amiable resolution to conflicts.

Most importantly, by not using violence, Satyagraha creates solutions that break the cycle of violence. Gandhi said, “A non-co-operationist strives to compel attention and set an example not by his violence but by his unobtrusive humility.”[7] The moment violence is used the means become corrupted, which invariably leads to a corrupted end. Gandhi used this argument to counter the call for violent revolution against the British in India. He said that “by using similar means we can get only the same thing that [the British] got” and compared gaining morally pure rule through violence to planting weeds to grow roses.[8]

A violent response escalates the level of violence used. Gandhi believed that winning independence through violence would leave India just as bad off as it already was, because it would mean that violent people would be assuming control of the country.[9] He did agree that he would rather have bad home rule rather than suffer under a foreign master, but Gandhi’s goal was to achieve a free India that could initiate a new government with clean hands.[10] To do this, Gandhi believed that India had to break with modern secular Western society. He described the materialism of Western civilization as a sickness.[11] Britain’s industrialization, and all industrialization, relies on the exploitation of other countries. Engaging in industrialization would pollute India and India would become no better than the former masters’ whose yoke she had thrown off.[12]

1993 World Trade Center Bombers

1993 World Trade Center Bombers

According to Mark Juergensmeyer, the advent of modern Western society has devalued religious belief, replacing theology with secular morality and the Church with the nation state. Social identity has shifted from religious affiliation to national citizenship. Some religious activists believe that “secular society and modern nationalism can [not] provide the moral fiber that unites national communities or the ideological strength to sustain states buffeted by ethical, economic, and military failures.”[13]

In an interview with Mahmud Abouhalima, convicted of participating in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Mark Juergensmeyer asked him what it was that secular America was missing that caused it to not understand him and others like him. Abouhalima answered, “the soul of religion.”[14] He went on to compare secular life to an ink pen that was missing its ink. He said, “An ink pen, a pen worth two thousand dollars, gold and everything in it, it’s useless if there’s no ink in it. That’s the thing that gives life…”[15]

Western societies may see secularization as a positive process, a freeing of the population from archaic dogmas, but people like Abouhalima and even Gandhi were adamantly opposed to separating religion from life.[16] Without religion, Abouhalima would have no meaning in his life, and Gandhi would not have had the strength to free India. Thinking in those terms, any encroachment of Western society in the modern Middle East may be viewed by the locals as not only unbeneficial but harmful, and potentially as an attack on fundamental values and religion itself, which for Muslims constitutes a large portion of their everyday life and culture.[17] Gandhi believed that all change has to come from within to be lasting. It cannot be forced upon people, and attempting to use violence through sanctions that cause hardships or through rhetoric and demonizing will have no effect but to draw sympathy to the victimized, even if their cause is wrong.[18]

2001 attack and destruction of World Trade Center in New York City

2001 attack and destruction of World Trade Center in New York City

In today’s War on Terror, responding to terrorism with acts of violence empowers the terrorists by cooperating with their ideology of hatred, by affirming that the secular West is indeed evil and intent on destroying the religion and culture of the average person. Mark Juergensmeyer wrote that “many secular political leaders have described [the War on Terror] as a war that must be won—not only to avenge savage acts as the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, but also to allow civilization as the modern West has known it to survive.”[19] In a war between civilizations where the existence of each civilization’s future is at stake, only one can remain at the end of the conflict. The sort of rhetoric being used to promote the War on Terror is one of absolutes and only further justifies the teachings of terrorists: that the US must be defeated for Islam and Islamic culture to survive. The immediate response after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City was to launch a retaliatory attack, but has that attack actually solved anything? Did we not in fact validate the terrorists’ ideology of hatred by destroying the lives of the innocent along with the accused through long-term warfare?

Madanlal Dhingra

Madanlal Dhingra

In 1909, Madanlal Dhingra, an Indian student in England, assassinated Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, a political aide to Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India. According to Sankar Ghose, “Winston Churchill regarded Dhingra’s last words “as the finest made in the name of patriotism…”[20] Gandhi had a completely different opinion of Dhingra: “It is not merely wine or bhang that makes one drunk, a mad idea can also do so… Dhingra was a patriot, but his love was blind. He gave his body in a wrong way, its ultimate result can only be mischevious.”[21] Gandhi, a man so religious that his last words after being shot by an assassin were “Hē Ram (Oh God),”[22] was absolutely opposed to violence in any form, for any objective, which makes it all the more surprising that terrorism today is most often tied to extreme religious views. In his own way, Gandhi was an extremist, but he was an extremist who used and advocated extremes of peace and love to achieve what he considered just ends. Today’s religious extremists are not so different from Gandhi, in that they go to extremes to ensure that their views are made known. In fact, Osama bin Laden’s goals were not that different from Gandhi’s.

In 1991, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, prompting a coalition force of Middle Eastern and Western nations (including the United States) to engage in military operations in defense of Kuwait. Military operations began on January 16th, 1991 with air and missile attacks on targets in both Kuwait and Iraq. After an unavoidable ground war, Iraqi forces were put into full retreat. On February 27th, 43 days later, President Bush declared a suspension of offensive combat. During the war, Saudi Arabia was used as a launching point for allied offensives against Iraq.[23] After the war ended, the US presence in Saudi Arabia remained, further outraging some religious conservatives that consider Saudi Arabia to be the holiest of Islamic lands, being home to both Mecca, where the Ka’aba resides, and Medina where the Prophet Muhammad established the first Muslim community. The Ka’aba is the center of the Muslim world. Muslims believe that the Ka’aba was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. One of the five pillars of Islam is pilgrimage to Mecca, to circumambulate the Ka’aba.[24]

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

Among those angered by the continued presence of US troops on Saudi soil was Osama bin Laden, head of the Al Qaeda network. On August 3rd, 1995, he issued a message called “an Open Letter to King Fahd,” outlining grievances against the Saudi monarchy, notably calling for a guerilla campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia. In July 10, 1996, a British newspaper (The Independent) quoted bin Laden as saying that Saudi Arabia had become an American colony. He also stated that the real enemy of the Saudi people is America. In August of 1996, bin Laden issued a document known as the “Declaration of War Against the Americans Who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” The two holy mosques he references are Mecca’s Ka’aba in Saudi Arabia, where US troops were stationed, and Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. Osama bin Laden considered Israel to be a US puppet regime, so fault for occupying Jerusalem was transferred to the United States. In a CNN interview in 1997, bin Laden began to solidify his message with demands that may sound familiar to anyone familiar with India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. He said:

We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation…. For this and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the US, because in our religion it is our duty to make jihad so that God’s word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries…. The country of the Two Holy Places has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country.[25]

Almost a year later, he goes on to make the following demands:

For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. We–with God’s help–call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it… in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.[26]

Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi both had similar goals. Both felt oppressed by foreign powers who meddled in local affairs, to the detriment of the native populations, and in both cases as a result of something Gandhi warned of: the need to exploit other countries to support the industrialization of modern Western culture.

The implied conflict for the survival of civilizations and the perceived attack on religion causes some religious activists to use violence to try to bring attention to their stated goals. From Gandhi’s teachings, we know that he could have in no way supported the terrorism of today to attain independence from foreign oppression, but it is reasonable to believe that he would have empathized with Osama bin Laden’s goal.[27] When Gandhi condemned Dhingra, the Indian student who assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie, he didn’t condemn his goal; he instead called him a patriot and condemned the means he used. This is where terrorists like Osama bin Laden differ from Gandhi, in the means they use to reach their ends. The results of the two methods have been drastically different. Where India gained the sympathy of the world and won her independence through Satyagraha, Osama bin Laden’s use of violence has escalated out of control. Osama bin Laden himself has met a foul end and the Middle East has not been freed of foreign influence.

Gandhi believed that violence created a cycle, saying “Who lives by the sword must perish by the sword, and if the Asiatic peoples take up the sword, they in their turn will succumb to a more powerful adversary.”[28] That teaching is just as applicable today as it was during his fight with the British. In 1998, when the US launched retaliatory missile strikes on Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, the attack “provoked a new round of terrorist bombing plots.”[29] The attacks also increased bin Laden’s image as an underdog and damaged the United States’ international reputation. In July of 2002, an Israeli plane bombed the home of Hamas leader Sheik Salah Shehada, wounding 140 people and killing 11 people, 7 of which were children. Another Hamas leader, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, responded by opening up targeting of terrorist attacks to all Israelis, including women and children.[30] Violent actions only led to an escalation of the level of violence employed by each side. The only way to ‘win’ is by breaking the chain of violence. An example is the 1998 Omagh bombing by a fringe element called the “Real IRA”. The bombing occurred during peace talks that would stop the violence in Northern Ireland. Rather than retaliate with more acts of violence, the guilty parties were arrested and tried using the existing legal system.[31]

So, what is the solution for stopping violence in the Middle East today? Rather than dealing with the symptoms of terrorism, the violent actions, the US should instead tackle the source of the problem. Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005 understood this and “spoke about the necessity of dealing with the social and economic grievances that fueled the anti-American disaffection in the Middle East and elsewhere as a way of undercutting al Qaeda support.”[32] Colin Powell was expressing an idea that Gandhi emphasized himself, in regards to responding to terrorism. Gandhi described Dhingra, the Indian student who assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie as being like a drunkard, caught in a “mad idea.” It’s that mad idea that we need to tackle: the belief in the Middle East that the United States is incapable of good and morally unambiguous behavior.

The first step is to stop responding to violence with violence. Violent action only succeeds in causing the conflict to escalate. That’s not to say that nothing should be done in the face of violent terrorist attacks. Even Gandhi didn’t believe in inaction.[33] Gandhi believed that no one had a complete view of the truth and the very existence of a conflict was the proof. He believed that every conflict was an “encounter between differing “angles of vision” illuminating the same truth.”[34] The key, then, is to take the moral high ground and understand that a response of violence will be satisfying in the short term, but will yield no real results.

The second step to solving the problem would be to address the problem of public opinion of the United States in the Islamic countries. After many years of duplicitous behavior on the part of the United States, finding a way to positively engage the Islamic community may be difficult without inciting suspicion and distrust, so it would be a gradual progress, in much the same way that Satyagraha was a gradual progress. The first efforts would have to be in areas that are politically and religiously neutral, such as providing medical care, basic literacy education in English and Arabic, building homes for the homeless, and acting in advisory capacities for social programs that would address other needs of the country. It’s a small step, but small steps add up and 30 years of providing education to the poor will mean more to them than bombing their fields to smoke out suspected terrorists. Additionally, we could take the biggest step towards having a friendly relationship with Islamic countries by respecting their sovereignty and allowing the people to determine their own futures through their own elected governments. Additionally, we could remove the US troop presence from Islamic countries and allow the people to fight for and affect their own social reforms. That would mean more to them than having the reforms handed to them with the help of Westerners. As Gandhi said, lasting change has to come from within.

One of Gandhi’s favorite quotes from Tolstoy sums up this policy best:

…if we would but get off the backs of our neighbours the world would be quite all right without any further help from us. And if we can only serve our immediate neighbors by ceasing to prey upon them, the circle of unities thus grouped in the right fashion will ever grow in circumference till at last it is conterminous with that of the whole world.[35]


[1] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 1, p. 3.
[2] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 6, p. 77.
[3] Ibid., p. 79.
[4] Ibid., p. 78.
[5] Ibid., p. 81.
[6] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[7] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 15, p. 59.
[8] Ibid., Chapter 4, p. 10.
[9] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[10] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 7, p. 102.
[11] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[12] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 22, p. 249.
[13] Ibid., Terror in the Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 229.
[14] Ibid., Chapter 4, p. 70.
[15] Ibid.
[16] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 171, pp. 364-365.
[17] “Introduction to Islam”, describes Islam as a comprehensive way of life.
[18] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 18, p. 220.
[19] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror In The Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 233.
[20] Sankar Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Chapter 10, p. 98.
[21] Ibid.
[22] “Gandhi’s last words not ‘Hey Ram’: book”.
[23] “1991 Gulf War chronology”.
[24] Rosemary Pennington, “What Is The Ka’aba?”.
[25] Osama bin Laden, “Osama bin Laden v. the U.S.”.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 10, pp. 132-134.
[28] Ibid., Chapter 5, p. 71.
[29] Barbara Elias, “1998 Missile Strikes on Bin Laden May Have Backfired”.
[30] James Bennet, “A Hamas Chieftain Dies When Israelis Attack His Home”.
[31] Henry McDonald, “Four Real IRA leaders found liable for Omagh bombing”.
[32] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, Chapter 11, p. 234.
[33] Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” p. 4.
[34] Ibid., p. 3.
[35] M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Chapter 46, p. 112.


Works Cited

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>”1991 Gulf War chronology.” 3 September 1996. USA Today World. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Bennet, James. “A Hamas Chieftain Dies When Israelis Attack His Home.” 23 July 2002. The New York Times: World. Web. 23 January 2012. .
bin Laden, Osama. “Osama Bin Laden V. The U.S.: Edicts And Statements.” n.d. PBS Frontline. Web. 17 January 2012.
Elias, Barbara. “1998 Missile Strikes on Bin Laden May Have Backfired.” 20 August 2008. The George Washington University: The National Security Archive. Web. 22 January 2012.
Gandhi, M. K. Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). New York: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
Gandhi, Mahatma. The Essential Gandhi. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2002. Print.
“Gandhi’s last words not ‘Hey Ram’:book.” 29 January 2008. hindustantimes: news. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Ghose, Sankar. Mahatma Gandhi. Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1991. Print.
“Introduction to Islam.” 2000. Web. 22 January 2012. .
Juergensmeyer, Mark. “Gandhi vs. Terrorism.” 2007. Mark Juergensmeyer: Global Studies, UCSB. Web. 16 January 2012. .
—. Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.
McDonald, Henry. “Four Real IRA leaders found liable for Omagh bombing.” 8 June 2009. The Guardian. Web. 23 January 2012.
Pennington, Rosemary. “What Is The Ka’aba?” 22 October 2008. Web. 22 January 2012. .

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8 Comments on "Ghandhi & Terrorism: Tackling the “Mad Idea”"

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Bradley Farless
As for the groups you believe are lobbying for Shariah law in Western countries, how is it any different from the Catholic lobby, or the anti-abortion lobby, etc.? How is it fundamentally worse for it to be a lobby based on Islamic traditions than one based on Catholic traditions, or Protestant traditions? Shariah law is not an unchanging, monolithic institution, and even if it were, the mere fact that it lobbies (for the sake of argument) for shariah law, or aspects of it, to be introduced in Western law, doesn't mean it will happen. Like any other law, it would… Read more »
Bradley Farless
I agree with what you said in your first paragraph. During the last hundred years of the Ottoman Empire's reign, reforms were initiated to modernize Islamic governance, including a secularization of the legal system. One thing that sticks out in my mind is that the punishment of death for apostasy was removed in 1844. I believe the jizya (poll tax for non believers) was removed as well, and all people were given status as equals, regardless of faith. Tax reforms were attempted, but didn't quite take hold due to the resistance of provincial social climbers not wanting to lose their… Read more »
Bradley Farless
Hi ed. Thanks for dropping by. I read 2 books of Gandhi's writings and an autobiography for this class and for writing this paper. If you want, I could find a citation for you, for the direct quote/page number but I remember Gandhi specifically addressing this many times before India gained independence. He said what you said, that India has absorbed waves of immigrants before and that they'd become part of India. He said that India's issue was not with the British being in India, but with the British ruling India. He said that the British would be welcome to… Read more »
I think the day people stop talking about how badly people(terrorists) reacted, and begin to ask what have we done to incite it, then the solution would be just around the corner. That said, Gandhi was quite the 'Great Soul', but i'd say he screwed up in evicting the British on the basis of their not being Indian. If one was to think about it, the British could very well have been Indian in terms of contributing to and learning from what was present in India. Throughout history, 'Indians' have fused with outsiders. That is India, and Indian. The product… Read more »
Bradley Farless

Thanks for your comments. I'll reply in depth when I have a bit more time. This is the busy part of my week. =)


You might also be interested in this: operation bojinka

The plan that is earily similar to 9/11 was foiled in the Philippines. Makes me think that the Feds probably did not take it seriously. They had 6 years to foil it.


One more thought though: On secularism, I believe it is pretty much a good thing. I don't think it means removing religion/faith from one's life but rather merely separating them from politics. I am in the opinion that the two shouldn't be mixed but unlike many I don't think it is religion that poisons politics but otherwise. I think the evil here is politics, not religion per se. There are countries that are not “religious” yet plagued with corruption, racism, and sexism.

The problem with neo-secularism is that there are people using it to justify their “moral relativism”(your truth, my truth)

I believe that people like OBL fears more than the US or West but the common people on the Islamic world to be “awaken” to modern values. The only way for the Islamic world to survive is to adapt to “modern values” — universal values that not only the West have but basically every country not living under the rock, that includes “secular Muslim” countries. Many clerics and politicians in the MENA do not want their citizens to be enlightened; therefore efforts in “helping educating them”(assuming that is government to government) will not be effective. You cannot reach out to… Read more »