Remembering the original 9/11

I’m guest-blogging about the Satyagraha centenary today at modal minority, a blog focused on the culture of the Global South. Please visit.
Modal Minority was taken down. For archival purposes, here’s the text of my essay.

Satyagraha literally means insistence on truth. This insistence arms the votary with matchless power. […] Such a universal force necessarily makes no distinction between kinsmen and strangers, young and old, man and woman, friend and foe. The force to be so applied can never be physical. There is in it no room for violence. The only force of universal application can, therefore, be that of ahimsa or love. […] Love does not burn others, it burns itself.
–M. K. Gandhi, “Some Rules of Nonviolence” (1931), in Non-Violent Resistance, Shocken Books, New York, 1961

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Satyagraha movement [popups] at a meeting of delegates from the Indian community of Transvaal Province, South Africa. The events of September 11, 2001 pale in significance next to the birth of the movement that led to the liberation of India, the end of legal segregation in the United States, and so many other successful and ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice around the world.

One of the striking things about Gandhi’s speech to the assembly on the original 9/11 was its ecumenism. Speaking as a lawyer in favor of a proposal that each Indian should take a solemn oath of resistance against a new, racist ordinance, he stated that “We all believe in one and the same God, the differences of nomenclature in Hinduism and Islam notwithstanding. To pledge ourselves or to take an oath in the name of that God or with him as witness is not something to be trifled with.” (M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, tr. from the Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1928)

The courage of those Indian Africans on September 11, 1906 and thereafter consisted not simply in their refusal to bow to a repressive colonial regime, but also in their willingness to forgo the false comforts of moral absolutism. To commit to nonviolence means, among other things, that one remains open to dialogue. One appeals to one’s opponent as a thinking, feeling human being — much more risky to one’s own sense of righteousness and security than simply blowing him up.

It might also be worth remembering how little credence the young M. K. Gandhi gave to the non-rational side of moral conviction. Were it not for popular beliefs to the contrary, he felt, an individual’s sincere pledge should be worth just as much as an oath before God. But one uses whatever language seems most convincing to oneself and others in order to invest one’s words with the force of one’s full intention: Gandhi’s neologism satyagraha combined satya, truth, and agraha, firmness.

Gandhi’s later writings would stress the importance of discipline and self-sacrifice. But his behavior at the September 11th meeting demonstrates the importance of imagination as well as self-abnegation. He had not gone to the meeting with any idea that a mass pledge of resistance might come out of it, but when another delegate suggested it, he immediately recognized its potential to alter the political landscape and spoke out strongly in its favor. A lesser leader might have reacted with caution, sensing a threat to his own power from a rival’s suggestion.

The original 9/11 does have a slight resonance with the events of the same day in 2001. The assembly was convened at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, and quite by accident, the theatre burned to the ground the very next day. “On the third day friends brought me the news of the fire and congratulated the community upon this good omen, which signified to them that Ordinance would meet the same fate as the theatre,” Gandhi wrote. “I have never been influenced by such so-called signs and therefore do not attach any weight to the coincidence.” But he was pragmatic enough to recognize the galvanizing influence of the fire on the imaginations of his countrymen.

Can nonviolent action or reasoned dialogue ever prevail against fanaticism? I know of little else that can. Killing fanatics simply breeds more fanaticism. For a good contemporary example of Satyagraha in action, one need look no farther than Yemen, where public theological dialogues have been helping to keep a lid on violent extremism, according the Christian Science Monitor [popups]:

“If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle,” Hitar told the militants. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.”

The prisoners eagerly agreed.

Now, two years later, not only have those prisoners been released, but a relative peace reigns in Yemen. And the same Western experts who doubted this experiment are courting Hitar, eager to hear how his “theological dialogues” with captured Islamic militants have helped pacify this wild and mountainous country […}

Critical to the Yemeni mullah’s success has been his willingness to listen and to submit to the give-and-take of real dialogue; these are not the shouting matches that pass for debates on American television, I gather. Yemen is hardly what one would call a peaceful society, but it is a society where rhetorical skill is prized almost as highly as martial prowess. In rural Yemen, negotiations to end or stave off violent disputes are often couched in spontaneously composed verses of complex structure known as zamil; exchanges of gunfire often give way to exchanges of poems (see Steven C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe, University of California Press, 1990).

So in a sense, though they are probably about equally violent, Yemen may be a more fertile ground for Satyagraha-type experiments than a strongly anti-intellectual, entertainment-dominated society like that of the United States. A gifted orator like Martin Luther King, Jr. can only inspire people to action as long as they are able and willing to listen and think and debate. The terms of political discourse in this country have become so impoverished, and the climate so polarized, it’s hard to see how any but demagogues could make their voices heard. Collective acts of remembrance, such as the 9/11/2001 commemorations, occur against a backdrop of profound collective amnesia, with the result that the centenary of the original September 11 goes virtually unmentioned anywhere outside India. It will be interesting to see if any other national politicians join Rep. John Lewis on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial today for the Day of Peace celebration.

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