Popularly known as the “Muslim Gandhi,” Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) led hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns in nonviolent resistance to the oppressive British colonizers in India, suffering greatly as a result. For him, nonviolence was integral to any authentic practice of Islam:
“There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke” (quoted in Johansen, Robert C. “Radical Islam and Nonviolence: A Case Study of Religious Empowerment and Constraint among Pashtuns” in Journal of Peace Research [vol. 34 no. 1: 1997], 60).
Khan appears as Mohatma Ghandi’s loyal confederate in the 1982 Richard Attenborough classic, Gandhi (played by Dilsher Singh) but his story is largely untold in Western lore. He was a principled leader-by-example who spent nearly thirty years as a political prisoner and whose followers suffered hundreds of fatalities as the British occupiers tried in vain to provoke them to violence. So why is Ghaffar Khan relatively obscure in the Western narrative of Islam? Why do warlords, terrorists, tyrants, and freedom fighters dominate the image so many of us have of Muslims? Part of the answer might be that the Powers That Be are sustained by the concept of a militant Islam, an identifiable Enemy, a violent Other. Politics of fear, theologies of scarcity, and narratives of adversity help to entrench various powers at the expense of a holistic picture of Islam. Robert Johansen, of Notre Dame’s Kroch Institute for International Peace Studies, writes:
“Political and religious leaders interested in maintaining their own power take no interest in reminding people that [Khan’s resistance movement] existed, because if enough people knew about their successful deeds against the odds, similar deeds might happen again: People might be faithful to a new understanding of their religious tradition, act boldly for liberation, reject the violent modes of action and leadership that benefit elites while injuring common people, and transcend narrow identities that both political leadership and institutionalized religion have fundamentally encouraged” (Johansen 68).
Ghaffar Khan will never be beatified in American civil religion, an institution loosely based on (Protestant) Christian ideals, American pragmatism, Enlightenment philosophies, quasi-imperialist nationalism, free-market consumerism, and historical-political revisionism, all couched in a strange mix of Christian and Constitutional vocabularies. Civil religion has many temples, not the least of which are religious sanctuaries. In fact, civil religion is one ideology which has been largely successful at transcending the denominational and political fissures in the American ecclesiological landscape (though, to be fair, not without significant resistance).
Civil religion, in its Christian instantiation, appropriates the story of the Church through the matrix of American ideals. The distinction between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be an American becomes hopelessly confused. People profess, “The Lord is my Rock and Salvation” while placing their actual faith in national militaries to earn and sustain their security and freedom. The subliminal political narrative – that to be a good Christian one must be a good American (and its more reactionary correlate, that to be a good American one must be a good Christian) is at the root of this hybrid meta-narrative which has coopted the Church’s ability to tell her own story, to form her own disciples. The first decalogical prohibition is against idolatry (Ex 20:3). Jesus warns that his followers cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24) and that not even family (Lk 14:26) can be more determinative than discipleship. Paul concludes that for those baptized into the Church, the dividing lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender are dissolved (Gal 3:28). Faith, hope, and love – not materialism, patriotism, and culture-centrism – characterize Christians. A famed ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, provocatively illuminates the extent to which civil religion has infested American Christianity in a talk for Princeton’s Forum on Youth Ministry:
“I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:
How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1 as the ‘New Year?’ I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes ‘Mother’s Day?’ I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt” (retrieved from Vox Nova).
The soteriological effects of blending of American and Christian language, history, and ideals are beside the point of this article. Rather, there is another problem. American pluralism is based on a pragmatic conversation in which people representing diverse perspectives gather to share their views, each helping one another to adjust, clarify, and grow through this interaction (cf. Mouffe, Chantal . The Democratic Paradox [New York: Verso, 2000], 91). The more authentically Christian the Church can remain, the more she can contribute to the pluralistic discourse which shapes American life. The less American religious institutions mimic national ideals and the more they are guided by what is good, holy, and prophetic in their rich traditions, the more both the Church and the State will benefit. Civil religion engenders and endorses cultural enmity like the rift between “Islam” and “the West;” authentic religion celebrates adherents like Ghaffar Khan and transcends the rivalries upon which the Powers That Be depend.