Gandhi, bin Laden and the Global Chessboard

By Anjum Altaf

The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.”  The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed?

Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention.

The word ‘precursor’ suggests clearly that it is the contextual similarity that prompts Lelyveld’s remark. To spell it out: the existence of a foreign oppressor; the emerging resistance to the oppression; the impotence of lawful resistance; the transition to mass agitation; its reliance on the wellsprings of religious humiliation; the ensuing conflict; and the resulting blowback.

The two scenarios can be described in brief. Gandhi was central to the struggle against the colonialism of the British who had no intention to cede control till such time as Indians were ‘made ready’ for self-governance. Up until the 1920s the campaign for reforms was conducted in an exemplary constitutional manner within the rules of the game and inside legislative institutions by leaders following in the steps of Dadabhoy Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The British refused to yield any ground to the moderates destroying their credibility and paving the way for “extremists” (in relative terms) who took the struggle outside the legislative institutions. The leadership transitioned to Gandhi who rallied popular opposition by espousing the religious grievances of Indian Muslims distressed at the end of World War I by the fate of Turkey, the Caliphate, and the holy places. This popular opposition was combined with agitational methods relying on civil disobedience that was intended to remain non-violent. As it turned out, it was not this opposition that made the British leave; rather it was their exhaustion at the end of World War II. But the politics of religion came back to haunt British India with communal strife and the death of a million of its own citizens.

Fast forward a quarter century from the 1920s. World War II put an end to colonialism that relied on physical presence in the colonies but not to colonialism itself. Neo-colonialism relied on the imposition of local strongmen in newly independent countries to achieve the same purposes. This model, perfected in Latin America with men like Stroessner, Duvalier, Somoza and Noriega, reducing independent countries to banana republics, came to Asia in 1953 with the American intervention in Iran and nurtured surrogates like the Shah, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and House of Saud; Islam, it was claimed, was not ready for democracy. No amount of struggle within the institutions of the United Nations survived the veto to make a meaningful dent in ensuring a voice for the oppressed. Popular leaders were eliminated to the point where the US Congress had to legislate against political assassination as an instrument of foreign policy. The transition to extremism followed, first of Al-Fatah, then Hamas and finally of bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, tapping again into the feelings of religious humiliation. Yet again, this extremism failed to redress the balance of power but engendered deadly sectarian and factional conflicts within the oppressed societies.

It is cause for thought that two men as dissimilar as Gandhi and bin Laden – the first so multi-dimensional, introspective, experimental, questioning, self-made; the second so one-dimensional, dogmatic, fanatical, a Frankenstein monster – were crowned with central roles in dramas that shared so many similarities. What was it that pulled such contrasting personalities into becoming the carriers of similar functional imperatives?

The big issue is clearly the nature of power in our world. We are locked into a configuration of nation-states where ‘national’ interest justifies exploitation of others and confers legitimacy on acts outside national borders that would not be tolerated inside them. And we are also locked into a mode of governance in which lawfully permitted means of protest are impotent in the struggle for change. The resistance inevitably transitions to extremism with, more often than not, terrible consequences for the protesters themselves.

One example of this is Iran where the American intervention in 1953 fatally skewed the development trajectory of the country sealing the fate of generations of Iranians. It cost the American military-industrial complex nothing more than a two-line apology more than half-a-century later. Such a small price is not a sufficient deterrent to exploitation and the abuse of power. Khomeini (and Iranian nuclear aspirations) emerged out of this intervention and exploitation just as bin Laden emerged out of the prolonged exploitation and stifling of popular aspirations by the Americans in the Middle East and the intervention by the Soviets in Afghanistan.

What are the consequences of such a morality of power and what do they portend for the future? Clearly, nothing of significance has changed. While the ‘rogue state’ label is used to denigrate rivals in the way of national interest, it seems hard to dispute that all states with disproportionate power, globally or locally, are rogue states of sorts. Is there any assurance that when India and China emerge as powerful global players, they would not pursue their national interests in exactly the same manner?

And while World War II put an end to British hegemony, what would it take to put an end to American power to which bin Laden proved to be a mere irritant? It is perhaps this frustrating question that provides an explanation for the chord that bin Laden struck across the social spectrum in the Muslim world despite the disputation by most of his unacceptable ways. Bin Laden is dead but the status quo in the global balance of power and neocolonialism survive. What reason is there to expect an end of the resistance to oppression? And what form would it take after Al-Qaeda is swept aside?  Who will be to bin Laden what Subhas Chandra Bose was to Gandhi?

These are important questions that beg attention in the early days of Arab revolutions yet to determine the course for the future. Would there be opportunities to redefine the balance of power or would there be a drift to yet more extremism and another global conflict?  What is the act in the drama that follows bin Laden? Can we only stand and wait?

The discussion is continued in a subsequent post, Gandhi and bin Laden: Further Thoughts.


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13 Responses to “Gandhi, bin Laden and the Global Chessboard”

  1. Vinod Says:

    Is there any assurance that when India and China emerge as powerful global players, they would not pursue their national interests in exactly the same manner?

    I have no doubt that India and China will be as violent, hypocritical and unscrupulous as the US and Europe are if they do become superpowers. China is already playing that game in Africa making mining and oil deals with autocratic repressive regimes. Indians already show contempt for the poor and minorities, even within their own borders. Power tends to be blinding and intoxicating. Democracy in India is as deep as beauty in a woman. Indians benefiting from the economic boom already show a strong preference for authoritanism. India will have no moral qualms in supporting authoritarian regimes outside its borders. It will have no problems giving pious homilies about democracy in the international arena. We’re already doing that while putting up the sham of democracy within our borders. The indoctrinating nationalism of Indians will support the insensitivity towards people outside the borders.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vinod: Yes, this is what seems likely. Does that mean that ‘civilization’ is also skin-deep, that we remain at the stage where knowingly destroying the other to promote our interest is normal and acceptable? The kind of colonialism and neocolonialism we are discussing are very much related to capitalism (e.g., one would not classify Alexander’s excursion into India as colonialism – what were his motivations?) and so the focus has to be on the underpinnings of capitalism and the capitalist drive. In that context, perhaps we can discuss the new book by Sulak Sivaraksa, The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, in which he claims that ‘Globalization is a demonic religion imposing materialistic values and a new form of colonialism’:

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: This link will take you to a thoughtful perspective. We know that the present order is not right but we are not sure what can replace it. I think that is a fair conclusion:,_the_opium_of_the_professoriate

      • Vinod Says:

        Thanks for sharing that link. I get the point of that post and I agree with it. I’m reticent of adopting grand theories and revolutions and believe more in incremental improvements. We have over time come to underestimate the value of small good improvements to the current order.

  2. Vikram Says:

    It is tempting to make this comparison between Bin Laden and Gandhi but as you yourself point out, they represent two completely perpendicular responses to a quasi-similar situation.

    I would actually think that Bin Laden could perhaps be compared to Subhash Bose, although Bose raised an army to fight the British forces in India, not target innocents in Britain.

    So I would say that it remains to be seen whether a Gandhi emerges in the Muslim world.

    I must say that you are somewhat generalizing the politics in the Islamic world. Take for example Pakistan, there was no US imposition there. In fact, the US was courted by authoritarian and democratic leaders to combat India. No doubr, US foreign policy has a lot to answer for, but the blame cannot be laid entirely at its doorstep.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: The following observations can advance the discussion:

      1. The intriguing point is precisely this that two personalities as different as bin Laden and Gandhi were thrust into similar roles. This suggests an alternative perspective on history – that historical imperatives trigger particular responses and individuals emerge to carry them out. The denial of moderation forced the transition to extremism. If it had not been Gandhi or bin Laden, some other individuals would have represented that transition. The focus on personalities is misplaced; the underlying forces are what matter.

      2. Bose did not need to target anyone in Britain because the colonialists were occupying India – that was the difference between the old and the new forms of colonialism. It is a moot point whether Bose would have targeted innocent Britishers in India. One can only say that Bose had aligned himself with the Japanese who were not known to spare innocents in their own colonial initiatives, e.g., the Rape of Nanjing. In addition, the technology did not exist in those days to target distant targets. However, it would be of interest to read up on the Ghadr Party whose members were deported from Canada and California for “political terrorism” – a sort of secular Al-Qaeda?

      3. Given the role assigned to Gandhi by this reading of history – that of initiating the agitational politics of religion – it is not clear what one means by the emergence of a Gandhi in the Muslim world.

      4. The assertion is not that the blame is one-sided. Rather, the argument is that we are in a world where anything is legitimate in the promotion of ‘national interest.’ In the era of neocolonialism, big powers are looking for local gendarmes to advance their interests. In some places they find them more easily than in others. The local gendarmes who sell out are equal partners in the exploitation. If the US was courted by democratic leaders in Pakistan to combat India, the US could have refused – that would have happened in an alternate world order in which considerations of morality and human welfare carried more weight.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell Says:

    I find it silly or at least fruitless to contemplate the possibility of a “Gandhi in the Muslim world,” given his inimitable nature. On the other hand, it is not silly, indeed, it is important to consider the history and prospects of nonviolent action in the Middle East and the Muslim world generally, about which there are a number of reliable books one might consult:

    Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003.

    Awad, Mubarak. Nonviolent Resistance in the Middle East. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1985.

    Awad, Mubarak E. and R. Scott Kennedy. Nonviolent Struggle in the Middle East. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publ., 1985.

    Barghouti, Omar. BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions–The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011.

    Crow, Ralph E. Philip Grant and Saad E. Ibrahim, eds. Arab Nonviolent Political Struggle in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990.

    Easwaran, Eknath. A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Kahn, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1984.

    King, Mary Elizabeth. A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance. New York: Nation Books, 2007.

    Nusseibeh, Sari. What is a Palestinian State Worth? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    Ring, Kenneth, with Ghassan Abdullah. Letters from Palestine: Palestinians Speak Out about Their Lives, Their Country, and the Power of Nonviolence. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010.

    Said, Abdul Aziz, et al., eds. Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: Precept and Practice. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001.

    Stephan, Maria J., ed. Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    One might also want to read these two articles:

    “The Missing Mahatma,” by Gershom Gorenberg, The Weekly Standard – April 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28, and

    “Palestinian nonviolence relies on global non-silence,” by Yousef Munayyer, Guardian – Friday 21 May 2010

  4. Vinod Says:

    Let’s not forget that Gandhi may not be all that difficult to find in the middle east. Gandhi was the least Indian of all Indians. He was more of a Russian orthodox Christian. I don’t remember who exactly described him like that. If Gandhi was more Semitic than Hindu then we should expect to find Gandhian attitudes in the middle east.

  5. athar murtuza Says:


    thanks for a very pertinent post. There are two topics you mentioned that could have been emphasized at great length. First the reference to Osama as a Frankenstein monster needed to be underscored. After all Saddam Hussein, Osama, and the Afghans fighting the Russians were the creation of the CIA. Even HAMAS was nourished by the Israeli occupiers.
    The other topic that needed greater space was that nation-states are being replaced by global corporations in 21st century. We should think less about a configuration of nation-states and more about how capitalism is getting more powerful by the hours in today’s “consumed” globalism.
    thanks for a good post.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Athar: The second point is a very important one and does not get the attention it deserves. Many people do mention the influence of corporations but the critical point is a different one. When the representative form of democracy emerged in Europe, there were no corporations; at best there were small owner-operated firms. Therefore, there is nothing in the theory of democracy that tell us what happens to representative government after the huge change created by the emergence of multinational corporations. Essentially the model of one-person-one-vote has been transformed into one-dollar-one-vote. And dollars are much more concentrated than persons – roughly speaking about one percent of US households hold over a quarter of the national wealth.

      Corporations still act through the nation-state – there is a revolving door between the boards of corporations and key positions in government. Thus the US government ensured that Central American countries remained tightly under control for the benefit of the fruit companies in the US. The pattern continues to hold to this day in other parts of the world – copper companies in Chile, oil companies in the Middle East, etc.

      With the recent Supreme Court decision in the US to disallow any curbs on corporate spending on elections, the scales have tipped even further. The entire model of democracy needs to be rethought to account for the existence of large corporations. In our own region, note how the facts of corporate control of politics in India are now becoming obvious to all after the recent revelations.

  6. athar murtuza Says:

    as to the possibility of finding a Gandhi in the Middle East, I suggest one ought to read up the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Those inclined to do so should avoid the versions of his biography written and promoted by the Neo-Cons, the Orientalists and the Crusaders.

    Gandhi himself extensively studied the live of the Prophet.

  7. Patrick S. O'Donnell Says:

    While Gandhi was strongly influenced by his reading of works by Tolstoy and Ruskin (among others), and while he was certainly, “like Mazzzini and Lenin, a man of action and a revolutionary in dead earnest,” I don’t think we can conclude that he was “more Semitic than Hindu” for any number of compelling reasons, among the foremost of which might be his withering critique of modern civilization as incarnate in the West and his self-description/identification as a Hindu (of the Vedantin and Vaishnava variety). His philosophy of religion was, accordingly and in most respects, very “Hindu” or at least Indian in its abstract rendering of God as Truth and in its belief in the truths incarnate in all the major world religions (the latter idea possibly indicative of the influence of Jain epistemology). Gandhi rightly considered himself a “karma yogi,” and his related conception of and commitment to dharma is clearly Hindu in character. The religious text closest to his heart was the Bhagavad Gita (even if he came to read it comparatively late in life) and one of his closest spiritual teachers, to the extent we can say he had such, was a Jain. Gandhi may have been “thoroughly imbued with Christian notions of guilt and sin” (alongside Indian notions of shame and perfectibility), but his important emphasis on the role of self-suffering or tapas, albeit with its counterpart in the West in certain Christian conceptions of vicarious atonement, strikes one as predominantly if not wholly Indian in its religious presuppositions and assumptions. And while it may be true that the fundamental utopian concepts or “Euclidean models” of his moral and political thought (satyagraha, swaraj, sarvodaya, nai talim, gram rajya, swadeshi, and ram rajya, for example) have a Tolstoyan-like quality in their emphasis on the possibility of a “Heaven on earth,” so to speak, they are all formulated in and justified by terms gleaned from Indian religio-philosophical traditions.

    One thing to bear in mind here is of course the fact that Indian religious and philosophical views, to the extent that they betray their Vedic roots, are, like the Sanskrit language itself, of Indo-European, not Afro-Semitic provenance, although these two ancient civilizational complexes engaged in some measure of cross-fertilization (hence the value of works like Barbara Holdrege’s 1995 volume, Veda and Torah, and the related conceptions of and stress on ‘purity’).

    Some interested readers may want to consult my blog post of recommended readings on the life and work of Gandhi for further exploration of ideas broached here:

  8. SouthAsian Says:

    The global chessboard pertaining to the neo-imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa is explicated in much greater detail in an article by Perry Anderson:

    It is a Must Read for understanding the reality behind much of today’s rhetoric.


    Two features have long set the Middle East and North Africa apart within the contemporary political universe. The first is the unique longevity and intensity of the Western imperial grip on the region, over the past century.

    The reasons for the exceptional degree of Euro-American vigilance and interference in the Arab world are plain. On the one hand, it is the repository of the largest concentration of oil reserves on Earth, vital for the energy-intensive economies of the West; generating a vast arc of strategic emplacements, from naval, air and intelligence bases along the Gulf, with outposts in Iraq, to deep penetration of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni and Moroccan security establishments.

    The second distinguishing feature of the Arab world has been the longevity and intensity of the assorted tyrannies that have preyed on it since formal decolonization.

    The two hallmarks of the region, its continuing domination by the American imperial system and its continuing lack of democratic institutions, have been connected. The connexion is not a simple derivation. Where democracy is reckoned any threat to capital, the United States and its allies have never hesitated to remove it, as the fates of Mossadegh, Arbenz, Allende or currently Aristide illustrate. Conversely, where autocracy is essential, it will be well guarded.

    The following article by Nouriel Roubini can be read as the economic counterpoint to the political analysis by Perry Anderson. It highlights the unstable state of the current balance of power and why we can expect more conflict in the future as nation-states pursue contrary goals:

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