Prof. pits Gandhi against bin Laden

By Cal Colgan |
Illustration by Hahau Yisrael
Dr. James Rowell couldn’t disagree more with Osama bin Laden’s methods, but he thinks it’s important that we study their popularity.

Rowell, assistant professor of religion at Flagler College, completed his dissertation on Mohandas Gandhi and nonviolence in 2002, a year after al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The stark contrast between Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and bin Laden’s platform of religious terrorism prompted him to write his book, “Gandhi and Bin Laden: Religion at the Extremes.”

Rowell said he wants people to understand that religion does not always escalate the world’s problems. “I don’t see religion as something that’s static or fixed,” he said. “It really acts more like a catalyst—it can excite the good in you and it can potentially be used for great evil.”

Rowell is concerned about the growing trend of using religion for violence, especially with the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East. He said that Islam traditionally distinguishes between “greater jihad”, the “moral struggle to be a better Muslim” from “lesser jihad”, the battle against an outside force. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Rowell said, have abandoned the intent of greater jihad.

“They have unfortunately succeeded in inverting the guts of Islam, so that instead of becoming a religion which is about peace and essentially affirming defensive violence and justice, . . . they’ve turned it into something that advocates this campaign of endless war,” he said.

But not all in the Muslim world embrace bin Laden’s message. In his book, Rowell writes about Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the devout Pashtun Muslim who, like Gandhi, led a nonviolent resistance movement against British colonialism in India. However, Rowell thinks the contributions of nonviolent Muslims have been eclipsed by the depiction of Islam in the media.

“There have been Muslims who have spoken out (against Islamic fundamentalism) . . ., but they don’t seem to get a lot of media attention,” he said.

The negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media has extended to American culture. Rowell acknowledges that while the academic world might understand the peaceful intentions of traditional Islam, few middle and lower class Americans know anything about the religion other than what the newscasters say about them.

“We’re not very educated about it yet,” he said. “Your average person working a 9-5 job . . . they’re tired. They want to watch T.V., perhaps relax with the family. They’re not going to necessarily pick up the Qur’an and start educating themselves about Islam.”

But Rowell thinks that we need to start educating people about Islam and other religions in order to build an understanding of their teachings and to foster religious tolerance.

“I wish we didn’t have so much fear and reticence to even introduce world religions in high school,” he said. “I think if we did that more commonly, people would know more about Islam and they would know more about even Christianity and Judaism. And I think you can do that in a way that doesn’t privilege one religion over the others.”

Both the Western world and the Islamic world, Rowell said, are guilty of the violence that stems from religious intolerance and a lack of understanding about each other’s culture. Apart from educating our youth about the Middle East and Islam, Rowell also thinks political leaders of both Western and Middle Eastern countries should stop making bigoted statements about each other’s beliefs.

“We cannot make the mistake of asserting that, ‘I come from this religious heritage’ — Proposition A, Proposition B: ‘This heritage is true without flaw,’ and then Proposition C: ‘Everybody else is damned to hell,'” he said.

While the violence of religious extremism poses a threat to cultural understanding, Rowell has hope that this century will see more people like Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan, who helped to free their people through passive resistance.

“Guns are not the only power in this world. The power of the nonviolent message, the power of the prophetic figure who stands up there and preaches truth, or preaches love, . . . tries to do so in a way that reconciles conflict or tries to heal wounds — there still is an awful lot of power in that.”

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