Published in Open Democracy e-zine
The legacy of this hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism is especially relevant today in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.
Last Wednesday’s massacre at the Badshah Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar in Pakistan, is the latest in a long list of attacks on the country’s educational institutions and poignantly underscores the ideological polarisation that lies at the heart of the Taliban’s ‘war on education’ and their threats this week of more attacks to come.
Like many westerners, I had never heard of the university’s namesake, Abdel Gaffar Badshah Khan (1890 – 1988), until last July when I published an ‘investigative poem’ about him by Heathcote Williams.
I was to discover that, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Khan is a legendary figure – a Muslim hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism and, with his friend and comrade Mahatma Gandhi, a vigorous opponent of the sectarian hatred and violence which continues to this day. Khan was to establish a 100,000-strong “unarmed army” of male and female “peace warriors” – a unique event in human history.
Khan was also a great believer in the power of education and, in an improbably progressive gesture, founded a girls’ school in Utmanzai in 1910 when he was only 20 years old. “If you wish to know how civilized a culture is,” Williams reports him as saying, “look at how they treat their women”. Williams relates how Khan urged women to come out from behind the veil:
My sisters, you are today oppressed because men/ Have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet./ In the Holy Qur’an you have an equal share with men./ If you study history you will see that there are/ Many scholars and poets among women./ Today we are the followers of custom/ And we oppress you./ It is a grave mistake we have made in degrading women…
How different this message is to that of the Pakistani Taliban who ordered every girls’ school in the Swat valley to close when they seized control of the area in 2009. Declaring education to be the “nursery of the evil, democratic system”, the group attacked 838 schools between 2009-2012, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Violence against scholars has continued with the December 2014 massacre of 132 school children at their desks at the Army School in Peshawar, and last week’s rampage at the university which cost at least 50 students and teachers their lives.
He was repeatedly jailed and tortured but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance.
Badshah Khan’s legacy as a champion of education – as well as non-violence – continues to inspire new generations of the region’s Muslims and informed the foundation of the Badshah Khan Educational Trust in Peshawar in 2007 and the university in 2012.
Addressing the UN in 2013, Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, cited Badshah Khan, along with Gandhi and Mother Theresa, as the source of her beliefs and sense of mission. “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” Malala said. “The power of education frightens them.”
Last summer, I spoke to the Badshah Khan Educational Trust’s director, Khadim Hussein, to discuss the possibility of a translation of Williams’s poem. He was full of joy and enthusiasm as he described the trust’s rapid expansion from just two schools to twelve. With the media full of the ultra-violent Islamic State’s declaration of a ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, and sectarian warfare tearing the region apart, he expressed his delight that Williams’s poem would remind readers that Islam is not synonymous with extremism and barbarity. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are appalled by the extremists’ savagery.
This week, Hussein was in deep shock after the “horrible wickedness” that stole so many young lives and sought to destroy the hope and ambition of Pakistan’s 27 million school age children. He commented on the dreadful paradox that “this violence that has been perpetrated on the land of the icon of non-violence, Badshah Khan” but remained quietly defiant: “Nobody can move us one inch by any kind of violent act from the ideals and practice of non-violence,” he said.
First the British colonialists and, after partition, the Pakistani government realised the power of Badshah Khan’s belief, shared by Gandhi, that “anger controlled/ Can be transmuted into a power/Which can move the world.” On one occasion, Khan’s unarmed ‘peace army’ was attacked by British soldiers during a demonstration, resulting in 400 deaths but they did not disband. Khan himself was repeatedly jailed and tortured – the last time at the age of 95 – but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance. “The finest weapons of the Prophet,” Williams reports Khan as saying, “are patience and righteousness”.
It is this kind of courage in the face of persecution, this simple belief in a just cause, that, one hopes, will ultimately prevail as the brave educators and students of Peshawar resume ‘business as usual’.
As Badshah Khan always used to say at the end of his speeches to the hundreds of thousands who flocked to hear him: “Stre mashe – may you never grow tired.”
Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior by Heathcote Williams is published by Thin Man Press and is available from all good bookshops and online ISBN 978-0-9930141-2-3