In Iran, Gandhism Comes of Age? – A WSJ Article That Neither Gets Gandhi Nor Iran

The Wall Street Journal published an article by Steven Waldman titled In Iran, Gandhism Comes Of Age.  The Wall Street Journal informs us that Steven Waldman is the Editor-in-Chief, President & Co-Founder of, a faith and spirituality website.

This is an interesting article and one that should be read. We liked reading this article. Unfortunately, we came away with the conviction that Mr. Waldman neither understands Gandhi nor the current upheaval in Iran. In this article, we tell why we think so.

The “Comes of Age” part of the article’s title comes from Mr. Waldman’s belief that the Gandhism was dependent on the “widespread dissemination of information about atrocities through mass media.” That is why his initial  paragraph states “Indeed, the digital age — when every phone is a camera and a telegraph — makes Gandhism far more potent than it was when he was alive. Truth is, Gandhi’s approach was not well suited to his time.”

It is undeniable that Gandhi made brilliant use of the media capabilities available to him. But, Mr. Waldman is overly simplistic and confuses tactics for core strategy. He should recall that Gandhi’s struggle in India began in remote, deeply rural Champaranya and his successes came in persuading the deeply poor Indians all over the country to rise against the British. But, more on this later. 

We include some excerpts from Mr. Waldman’s article below:

  • Gandhi’s approach was not just about the non-violent action, it was about eliciting an unjust, violent reaction. It was not about avoiding suffering of the people, but welcoming it.
  • ”Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering,” he said. “Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason.”
  • The dynamic in Iran has fit Gandhi’s understanding of human psychology. When millions peacefully protested in Iran, the government fell directly into the Gandhian trap, brutally murdering some protesters. By drawing the government into violent — and public — misbehavior, the protesters drew the state into a downward spiral in which the leaders progressively eroded their own authority through their own actions.
  • America’s practitioner of the technique, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was deeply influenced by the Hindu Gandhi who was, in turn, influenced by Jesus….But it’s an open question whether Islam has within its traditions the spiritual foundation for a non-violent civil disobedience.
  • That’s why the most important idea in President Obama’s statement yesterday may have been the most Gandhian: “Right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”
  • It is witness that gives the non-violent approach its power, by making private suffering public. The protesters will be severely tested; restraint will be nearly impossible.
  • But if the Iranians pull it off, it will provide an inspiring epilogue to Gandhi’s story. He went to his death feeling he’d failed in part because he had been unable to convince Indian Muslims to embrace his approach. Nothing would make him happier than if it turned out to be millions of Muslims who gave birth to 21st-century Gandhism.

Before we get to our substantive as well as subtle issues with Mr. Waldman’s article, we must express our concern at what we see as his evident religious bias.

Religious Bias of Mr. Waldman

Our immediate thought is that Gandhi would have been appalled to read Mr. Waldman’s comments about Muslims and his question whether Islam has the spiritual foundation for non-violent civil disobedience. In fact, Mr. Waldman’s comment reeks of the same religious prejudice that led the Judge in the Merchant of Venice to question whether Shylock as a Jew could understand the “twice blessed” quality of mercy.

European-American Christian commentators (as opposed to South African Christians) routinely write of “Hindu Gandhi” as someone who was “influenced by the teachings of Jesus”. We do not know whether this is done to make Gandhi more acceptable to American readers or whether this is due to their innate belief in Christian superiority. We do notice that Mr. Waldman has faithfully followed this tradition.

But no European-American Christian commentator in America has ever argued or even broached the possibility that Jesus was influenced by the teachings of Buddha or by the teachings of Shri Krishna despite many scholarly works on this topic by European Indologists.

We hold the truth self-evident that every religious figure in history was deeply influenced by the teachings of those who came before him or her. Mr. Gandhi clearly believed so. Just as clearly, Mr. Waldman does not concur. In our opinion, this makes Mr. Waldman unworthy of writing about Gandhism. 

The Iran Protests

We begin with the views of Hillary Mann Leverett, CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy. Below are excerpts of her views expressed on the Lou Dobbs Show on June 23, 2009. (See the official transcript for her comments in detail).

  • I think we really need to first assess this idea that the elections were stolen or somehow rigged. There’s no evidence for that whatsoever. I think that’s why you’ve seen a dramatic dwindling fading away of the demonstrators, they initially came out because there were questions, there were irregularities reported in the election.
  • Today you’re left with just a hardcore of those who are looking for regime change. That is clearly not something that is supported by the broad populous inside Iran. They do now want to see an implosion of the system they do not want to see it come down, they want to see gradual opening over time. They want to see more accountability. They do want to see more prosperity. But Iranians are not in a bad state.

We have read views of other experts that concur with the above quoted opinion.  Last week, we wrote our conjecture that Mr. Moussavi was backed by the urban, student & intellectual vote while Mr. Ahmadinejad was backed by the rural, poor and devoutly religious vote. Since last week, we have read detailed counts of such communities that argue that Mr. Ahmadinejad won the election.

It was evident to any one who watched the TV coverage of Iranian protests that the vast majority of protesters were urban and educated Iranians who had access to cell phones and Twitter. These are not characteristics of the majority of Iranians, certainly not of the rural, the poor or the religiously focused Iranians.

It is now clear that there is a huge rift within the power establishment of Iran with people like Mr, Rafsanjani, Mr. Moussavi, Ayatollah Montezari rebelling against Ayatollah Khamenei and refusing to accept the power of Mr. Ahmadinejad. It is these power brokers who supported and perhaps sponsored the protests in Tehran. We find it interesting that the protests began weakening after the daughter of Mr. Rafsanjani was arrested.

It seems safe to conclude that the street protests, while intense and deeply troubling, were not reflective of the majority of Iranians. They seemed to be deeply emotional protests by a minority section of Iranians, for that minority section and sponsored by a faction of Iran’s power circle.

In sharp contrast, the Gandhian movement in India encompassed all groups in India, from the Oxford educated Nehru and his class of educated urban Indians to the poorest workers in urban factories to the poorest farmers in rural India.

Therefore, we conclude that the protests in Iran cannot described as Gandhian in anything but the most superficial context. At best, these protests could be described as pre-Gandhian. It is our fervent hope that these protests do actually prove to be pre-Gandhian.  

Pre-Gandhian Freedom Movement in India

Contrary to Mr. Waldman’s belief and the belief of many European-American writers, the freedom movement in India did not begin with Gandhi. In fact, the freedom struggle was a strong nation-wide movement before Gandhi’s arrival in India. The Congress Party of India was a nation-wide party with a strong organizational cadre. The movement was led by leaders like Gokhale, Agarkar and Lokmanya Tilak (whom Gandhi regarded as his mentor). This was a non-violent movement by choice. These leaders had recognized that the Indian army remained loyal to the British-Indian Administration and therefore, there was no possibility of a violent overthrow of the British Rule.

The weakness of this movement was that. like the protests in Iran, it was a movement of urban literates and by urban literates. It could not draw in the common Indian worker, the farmer, the policemen or the soldier.

The British allowed these movements only up to a certain extent. When a leader like Tilak became too powerful, he was arrested and sentenced to immorally long, multi-year sentences in far away Burmese Jails.

People like Mr. Waldman do not know and probably would not believe that the atrocities and massacres committed by the British in India were far worse than anything the Iranian regime has done in Iran. The British did so because they felt they were racially superior and they could massacre with impunity. Those who need evidence should read about the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, Panjab by England’s General O’Dwyer. The British knew how to massacre and how to quell the protests in England & India against these massacres.

The Gandhi Phenomenon

Into this established structure, stepped Mr. Gandhi. He realized that the biggest problem of the Indian Freedom movement was the lack of participation by the real, rural India. So, Gandhi gave up his urban clothes, his English proficiency and donned the poorest of Indian garments and used the simplest of Indian expressions to speak to the Indian common man and woman. They responded and the Gandhi movement was born.

An old couplet from North India tells the tale of Gandhi. It says “Nehru came to meet us on an elephant, Subhash Chandra Bose came on a horse, ,,,,, but only Gandhi walked with us”. Gandhi became the leader of the common Indian, of the vast multitude of Indians across the country.

This protected him from the atrocities of British rule. This is why he chose the “Fast Until Death” as his favorite weapon. The British Administration knew that if Gandhi died in his fast, a firestorm of rage would engulf all of India and the most loyal supporters of the British, the Policeman and the Soldier would revolt against the British.

So, the acceptance of Gandhi by the British was an act of self-preservation by the British. This is true but inconvenient to writers like Mr. Waldman who like to postulate that Gandhism worked because the British were inherently cultured, civil and Christian. This is also why Mr. Waldman, like numerous European-American writers, wonders aloud whether Islam has the necessary spiritual foundation to tolerate Gandhism. Mr. Waldman and his colleagues are wrong and prejudiced.

Getting back to Iran, the current protests remind us of the pre-Gandhian protests in India, protests by the urban, educated class for their values and interests. Until these protests become of the common Iranians, by the common Iranians and for the common Iranians, the protests cannot be described as anything close to Gandhian.

We fervently hope that a leader emerges in Iran who can unite all the people of Iran in a common movement for the dignity, freedom and progress of the common Iranian. Once such a leader emerges, then Gandhism will be born in Iran.

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