Why Indian activist Faisal Khan ought to matter to all People
(RNS) – The detention of a Muslim activist in India appears to be an unlikely reason to bring Hindus and Christians together. But the growing call for #freeFaisalKhan does just that.
The movement to liberate Khan, a peace activist known for his revival of the anti-imperial Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement and organized by the US-based Hindus for human rights, was picked up by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi. and endorsed by Rev. William Barber II, the prominent African American Christian pastor.
This interfaith solidarity in Khan’s name builds on the historical links between American civil rights and Indian freedom struggles. Then and now, fighting racism and imperialism requires broad rejection of religious nationalism, and Muslims have played a vital role in both struggles.
Faisal Khan’s organization is dedicated to interfaith cooperation, a precedent set by the close friendship of the group’s founder, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (aka “Frontier Gandhi”), and the Mahatma himself. When I interviewed Faisal Khan in New Delhi in 2018, he described Gandhi and Badshah Khan’s common understanding of religion in the words of a Hindu poet: “Tulsi Das said religion (dharm) alleviates the pain of people (dukh).”
In October, Faisal Khan and three other Khidmatgar members joined the traditional Hindu pilgrimage (yatra) to numerous regional Krishna temples to promote such interfaith unity. They met in the Nand Baba Temple in the city of Mathura south of New Delhi and discussed religion with the Hindu priest. He invited the two Muslims in their group of four to pray in the courtyard of the temple when the time came for Muslim prayer (namaz).
It was social media posts from her prayers that led to Faisal Khan’s arrest on November 3rd on various charges, including harming communal harmony.
For those who might dismiss the #freeFaisalKhan outcry as a distant battle between exotic faiths, the interest of Rajmohan Gandhi – and Barber in particular – is a sign that India’s civil rights struggles are parallel and linked to American racial struggles.
Just as Faisal Khan revived a historic Gandhi-allied nonviolent social justice movement, Barber, who revived the king’s poor campaign, is resorting to King Gandhian’s nonviolent methods. Just as Faisal describes his Islamic faith as the source of his activism, Barber preaches justice for the “least of these” teachings of Jesus.
Faisal Khan’s fellow Indian Muslims, many of whom come from the lowest Dalit castes, suffer from religious and often caste discrimination in India with a Hindu majority. Barber’s black fellow Christians suffer from the structural racism of America, which is usually sanctioned or ignored by the white Christian majority.
After all, both leaders form their coalitions in front of the growing political forces of religious nationalism – Hindu or white Protestant – even as brutality against Muslims and African-Americans increases.
The current Indian leadership’s suspicions of Islam – with some who incredibly call Faisal Khan’s prayer a “terrorist” act – seems to have no parallel in the US until we see the everyday contrast between Malcolm X, the supposedly angry and ” violent “, consider” Muslim and the sanitized version of MLK’s Christian love. Islamophobia is written into our basic historical “justice” narratives.
In addition, there is a wave of Islamophobic hate crimes in the US today and American Muslim lawmakers like Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib are being urged to “return home” as if they were not “from here”.
In contrast to such an anti-Muslim sentiment, Barber’s alliance with Palestinian-American Muslim activist Linda Sarsour shows that he understands the central role Islam plays in our current challenges and creative potential. Malcolm X’s challenge to us – “America must understand Islam” – remains.
In other words, Faisal Khan’s situation is not as alien to us as it may seem. Indeed, his prayers and cause could be seen as valuable contributions to Americans’ understanding of our own pluralism.
(Timothy Dobe is a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College, Iowa and a scholar in Hinduism and Gandhi studies. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)
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