Is Gandhi Relevant to Kurds?
By Kani Xulam, Washington - Rudaw
Can it possibly be that
Gandhi’s incredible, world-changing nonviolence may
be what we need to achieve an independent Kurdistan?
Kani Xulam, an ethnic Kurd living in America,
founder of the American Kurdish Information Network
(AKIN) Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied
international relations at the University of Toronto
and holds a BA in history from the University of
California, Santa Barbara.
Read more by the Author
May 15, 2012
WASHINGTON, — When President Obama
visited Wakefield High School in Arlington,
Virginia, in the fall of 2009, he was asked this
“If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or
alive, who would it be?”
The president hesitated—perhaps making certain he
didn’t name someone who might raise a red flag, or
When he finally decided on a name, it was this:
Then he added: “Now, it would probably be a really
small meal because, he didn’t eat a lot.”
He went on, “He’s somebody who I find a lot of
inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it
hadn’t been for the nonviolent movement in India,
you might not have seen the same nonviolent movement
for civil rights here in the United States.”
In fact, you could say, the president was paying
homage to someone who had directly enabled him to
become the highest public official in the United
I’d like to tell you two stories from the annals of
nonviolence, one Indian, the other Kurdish, and
whether they can tell us anything about realigning
the Kurdish struggle for liberty from its warpath to
If time permits, I will end with an actual story of
Gandhi’s meeting with King George the Fifth at
Buckingham Palace in London. In that meeting, Gandhi
was vintage Gandhi. And if Nathaniel Hawthorne is
right, “Our past is a rough draft of our present and
our future,” President Obama would have had a
formidable companion for dinner and returned home
with more than food in his stomach.
Speaking of more than food in his stomach, let me
digress a bit here and squeeze in a story about
Madeleine Albright, the second secretary of state in
the Clinton administration. Last month, the New York
Times run a story about her titled, “Madeleine
Albright: By the Book.” Because I can pass as a
lover of books, I read the piece with more than my
usual curiosity for an op-ed piece.
I found out that of the nineteen books that she
favored, I had actually read eight. Because she is
older than I am, I figured I still had some time to
with her. But what really intrigued me about the
piece was her definition of a good book, which she
compared to a good speech, and said it should make
the audience: “laugh, think, cry, and cheer.”
Now that is a tall order. Let me be frank with you
at the outset that I have no intentions of making
you laugh--our topic is too serious for that, and
I’m probably too dull-witted for the task anyway.
Crying and cheering—well, I’m not so sure if I can
do that either.
But I do hope you will leave here thinking.
I hope you will leave thinking with increased
curiosity about Gandhi and his theme of nonviolence.
Can it possibly be that Gandhi’s incredible,
world-changing nonviolence may be what we need to
achieve an independent Kurdistan?
Consider that profound thought with me for a moment.
In directing our gaze to nonviolence, I also pay
tribute to Kamal Artin and his friends at Kurdish
National Congress (KNC), the hosts of our
conference, who heartily deserve another hearty
round of applause for bringing us together here.
Let’s show them our genuine appreciation!
In re-directing our view to nonviolence, I am also
redirecting the gaze of the Kurds from violence, the
fiendish delight of our foes—to nonviolence, the
Achilles’ heel of our adversaries.
Gandhi’s nonviolence, after all, brought a world
superpower to its knees, and who knows but that it
may be the approach to bring us success?
Indeed, some of us, sitting in this room today, may
be the instruments to bring that miraculous change
After all, in ancient Persia, part of our beloved
Kurdish homeland, a young woman was told some 2,500
years ago: “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the
kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
That young woman, Esther, rose up and magnificently
saved her people from annihilation.
May we perhaps one day look back and see that this
was the day that someone here rose up, and set the
nonviolent spark that helped to save our Kurdish
In 1917, Hindi Punch, a satirical paper, wrote of an
Indian prince of Bikaner who had returned to Bombay
from a tour of Europe and was ordered to show his
passport at the customs.
The prince complained that he had not been asked to
produce one when he left the country, and wanted to
know what had changed in the meantime.
The officer told him he had left India in “European
garb,” which exempted him from examination, but was
returning in “native costume,” which required him to
submit to inspection.
I don’t know if Gandhi ever knew of this story. If
he had, his mind may have flashed back to his time
in South Africa in 1893. Dressed in his impeccable
he was riding a train from Durban to Pretoria. He
was told, as a coolie, he could not ride first
When he refused to move to the back of the train, he
was kicked out of it at Maritzburg railway station
together with his baggage. It was, you might say, a
providential kick. Nothing like it has ever been the
source of so much good—before or since.
Clothes and Indians go back in history. Before the
English showed up on the shores of India, Indians
had set the standards for fashion for much of the
In the Roman Empire, Indian tunics commanded not
just attention, but also a lot of money. A trade, in
spite of hardships, kept European ladies happy and
Indian ones busy.
By the time Gandhi came of age, the order had
reversed. To be sure, India still supplied cotton
and silk to the world, but the weaving was done in
Europe. The mechanized production made the Indian
spinning wheel obsolete. Great Britain dominated
India and Indians were trying to find their place in
the new world.
Gandhi, a spiritual person by temperament, was, to
use his term, “experimenting” with his life to come
to terms with the new Indian reality. In South
Africa, he found not just his voice, but also his
Indian roots and the best of western writers such as
Thoreau, Mazzini, Ruskin and Tolstoy.
Initially, his was a voice in the wilderness. The
world was filled with the prophets of violence and
supreme cunning. Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian like
Gandhi, spoke the language of unbridled
confrontation and had coined the slogan, “Give me
blood and I promise you freedom.”
Vladimir I. Lenin in the pages of What Is To Be
Done? had written of the need for a “small, compact
core of the most reliable, experienced, and hardened
workers … connected by all the rules of strict
secrecy,” to bring about revolution.
Gandhi, on the other hand, thought violence, secrecy
and lying had a common ancestry. In his words, “I
would rather India remained a thousand years more
under British rule than that a lie be used to win
A votary of truth, its kindred, he declared was love
of the kind that Jesus of Nazareth had spoken of it
in the pages of the New Testament. Knowing what
India had possessed once, he set out to regain it:
freedom and self-sufficiency.
Writing in the pages of his newspaper, Young India,
he laid the ground for the formation of an army of
soldier-saints. The word, dignity, which we use
relative to the Arab Spring these days, was not used
then, but it must have played a big role in the deep
recesses of his heart or brain.
In 1920, he asked his compatriots to boycott foreign
clothes and adopt home spinning as a way of
liberating self as well as India. Wearing a farmer’s
dhoti, that covered one-fourth of his body, he
announced the first ever bonfire of imported clothes
It proved to be a cathartic event. He later
undertook a tour of the country to debut his
clothing line as it were and always asked his fans,
now numbering millions, to cleanse themselves of
artificial western appendages and values. In the
words of Emma Tarlo, the effort embodied, not just
freedom and self-sufficiency, but also “spiritual
humility, moral purity, national integrity, communal
unity, social equality, the end of ‘untouchability’
and the embracing of nonviolence.”
Some mistook his action as the work of a coward. He
was the total opposite. If the choice was between
cowardice and violence, “I would choose violence,”
Nonviolence, he added, required more courage than
violence. He did not live to see the lone Chinese
student standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen
Square, but would have certainly recognized a
kindred soul in him.
In the words of Louis Fischer, “No coward would sit
still on the ground as galloping police horses
advanced upon him or lie in the path of an
automobile or stand without moving as baton-swinging
police laid about them.”
But Gandhi’s soldier-saints did, prompting a
physicist, Albert Einstein, to say of their general,
“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a
one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this
My second story is from the oral history of the
I first heard it watching a Kurdish film in
Washington, DC. Min Dit was the name of the film.
The children of Amed were its theme. Anyone who has
been to the largest Kurdish city in Turkish
Kurdistan can tell you of his or her stories of
these homeless kids who are forced to live
concentrated lives or skip years to assume roles
that we ordinarily assign to the adults.
But in Min Dit there was something else.
There was a bedtime story about a Kurdish village
cursed with a terrible plague. Like most children’s
stories, it started bad, got worse and then there
was magic, a solution that was telling, heartwarming,
and everlasting, which allowed the children to enter
into the sleep zone on a very happy note.
Inside the Kurdish tale, a wolf attacks the
livestock of the village with impunity. The
villagers feel terrorized and powerless. One day,
the village elders call for a meeting to remedy the
A decision is finally taken: The wolf must be found
and eliminated. A search team is put together. After
a couple of tries, the beast of prey is found. As a
villager gets ready to shoot it, an old man shouts,
“Lay down your gun.”
Everyone is surprised. The old man counsels a pause.
He approaches the wolf and offers it a piece of
meat. The wolf eats the offering and turns into a
pussycat. The old man takes advantage of the moment
and ties a bell around its neck.
“This wolf will never harm anyone again,” he says.
“Whoever can hear the bell can run away,” he adds.
From then on, whenever the wolf approaches sheep,
the ringing of the bell wakes up the shepherd.
Whenever it approaches a deer, the deer runs off for
safety. Days pass and the wolf grows hungry. Then
one day, he falls near a rock and dies of
I don’t know about you, but I find the seeds of
nonviolent resistance in this Kurdish tale. Our
ancestors thought of it as a way to cope with the
losses of their animals and we could expand on it to
prevent the death of at least some of our fighters.
The numbers speak for themselves. In the latest
fighting between the Kurds and the Turks, most
experts agree on a number of 45 thousand deaths so
The Turks say their losses are in the vicinity of
5 thousand. Ahmet Turk, a Kurdish parliamentarian,
gave a list of 17 thousand civilian Kurds to
President Obama in 2009, saying all were murdered by
shadowy Turkish groups.
That leaves the figure of 23 thousand for the
Kurdish fighters. The figures in Iraq, between the
Kurds and the Arabs are even more lopsided, again,
against the Kurds. Iran and Syria pose the same
To be sure, nonviolent resistance is not exempt from
deaths, but when it is waged, its disciples are its
first casualties and not the defenseless civilians
who are often first tortured and then murdered on
the flimsiest of charges. As Kurds, to persist on a
path that is to our disadvantage is not only wrong,
but also reckless.
I will close, as I promised, with the story of
Gandhi’s meeting with King George the Fifth at the
Buckingham Palace in London. According to Vinay Lal,
a professor of history at University of California
Los Angeles (UCLA), Gandhi and King George engaged
in a light banter as a sitting King and his subject
But Gandhi wouldn’t let go of the historic occasion
without a bit of histrionics. A year before, he had
marched to the sea, making his own salt and breaking
the monopoly of the British on the essential
commodity. At the meeting, he produced a pinch it
and placed it in a yogurt bowl.
There is no record of the king noticing it, or
making a comment about it. But that didn’t matter.
Gandhi was a politician-saint in India and he knew
of the famous Indian saying, “Be faithful to your
salt-giver.” In fact, the tradition of the
subcontinent goes, if you want to seal a friendship,
throw some salt into the water.
For Gandhi, yogurt was as good as water.
Yes, Gandhi has a lot to teach us—if we listen
Gandhi showed us that nonviolence—when properly
applied—can be just as powerful as all the great
armies that ever marched… all the mighty navies that
ever sailed… and all the grand air forces that ever
* Kani Xulam is a political activist based in
Washington D.C. He is the founder of the American
Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) www.kurdistan.org.
Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied
international relations at the University of Toronto
and holds a BA in history from the University of
California, Santa Barbara. He was recently awarded
an MA by the International Service Program at
American University. At the University of Toronto,
he represented Kurdistan at the Model United
Nations. In 1993, at the urging of Kurdish community
leaders in America, he left his family business in
California to establish the American Kurdish
Information Network in the nation’s capital. He is
the founder of the American Kurdish Information
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