Why Indian activist Faisal Khan should matter to all Americans

An Indian Muslim's imprisonment may seem an unlikely cause to draw Hindus and Christians together.

Social activist Faisal Khan, center, of Khudai Khidmatgar, an organization founded by freedom fighter Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, addresses a press conference while seated with activist and education reformer Sandeep Pandey, right, and Prafulla Samantara in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

(RNS) — A Muslim activist’s imprisonment in India might seem an unlikely cause to draw Hindus and Christians together. Yet the growing call to #freeFaisalKhan is doing just that.

Organized by the U.S.-based Hindus for Human Rights, the movement to free Khan, a peace activist known for his revival of the anti-imperial movement Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God), has been taken up by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, and endorsed by the Rev. William Barber II, the prominent African American Christian pastor.

This interfaith solidarity on Khan’s behalf builds on the historic connections between American civil rights and Indian freedom struggles. Then and now, fighting racism and imperialism requires a broad rejection of religious nationalism, and Muslims have had crucial roles in both struggles. 

Faisal Khan’s organization is dedicated to interreligious cooperation, a precedent set by the close friendship of the group’s founder, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (a.k.a., ‘the frontier Gandhi’) and the Mahatma himself.  When I interviewed Faisal Khan in New Delhi in 2018, he described Gandhi and Badshah Khan’s shared understanding of religion with the words of a Hindu poet: “Tulsi Das said religion (dharm) is removing people’s pain (dukh).”

In October, Faisal Khan and three other Khidmatgar members joined the traditional Hindu pilgrimage (yatra) to numerous regional Krishna temples in order to foster such interfaith unity. At Nand Baba Temple in the city of Mathura, south of New Delhi, they met and discussed religion with the Hindu priest, who invited the two Muslims in their four-person party to pray in the temple’s courtyard when the time for Muslim prayer (namaz) came.

It was social media posts of their prayers that led to Faisal Khan’s arrest on Nov. 3 under various charges, including harming communal harmony.

For those who might dismiss the #freeFaisalKhan outcry as a faraway squabble between exotic faiths, Rajmohan Gandhi’s — and especially Barber’s — interest is a sign that India’s civil rights struggles are parallel and linked to American struggles over race.

Just as Faisal Khan is reviving a historic Gandhi-allied, nonviolent social justice movement, so Barber, who has revived King’s Poor People’s Campaign, draws on King’s Gandhian nonviolent methods. Just as Faisal describes his Islamic faith as the source of his activism, Barber preaches justice for the “least of these” of Jesus’ teachings.

Faisal Khan’s fellow Indian Muslims, many of whom are from the lowest Dalit castes, suffer religious and, often, caste discrimination in Hindu-majority India. Barber’s fellow Black Christians, meanwhile, have long suffered America’s structural racism, typically sanctioned or ignored by the white Christian majority.

Finally, both leaders are building their coalitions in the very teeth of surging political forces of religious nationalism — Hindu or white evangelical — even as brutality against Muslims and African Americans increases.  

The current Indian leadership’s suspicions of Islam — with some incredibly calling Faisal Khan’s prayer a ‘terrorist’ act, for example — may seem to have no parallel in the U.S. until we consider the commonplace contrast drawn between Malcolm X, the supposedly angry and ‘violent’ Muslim, and the sanitized version of MLK’s Christian love. Islamophobia is written into our basic historical ‘justice’ narratives.

In addition, today’s U. S. is home to a surge of Islamophobic hate crime and calls for American-Muslim legislators such as Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib to ‘go back home,’ as if they aren’t ‘from here.’

In contrast to such anti-Muslim feeling, Barber’s alliance with Palestinian-American Muslim activist Linda Sarsour shows that he understands the centrality of Islam to our current challenges and creative potential. Malcolm X’s challenge to us — “America must understand Islam” — still stands.

Faisal Khan’s situation, in other words, is not so foreign to us as it may seem. Indeed, his prayers and his cause might be understood as precious contributions to Americans’ understanding of our own pluralism.   

(Timothy Dobe is a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College in Iowa and a scholar of Hinduism and Gandhi Studies. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

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