With gentle prompts from my father, I remembered Gandhi this week. Because of him, the last 60 years have seen nonviolent resistance become legitimate in the face of realist cynicism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement – led by Martin Luther King, Jr., a disciple of Gandhi – changed America. Two decades ago, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel fulfilled Gandhi’s ideal, too, peacefully bringing democracy to Eastern Europe.
One year ago in Lhasa, three of Tibet’s most prominent monasteries took their nonviolent struggle to the streets. Five hundred monks walked toward the center of the city, sounding a cry for free speech. Had they taken up arms, they would not only have contravened Buddhist tenets, but their struggle would have lost its moral high ground.
Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word for nonviolence) is effective for these monks because their peaceful ways help to persuade all but the most jingoistic Chinese that the Tibetans are in the right. While this method has not led the monks to victory, armed struggle would have exacerbated the situation.
In their unenviable position, the monks have chosen the course of action most likely to lead to success. They need a sea change in Chinese policy; when that happens, the Tibetans will be regarded as a long-suffering independent nation, not a belligerent separatist tribe.
Intermittently locked away in house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has peacefully struggled to bring development and democracy to Myanmar (formerly Burma) for 20 years. At the moment, Gen. Than Shwe – leader of Myanmar’s ruling military junta – continues to run the country into socioeconomic chaos. Attempts at protest are met with overwhelming force, as in response to a series of demonstrations led by monks, students and political activists in 2007.
Than Shwe’s crackdown was so complete that hardly anything escaped his soldiers’ raids: Even the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon – revered by Myanmar’s Buddhists and considered sacred – was barricaded.
In Rangoon, nonviolence was met with machine-gun fire; in Mississippi, it was countered by police dogs and fire hoses; in Lhasa, its practitioners were beaten and imprisoned; and in Gandhi’s 1930 Dandi march, it was met with lashings and incarceration at the hands of the British army.
Nonviolence and free speech should be parts of the foundation of our world society. Reflecting on past successes, we see that it is in these ideals that leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama find the strength to carry on, despite seemingly insurmountable adversity.
A pair of Iranian anniversaries brings these values to mind. This week in 1979, the Islamic Revolution unleashed itself upon Iran. With it came the rejection of overt Westernization, as a theocratic Iran embraced Islamic code as the law of the land.
Ten years later, in what Christopher Hitchens called the worst book review ever, Ruhollah Khomeini called upon Muslims to murder British writer Salman Rushdie over allegations of blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Thus began a two-decade-long assault on free speech.
Ironically, it was the country’s “cultural” revolution that stripped Iran of its artistic and cultural richness; the fatwa on Rushdie was the ultimate repudiation of art.
But suppression of free speech is not exclusive to illiberal states. Libel laws in the United Kingdom stifle free speech, for example. Outside of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, in England one must be dreadfully careful of how one uses the names Boris Berezovsky and Khalid bin Mahfouz – two controversial expatriates with penchants for threatening journalists with lawsuits. The willingness of Borders bookstores to pull “Free Inquiry” off shelves after the journal printed controversial Danish cartoons in 2006 also exemplifies this self-effacement.
Violent censorship seeks to stifle free speech because uninhibited expression has the capacity to expose oppression. But violent censorship is self-defeating; in throwing together a pyre of books or ritually slaying an artist, censors reveal their own monstrosity – to those watching, it is clear who is wrong.
Free expression is the only legitimate tool for protest. As our first defense against the tyrannical denial of rights, it is our responsibility to protect it. We do so nonviolently, as a claim to our legitimate right to make ourselves heard. In showing an open palm, we demonstrate a respect for others’ equality, while making clear why we deserve the same courtesy.
Udayan Tripathi is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. History Never Repeats Itself appears every other Friday.
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