Religious leaders should promote interfaith dialogue, Political leaders a framework for unity, and Citizen leaders should promote communication and collaboration, says Frank F. Islam
Frank F. Islam
Today we are facing two grave crises. The first one is a health crisis. I am confident that our scientists will be able to tackle Covid-19 sooner, rather than later, by developing a vaccine or multiple vaccines.
The second crisis we are facing today is political in nature: it is an increasing deficit in democracy and liberal values, rise of rightwing demagogues and suppression of human rights and religious freedom in many important parts of the world. The antidote — the vaccine — for that is the teachings of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.
My remarks today will focus on that aspect, within the context of the topic of this session, which is “Mahatma Gandhi: Peace, Harmony and Progress.”
I will share my thoughts with you not as an expert on any of these topics, not as an academic, not as a researcher, but as a civically engaged Indian American business person whose motherland is India and whose homeland is the United States of America. I love both countries and recognize that they are by far the two largest democracies in the world and that the future of these democracies is central to the future of democracies and democratic values worldwide — and the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The Need to Preserve Democracy
With that preamble, let me start by focusing on the state of democracy in the world today. Sadly, I must report that state is not good. In fact, it could be called awful.
Two years ago, Freedom House — a Washington-based organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights — declared in its report Freedom in the World 2018 that Democracy was in crisis. For the 12th consecutive year, political rights and civil liberties declined and that 71 countries suffered net declines and only 35 registered gains, the report said. Things have not gotten any better in the past year. Freedom House’s report Freedom in the World 2019 declared Democracy was in retreat with 68 countries showing net declines.
In this 21st century, democracy is descending and autocracy is ascending in countries around the world. In addition to the Freedom House findings, numerous other studies are showing that trend.
For example, a Pew Research Center survey last year of citizens in 38 countries found only, and I quote, a “shallow commitment to representative democracy” and “substantial percentages willing to consider nondemocratic options” across all of those countries.
That’s a bit abstract and conceptual. Let me bring it up close and personal by focusing on the two countries of my heritage — America and India.
The Pew study found that in the United States 40 percent of the respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 46 percent were less committed, and 7 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
That’s not very good. But it is exceptional compared to the findings for India.
The Pew study disclosed that of all the countries surveyed “support for a strong leader who is unchecked by the judiciary or parliament is highest in India.” Only 8 percent of the Indian respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 67 percent were less committed, and 9 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
India and the United States are the world’s two largest democracies. Active and engaged citizenship is essential to keep those democracies vital and vibrant and exemplars for democracy world-wide — and to fulfill the vision of Gandhi and King.
The Vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King
I was awarded the Martin Luther King Award in the United States in 2015. I felt doubly blessed to be given that honor because of the indelible connection between King and that other famous civil and human rights leader from my homeland of India, Mahatma Gandhi.
As Dr. King noted in a radio broadcast during a visit to India in 1959, “If this age is to survive it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that Gandhi so nobly illustrated in his life.”
Dr. King and Gandhi have been beacons to me in my personal life and charitable and philanthropic involvement. I have given to numerous causes to support humanitarian efforts and to advance the interests of the under-served in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi told us that, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Dr. King advised us that, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
I have heard the words of Dr. King and Mr. Gandhi and am trying my best to “walk in the light” and to “be the change.” I know that is true for all of you in this audience here this morning as well and I am proud to be a partner with you on this sacred mission.
It is a critically important one. Because as the novelist and civil rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman observed, “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back — but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Wright’s statement of responsibility to carry forward the good work of King and Gandhi.
It is up to us. It is up to you. It is up to me.
But, I do not agree that these two great men are gone. They live on through each of us who are willing to pick up the baton of non-violence and use it as an instrument for peace and making the world a healthier and better place for all. Let me share some thoughts now on what we can do working together to build communal peace and harmony.
Building Communal Peace and Harmony
Consider the teaching of Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University. He was visionary who saw the world not though religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya Ji instructed, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.” Taking a lesson from him, in order to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony, we need to discover our “spiritual common ground.”
That is because spirituality transcends religious, racial and regional boundaries. Spirit is the invisible force that brings us together regardless of our particular pre-dispositions. It allows us to look to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship but to look at the earth and the people and family that we are.
There are many actions that the members of that family can take to move toward communal peace and harmony. In my opinion, the key actors and actions include:
- Religious leaders promoting interfaith dialogue
- Political leaders promoting a framework for unity
- Citizen leaders promoting communication and collaboration
Religious leaders are in a unique position to build bridges, to break down the barriers, to promote dialogue of understanding and to forge a stronger bonds among different faiths. This can be accomplished by reinforcing the point that an attack on one religion is an attack on all religions. When we attack each other, we are tearing apart the harmonious fabric of India.
Political leaders have the responsibility to ensure that all laws are fair and enforced uniformly. They can take affirmative actions to promote an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. They need to develop a plan of what can be done to strengthen those bonds that binds all Indians as one family. They need to promote voice for understanding, cooperation, and civility among faiths.
Citizen leaders can lead by example, by sponsoring events, and investing in plans and programs that cut across and eliminate racial, religious and socio-economic divides. They can play a vital role in diffusing tensions and helping our youths understand the need for collaboration and communication. They can play a pivotal role by promoting the unique benefits of message of unity by articulating: we are stronger together.
There is much work to do. That work must begin, however, by imagining an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. Imagining will not make it so but not imagining will make it impossible.
The Key to Progress: Civic Engagement
The key to progress is civic engagement. Sometimes when I say civic engagement people mistakenly think I mean political engagement. I do not. Political engagement is a form of civic engagement – but just one form.
Civic engagement as I view it takes five primary forms:
- Individual engagement – being the best one can be and personally responsible for one’s actions
- Organizational engagement– contributing to the success of the groups (e.g., business, religion, associations) to which one belongs
- Political engagement– participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
- Community engagement– collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
- Social engagement– advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all
Let me bring this back to Mahatma Gandhi now. In retrospect, as I look back on my own life and my own civic engagement, I recognize the gift of being from and in India and the struggles that were endured to make this great country a democratic republic. As you all know, Mahatma Gandhi made our citizenship possible.
I don’t know if Gandhi ever used the term civic engagement. I do know that without him there would be no Republic Day for India and without his influence and impact on others the United States and the world would be a far different place.
As you know, Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and his approach to civic engagement are centered around “peace”, “love” and “non-violence.” In the past few years, radical extremists have countered Mahatma Gandhi and his teaching and his preaching with acts of “war,” hate”, and “violence.” If they are successful Republic Day in India and in places around the world that celebrate democracy will become a distant memory.
In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers who came before us, I firmly believe that you and I along with other who understand the values of a free society can prevent that apocalyptic vision.
This is our responsibility. It is my responsibility. It is your responsibility.
In making your choice of how to fulfill that responsibility, the one piece of advice that I would give you is to not be timid in making your choices for civic engagement. Have the courage to be a difference maker.
In closing, let me leave you with two thoughts: one from– Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, and the other from me.
Robert F Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not.”
Frank Islam says, “Set no limits. If you can conceive it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
In this 21st century, when democracies around the world are being so tempest torn, there is a critical need for constructive citizen engagement that changes the current trajectory. I believe because of who you are as part of the Jaihind Peoples Movement– regardless of your educational discipline or profession – that you have the technical expertise and the moral fortitude to be leaders in changing that trajectory.
Therefore, I call upon you to be difference-makers for democracy. Thank you for listening to and sharing this time with me. May God bless you and all that you do to build communal peace and harmony in your home nations and around this troubled world.
(This is an abridged form of the speech Frank F. Islam delivered virtually at an event organized by Jaihind People’s Movement on occasion of Gandhi Jayanti on October 2, 2020).
— Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal.