The most common sentiments I've heard in the wake of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are maximum sadness and minimum surprise. To the casual observer, it may seem that Pakistan is merely counting the days until self-destruction. What other conclusion would someone come to when you take into consideration this year's string of suicide bombings, the lawless border regions that are purported to house the Taliban and al-Qaida, and battles with fundamentalists demanding implementation of draconian Shari'a laws? But you'd be wrong to think that Pakistan's culture and religion makes the current situation there inevitable. History shows us that it is not.

Abdul Ghaffar "Badshah" Khan, a political and spiritual leader known as the father of Islamic non-violence, emerged from the Pushtun region in today's northwest Pakistan to create the world's largest army dedicated to non-violence - the 100,000 strong Khudai Hidmatgars ("servants of God"). Working alongside Gandhi to liberate South Asia from British colonial rule, Khan (affectionately known as the "Frontier Gandhi") spent his 98-year life proving that the highest religious values of Islam are deeply compatible with non-violent conflict resolution, even against heavy odds.

Gandhi, in fact, expressed surprise that such a disciplined force emerged from the same tribes that would decades later give rise to the Taliban. "That such men, who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep," recalled Gandhi, "should at the bidding of one man have laid down their arms and accepted nonviolence as the superior weapon sounds almost like a fairy tale."

Khan insisted that non-violent actions, education, women's rights, and brotherhood with non-Muslims provided the best path to uplifting his people -- and hundreds of thousands answered his call. "I cited chapter and verse from the Qur'an to show the great emphasis that Islam had laid on peace," said Khan of his discussion with a skeptical Muslim. "I also showed to him how the greatest figures in Islamic history were known more for their forbearance and self-restraint than for their fierceness. The reply rendered him speechless." Khan's non-violent army later teamed with Gandhi's mobilized masses to stop the British occupying army in its tracks, and paved the way towards the independence of both India and Pakistan.

Pakistan's independence, combined with post-colonial Muslim nationalism, tempered these ideals somewhat among the general populace, but it wasn't until the onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting infusion of arms that today's gun culture was visited upon Pakistan. And after the war, a flood of Afghan refugees and veterans - many of whom were hardened both by conflict and a puritanical form of Islam that helped fuel the resistance to the Soviets, found their home in Pakistan. This, in turn, left the back door open for al-Qaeda and bin Laden after they were routed from Afghanistan, after which militants turned their weapons on Pakistan's government and society. In other words, what you have today in Pakistan is what happens when you're all dressed up for a jihad and have nowhere to go.

But isn't Khan's peaceful brand Islam irrelevant in an age of suicide terrorism and nuclear weapons? Not when you consider that the imperative for Pakistan today is a cultural shift from defending honor with violence (a rationale often cited by those engaging in terrorism) to preserving it through steadfastness and patience. In an area where the loudest religious voices have become synonymous with intolerance, teachings similar to Khan's could provide an effective counterbalance. While today's Pakistan is split along sectarian lines, Khan reinforced the idea of building bridges outside one's own community. The Khudai Hidmatgars, for example, often went to the aid of Hindus and Sikhs that were attacked in communal riots.

Sadly, Khan's legacy and teachings are forgotten - or worse, distorted as "anti-Muslim" - by many Pakistanis themselves, and he remains virtually unknown in the West. Islam, with a rich spiritual tradition that is deeply rooted in Pakistani soil, has been cheapened by today's terrorists and extremists into mere cannon fodder for political ends. But Khan's success in pre-partition Pakistan proves that both Islamic teachings and the native culture of the Pakistani people can be effectively harnessed for peaceful and constructive means.

New leaders in Pakistan must emphasize that the path of violence is not only going nowhere, but that it is completely unsanctioned by Islamic teachings. The legacy of Khan and his patriotic struggle to turn away the British should be reformulated for a time when independence - from Muslim and non-Muslim interference alike - has a whole new meaning. Pakistan's "brain drain” (the exodus of highly educated Pakistanis) must be reversed and resources should be diverted to state-run education rather than the dead end of nuclear proliferation. And indigenous Islamic scholars should be cultivated, drawing from local resources and traditions rather than importing culturally inappropriate scholarship from elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The way forward may not be smooth, and it will take time to show any real improvement. But brave leaders and knowledgeable scholars should still be ready to take on the challenge.
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