The West and Islam

EDITORIAL, 23 Jun 2008

#13 | Johan Galtung

We have been there before, many times.

The West, particularly the United Kingdom-Britain-England, have attacked Islam after the massive Christian attack known as the Crusades. By no means forgetting the Omayyad Islamic attack on the Iberian peninsula and close to 800 years occupation up to Poitiers in France, nor the Ottoman expansion into Southeastern Europe to Wien the attacks were overwhelmingly the other way.1

For the West encroaching on Islamic lands was part of the massive exercise known as colonialism. The major anticolonial uprising was The Sepoy Mutiny in India, 1857, brutal and even more brutally repressed. The major book about what happened a century and a half ago is by the brilliant William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, hereby most warmly recommended.

Hindu India was under double occupation, by the Muslim Moguls–the last Mughal ruler was Bahadur Shah Zafar II–and by England, the “Company” and the Army. There was a difference: the Mogul rule was at a very high level of social and cultural refinement and tolerance, the English rule was for clearly commercial benefit and with a heavy evangelical, Anglican undertone. Zafar was so much beyond most English Viceroys that many of the English colonizers were taken in by the lands they controlled and started adapting socially and culturally.

The mutiny, by both Muslim and Hindu sepoys trained by the English, inducted into their army, was clearly anti-colonial. The English were overstepping in many ways described in detail by Dalrymple, one of them being excessive evangelization, today’s parallel probably being excessive democratization. Then like today the West was not troubled by any doubt, any second thoughts, about the universal validity of their message.

The Great Mutiny was sizeable. Of the 139,000 sepoys in the Bengal Army for instance, then the largest modern army in Asia, all but 8,000 turned against their British masters; and in many places in northern India civilians were parts of the mutiny. Delhi was the epicenter, the site of Zafar’s court and huge English and European settlement, conquered by the mutiny, then under siege by English troops from all over, and finally reconquered. Crucial in this connection was the asymmetric training: no mutineer knew modern military tactics above company level. They could direct pointed attacks, but not the big battles of armies involving much larger units.

Yes, the mutiny was brutal with many civilians murdered, women and children, hacked to pieces. And so was the vengeance, 40, may be 50 thousand sepoys and some others executed. Some were put to death tied to the muzzles of canons that were then fired. Many were shot, including the three princes, young boys, stripped naked, with a Colt pistol, by an English officer. Zafar was deposed and exiled to Rangoon, although he was not really party to the mutiny. He died in 1862, his tomb unmarked.

Very, very many were executed by hanging. Corpses were hanging from gallows all over. Writes Dalrymple: — a short drop meant a slow and more lingering death by throttling while a long drop would break the neck and bring instant death. — observers were gleefully explicit that the short rope was a deliberate strategy to prolong the death of the victim. According to one source, the executioners were bribed by the crowds of British solders who were standing around, puffing cigars, making sure that the hangmen kept their victims a long time dying…as they liked to see the criminals dance…

Informers were paid 2 rupees for every arrest, and captors were allowed to keep “all money and gold found on the persons and mutineers captured”. With looting all over the parallel to the Iraq-Afghanistan wars today are many, but today “insurgents” are killed on the spot in “missions”. Western civilization at work.

Violence bred violence transmitted to the next generations, among Muslims in Asia, and among Anglos. But that formula is too symmetric. The sum of two violencies is not zero when one occupies the lands of the other, extracting economic value, ruling them politically, imprinting cultural codes, ultimately killing any mutineers. Occupation is no license to kill.

Some years later Gandhi was born. He, of course, knew everything about the Mutiny. He may have drawn the conclusion drawn by many, Hindus and also Muslims, that a violent uprising against the English did not work, that may or may not have been behind his choice and development of nonviolence, satyagraha.

Ninety years after the Sepoy Mutiny India was free, largely due to Gandhi’s untiring nonviolence. English colonialism followed, so did Western colonialism in general. In its wake came the rise and peaking of the US Empire, soon to follow the others to the graveyard of empires, maybe in Afghanistan.

It took time. Nonviolence often takes time. But there is something to learn from this story, a conclusion not drawn by Dalrymple: maybe the sepoys would have succeeded had they known and used nonviolence. And maybe Muslims today, in occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and some other places would have been much closer to liberation had they used nonviolence.

Massive, millions, both genders, all generations. Like surrounding each US and Israeli Embassy in the world, inviting them to come out, for a dialogue about how they dominate and rule their lands directly or indirectly, like in Saudi Arabia. The local police would be mobilized against them, not against the occupiers. But there would be dialogue, acts of kindness, of humanity, like in Leipzig that frosty October night 1989.

And one month later the Wall came tumbling down.


1. Johan Galtung, 50 Years 100 Peace & Conflict Perspectives, TRANSCEND University Press, 2008, ch. 88, pp. 236-239,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Jun 2008.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: The West and Islam, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.