Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are justly regarded as heroes. The activism of Gandhi was instrumental in emancipating the Indian Subcontinent from colonial rule and establishing democracy in India. A few decades later, Nelson Mandela paved the way for a multiracial democracy to replace white supremacism in South Africa.
The fact both Gandhi and Mandela succeeded in their efforts to reform unjust systems through dialogue and non-violence, has made a deep impression in our understanding of conflict resolution. Leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Pope Francis have followed the footsteps of Gandhi and Mandela, expecting dialogue to win over hearts and yield peace and reconciliation.
The failure of Rabin in the Middle East has been evident for several decades. The verdict on Pope Francis’ efforts to win over the Islamic world is still out. And yet, before we rush to applaud the pontiff for his efforts as the mainstream media so enthusiastically does, let us review history.
Good intentions may guide Pope Francis, just as much as they guided Gandhi, Mandela and Rabin. However Gandhi and Mandela succeeded not thanks to their good intentions, but because the forces that opposed them operated within a political and judicial framework which was fundamentally civilized.
To claim that the British Empire and apartheid South African were fundamentally civilized may sound appalling. We are conditioned to think that the British Empire and apartheid South Africa embodied absolute evil, as the
The former crimes are beyond dispute. And yet, both the British Empire and pre-1990s South Africa tolerated criticism, largely respected the rule of law and were open to reform themselves. The system of checks and balances which characterized the British Raj and apartheid South Africa were the cornerstones that allow democracy to flourish to this day both in India and in South Africa.
Gandhi and Mandela succeeded in their efforts not despite the fact they attacked the British Empire and apartheid South Africa, but precisely because the British Empire and the South African state were their adversaries. This claim is corroborated by the lame and pathetic efforts of Gandhi to apply his methods elsewhere.
During World War II Gandhi urged Europeans and Jews to oppose Hitler with pacifism and non-violence. Gandhi was rash in making these demands. It was precisely appeasement that paved the way for Hitler’s crimes.
Likewise, if Mandela had been judged by a Nazi judge, instead of a South African one, he would have immediately been sent to the gallows. These facts show how the absence of a minimal moral common ground makes dialogue and goodwill futile.
Yitzhak Rabin thought he could find common ground with Yasser Arafat. He conveniently ignored the fact that Arafat had spent the greater portion of his life preaching destruction rather than reconciliation, and that Arafat had murdered both friend and foe to cement his political power. It would be very hard to find any British viceroy or South African political leader whose career was as mired in murder and bloodshed as Yasser Arafat’s.
Pope Francis thinks his task is easier. Religious dialogue demands noble words, not painful concessions like peace negotiations in the Middle East do. Nevertheless, even Pope Francis efforts appear to be counterproductive. His high profile meetings with Muslim monarchs and Islamic clerics, secured by Catholic support for massive Islamic immigration to Europe, yield valuable PR for Islam.
Yet both Pope Francis and his non-Catholic epigones get next to nothing in return: Instead of unequivocal condemnations of jihadism, they are pontificated on how “genuine Islam” rejects violence; instead of a recognition of the right of Christians and Jews to live in peace, equality and freedom in the Middle East, they hear diatribes on Western abuses against Muslims; instead of being invited to advise and rescue the Islamic world from its rut, they are lectured on how Islam will redeem the West from its sinfulness and decadence.
In other words, every high-profile meeting between Christian (or Jewish) leaders and representatives of Islam is a mini-replay of the 1938 Munich Conference: Western leaders make concessions, yet are lectured on justice and human rights by leaders who loathe justice and human rights, as these are understood in liberal democracies.
In other words, the Gandhi & Mandela model of constructive engagement is misguided here. There is little ethical and intellectual common ground between the values of the contemporary West and the values of contemporary Islam. Yitzhak Rabin did not live long enough to realize this. Pope Francis still believes that touching speeches can win over the hearts of Islamist leaders.
What Pope Francis does not yet realize is that Arab nationalists and Islamists are far closer in their worldview to Hitler and Mussolini than to the last British viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, or to the last white president of South Africa, Frederik de Klerk. For this reason, Pope Francis is more likely to be another Neville Chamberlain, rather than a worthy heir to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.