Real Life Books
BADSHAH KHAN: ISLAMIC PEACE WARRIOR. An Investigative Poem by Heathcote Williams. Thin Man Press, 2015, ISBN: 978 09930141 23. Price £8.99. Available at the Albion Beatnik Bookshop, 34 Walton Street, Oxford.
To those in the know, Heathcote Williams is an arresting figure in Oxford’s literary landscape. Less well-known than names like Colin Dexter and Philip Pullman, he is infinitely more important than they are, and may in time be seen as rivalling Iris Murdoch or C.S.Lewis as an Oxford presence. Williams now lives quietly and shuns publicity, but he resembles a rumbling volcano, and he erupts periodically to pour his lava of anger and truth into the world. He is a libertarian, a pacifist and an ecologist, and his latest work is an extended polemical poem on the “Muslim Gandhi”, Badshar Ghaffar Khan; for those like me who knew nothing about this man, it comes as a revelation.
Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) spent his life trying to turn his fellow Afghan Pashtuns away from violence, violence among themselves and violence against their political enemies. Gandhi himself recognised the tremendous difference between his own struggles and those of Ghaffar Khan, in a land where pride, strength, religion and foreign interference had long ago bred a brutal, implacable creed of violence. In the struggles against British rule between the two world wars, Ghaffar Khan formed a peace army numbered in their thousands, members of which died in the Peshawar massacre of 1930, which is, inexplicably, far less famous than the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Like Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan was repeatedly imprisoned, not only by the British, but later, following partition, by the government of Pakistan, for the last time at the age of 93. His political activity was driven by his conviction that Islam was truly a spiritual religion, and not the violent, irrational force that it had become. He preached renunciation of force by the strong, that hatred does not cease by hatred, and that regimes of repression, revenge and punishment can and must be resisted, but resisted with weapons of peace.
Unfortunately the departure of the British from the subcontinent did not put an end to its culture of violence, and in the second half of the book Williams argues that one empire’s retreat was followed by another’s advance, and that American interference in Afghanistan contributed to, if it did not create, the new vortex of conflict and hatred under whose shadow we now live. Williams is an inveterate critic of American militarism and commercialism, seeing America as the new Rome, spreading its culture and its weapons over the planet, making it impossible for a spiritual, non-violent form of Islam to survive and prosper. The latter part of the book is profoundly disturbing, as Ghaffar Khan’s life and message are apparently eclipsed by the forces against which he strove all his life. “I was placed here to plant a seed,” was his quiet reply when his critics pointed to the apparent failure of all his ideals. We can only hope that that seed flowers one day, both in harsh culture which he attempted to soften, and its implacable enemies.
Williams’s poetry is like no one else’s. He cares nothing for honeyed words, the anguish of the self, wit, cleverness or fashionable angst. His passion is to reveal alternative truth, the truth about our civilisation and our lives, which we prefer not to see or even think about. His technique is the documentary poem, the analysis of reality through the critical intelligence, and the results often leave one stunned. His is a literature of savage polemic, and it is impossible to be indifferent to it. This is his most powerful recent work, and while we may not accept all of it, it is a book that should be read by anyone who cares about power in our society, and about understanding the truth of our own collective history.