What is it about heroes that attracts and draws us? This week the Palestinians everywhere in their thousands remembered Yasser Arafat on his third death anniversary. Watching the milling crowds in the West Bank and elsewhere in the Occupied Territories, I ask myself this question.
Arafat was a hero and a great one at that. He was a giant among men. Abu Ammar, as he was popularly known, was the first and perhaps last Palestinian leader to unify and rally his people behind him like a rock-solid wall of resistance. It was his larger than life personality and unflinching idealism that helped turn Palestine into a global cause. Even those who did not agree with Arafat couldn’t help admire and respect him.
That includes the Islamists of Hamas, who were dead against the Oslo Peace Accord Arafat inked with the Israelis with the blessings of the Americans, but respected the late leader. It had less to do with the force of Arafat’s charismatic personality than the decisive role he had played in the Palestinian struggle. Like I wrote in an emotional full-page tribute three years ago the day Arafat died, the late leader was a Walking Palestine.
His whole life and struggle had been the chronicle of his people’s struggle during the past six decades. Few leaders, with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, have so powerfully and eloquently epitomised their people’s aspirations and rights. If you ever saw any of those fiery speeches by Arafat on television, you’d know what I mean. It’s thanks to the sheer magnetism of his personality that people like me, growing up in distant India, identified with the Palestinian cause. Not because I happen to be a Muslim. Many of my friends who didn’t share my faith admired Arafat. He was very close to Indian leaders and boisterously embraced the late Indira Gandhi, (he called her sister) whenever he visited India, which was often.
Today, the United States, never a big supporter, seems to have dumped the Palestinian cause. Instead, it’s always and unquestioning, reaching out to Israel. But then, like someone argued, a nation has no permanent friends and foes; only permanent interests. Arafat lived dangerously all his life pursuing the impossible dream of freedom for his people, driven and chased all over the Middle East and the world, from Egypt to Lebanon and from Tunis to Ramallah. But he remained a fighter, a mujahid, to the very last — never giving up on hope and never giving in to the occupation and all that it represented. More importantly, he refused to sell and surrender what belonged to his people — their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations and their right to their land.
Even when Israel made him a prisoner in his Ramallah headquarters. Even when he was repeatedly attacked by the mighty forces of Israel and eventually became a victim of its conspiracies. In the end, Arafat died without realising his dream of an independent Palestine. But that can’t take away from him the glory of his achievements as a leader. Not only the history of Palestinian struggle will always revolve around Abu Ammar but wherever and whenever people fight for freedom, they will always look up to Arafat. Arafat’s stature as a leader is all the more augmented by the pygmies who have succeeded him. But then every pretender to the greatness can’t be great.
It is the ability of ordinary men and women to rise above their extraordinary circumstances that makes them great. They are ordinary people of flesh and blood like me and you. What makes them extraordinary is their ability to rise and respond to extraordinary situations and challenges. It’s this quality that turns ordinary people into Gandhi, Mandela, Arafat and Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s this power that enables a frail old man — or naked fakir as Churchill contemptuously called him — bring the British empire to its knees. I was very young when Mandela completed 25 years in prison, which was more than my life then on earth. It fascinated me no end then how one could spend all his life behind the bars for one’s beliefs. But then this is why Mandela is a hero. He spent a total of 27 years in the Robin Island prison. Suu Kyi has spent nearly two decades as a prisoner in her own home, cut off from her family and rest of the world.
Both Mandela and Suu Kyi need not have gone through all this. Mandela could have chosen to live in freedom by ignoring what went on around him. Suu Kyi could have gone back to UK where her husband and children lived (her husband died of cancer in 1999 and she couldn’t attend his funeral). They could have chosen to compromise with their circumstances and go with the tide, as most of us do. But then this is what distinguishes great men and women from the rest of us. They swim against the current! What adds to Mandela and Suu Kyi’s stature is the fact that both remain untouched by the bitterness and unpleasantness of it all.
After his release in 1990, Mandela not only forgave his tormentors, the ruthless apartheid regime, he went on to heal the divide between the black and white South Africans. And Suu Kyi remains the picture of hope and optimism for a new Burma despite what she has gone through. Just look at her face. God’s angels couldn’t be more serene and dignified. We all need our heroes. They appeal to our good side, persuading us a fairer and better world is possible. They offer us hope to go on when we are weighed down by our own cynicism and mundane, existential issues.
So Martin Luther King Jr was a hero when he refused to accept the indignities heaped on his people. Buddha was a hero when he dumped the kingdom he had inherited for the kingdom of heaven. Moses was a hero when he challenged the Pharaoh leading his people to the promised land. Jesus was a hero when he chose to say the truth as it is and pay the ultimate price for it. In fact, all the prophets had been heroes of their people and times. Whether they were chosen by God for their greatness or they were great because they were the chosen ones hardly matters. What matters is they left the world a better place than the one they had inherited.
This is why, I think, the greatest hero of them all was the Last Prophet. Not because I believe in him; but because he combined and epitomised all the great qualities that we so admire and love in heroes. He was a complete hero and leader of the world in every sense of the term. No other individual has influenced and changed the world in such a short time. Muhammad Bin Abdullah, peace be upon him, was born an orphan and never learned how to read and write. He was 40 when the Quran was first revealed to him.
And when he died at the age of 63, the whole of Arabia and the two great empires of the day, Persia and Rome, lay at his feet. This was the most peaceful revolution in the world and he accomplished all this within two decades. What makes the Prophet of Islam truly great is his incredibly multifaceted personality. He was a Messenger of God, philosopher, warrior, noble friend, ideal husband and father, gracious host and a great leader of men. This is why Michael Hart picked up the unlettered man from Makkah to lead his list of hundred individuals who scripted history and changed the world. As Hart says in his book: The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. “He was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels. It is this unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which I feel entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.”
A world without heroes would be so dull. That’s why every age gets its share of extraordinary men and women. And here’s a man who remains a hero for all times – past, present and future.