Eqbal Ahmed: a secular Westernized intellectual with a difference

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Safar 07, 1422 2001-05-01

Book Review

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 5, Safar, 1422)

Eqbal Ahmed: Confronting Empire edited by David Barsamian. Pub: Pluto Press, London, UK, 2000. Pp: 326. Pbk: £11.99.

Eqbal Ahmed, who died in 1999, was a senior member of the American dissident movement, along with men such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Howard Zinn. His profile, however, is far lower, and his reputation among Muslims rather different. A Muslim friend recently saw this book in my office and reacted angrily: “Why are you reading that rubbish?” he asked. “Ahmed was a communist.”

Well, no, actually he wasn’t. He was a left-wing secularist, known for his lifelong denunciation and critiques of Western imperialism: hence the title of this collection of conversations with him, conducted by David Barsamian shortly before Ahmed’s death from cancer in 1999. He was also a Pakistani, with a deep love for Urdu literature and a commitment to his country (albeit a misguided commitment, as many who read his regular columns in the Dawn newspaper might argue). Following his retirement from teaching world politics at an American college, he planned to build an independent university in Pakistan called ‘Khaldunia’, after Abdul-Rahman ibn Khaldun, the famous Muslim scholar of the 13th century CE. Land that had been allocated for this project was later seized by Asif Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, reportedly for a country club and golf course.

Why, then, this relative anonymity compared to other Western dissidents? And why such rough treatment by Muslims? The answer to the first question is easy: compared to other dissident intellectuals Ahmed wrote relatively little of substance, concentrating on articles and columns rather than books; he was also a prodigious speaker and interviewee. The second question is more problematic. Part of the answer is his Muslim origin; Muslims expect more of him than from non-Muslims such as Said or Chomsky, and so are disappointed when he says the same sort of things as they do. Another factor is that he addressed Muslim issues and so exposed areas of his thought that Muslims do not see in Said or Chomsky. Many of their opinions on issues concerning the Muslim world would be similar to Ahmed’s, but because they seldom talk on such issues (and because they are non-Muslim), Muslims tend instead to focus on their criticisms of the West.

But perhaps it is unreasonable that Ahmed should be treated more harshly for being a Muslim. He was, after all, a product of his time, a man who was brought up in a middle-class Pakistani environment, and studied at a Christian high school in Lahore before going on to American universities. This was not a particularly unusual path for a young man of his generation, and it is hardly surprising that he developed little knowledge and understanding of Islam along the way. What is unusual — and creditable — is that, unlike most other Pakistanis of his background, he managed to avoid being dazzled by the West. While they were settling in the West and committing themselves to the pursuit of worldly success and material wealth, or becoming brown Westerners and returning to Pakistan to pursue the white man’s mission on their behalf, Eqbal Ahmed recognised the hypocrisy and imperialism of the West and committed his life to exposing it. It is true that his perspective was secular and liberal rather than Islamic, but at least his mind was critical and his intellectualism honest, unlike those of many Muslims in the West who (consciously or unconsciously) avert their eyes from unpleasant truths about the Western civilization whose shillings they have taken.

It is this element of critical thought that dominates these discussions between David Barsamian, another American dissident intellectual, and Ahmed; indeed the first section of the book is called ‘Think critically and take risks’. Immediately two key features of the book become apparent. The first is Ahmed’s cool, balanced tone and the clarity of his thought processes and his articulation, even when one disagrees with his ideas, analyses and opinions. The second is a strange combination of idealism, insight, realism and cynicism in his thought. These qualities are typified in Ahmed’s discussion of the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan, which is where the book opens. Ahmed is saddened by the fact of partition, preferring that people should learn to live together, and being a constant critic of nationalisms of all kinds. At the same time, he is realistic about the reasons for partition, and accepts the results as permanent and irreversible, instead of harking back to a past that never was.

He is critical of Gandhi as an anti-imperialist opportunist who used Hindu symbols and so contributed (despite his claims to the contrary) to the communalization of Indian nationalist politics. At the same time, he is sympathetic to Jinnah, characterising him as a victim of historians and successive leaders of Pakistan, and also to the poet-visionary Muhammad Iqbal. In all three cases, he see past their historic characterisations to discuss their lives in the context of the times in which they lived and the historical processes of which they were products and parts. A similar perspective colours much of his thought, whether it is in discussing historical movements, political groups or intellectual ideas.

Immediately, however, one major drawback of this book emerges, rooted in its format as the transcript of conversations; inevitably, like any conversation, the book tends to meander from topic to topic, with few of them being discussed in any depth, and too many being left hanging without key issues being properly explored. The result is that the book tends to read more as a series of thoughts on various subjects, instead of as detailed discussions of them. Time and again the reader is left wishing he could question Ahmed directly, to understand his ideas better, or to challenge them and explore the reasons for some of the positions he takes.

The themes covered in the first section of the book illustrate the point: Gandhi and Partition; the Struggle over Kashmir; Higher Education; Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky and Edward W. Said; The Palestinian Question; Faiz Ahmed Faiz; Orientalism; the Demonization of Islam; the Taliban; Reconstructing Hegemony; The Future of the US Left. Similarly eclectic combinations are found in the second and third sections of the book, called ‘Distorted Histories’ (including sections of Some of the News Fit to Print, Nationalism and Islam, Engaging Iran, Turkey and Israel, and Beyond Belief: V. S. Naipaul) and ‘Do Not Accept the Safe Haven’ (including Oppression and Identity, Poetry and Revolution, Ethnic Conflict in the Balkans, and Antonio Gramsci and Albert Camus).

While Barsamian deserves credit for imposing some semblance of order on his material, the problems for the reader (and the reviewer) are immense. However, a number of broad themes can be discerned. Ahmed’s opposition to Western imperialism has already been mentioned; this extends also to perceptive and critical analyses of Western foreign policies, Western international institutions, and the roles of the Western media and of many intellectuals. Another is his critique of politicians and political elites in Pakistan and other countries. He is damning of Western attitudes to Islam, particularly the West’s determination to present Islam as an enemy and a threat, but himself shows little understanding of the Islamic movement. A deep concern for Pakistan is also evident, not least in his discussions of the impact of US policies in Afghanistan, and the resultant growth of the culture of drugs and guns in Pakistan.

His comments on the Islamic movement — which are responsible for many Muslims’ criticisms of him — perhaps illustrate both his perceptiveness and his limitations. On Iran, and the Taliban and the Islamic movement generally, he combines a perception of historic realities that is independent and unusual among Westerners, with a disappointing inability to grasp the nature of the Islamic movement. Thus he understands and condemns the nature of the Shah, but cannot understand the nature of the Islamic State, which he calls fascist. His discussion of the nature of the Taliban, and the reasons for their rise, shows considerable understanding and insight, as does his characterisation of them as representing the most backward element of a diverse Islamic movement; yet his limited characterisation of the Islamic movement as ‘theocratic’ adds nothing to any reader’s understanding.

It is perhaps as well that the Khaldunia University project had come to nothing by Eqbal Ahmed’s death in 1999, for it would undoubtedly have become a centre of secularism (and probably, ironically, pro-westernism), and as such an adversary for Pakistan’s Islamic movement. Without such a problematic legacy, it will perhaps prove easier for us to understand and appreciate Ahmed’s qualities, in the context of the time in which he lived and the situation in which he worked. Considering the extreme allowances that Muslims are willing to make for pro-western Muslim secularists, and for non-Muslim Western intellectuals, it is perhaps not too much to offer a man who was at least critical in his outlook and honest with his intellectualism.

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