Eqbal Ahmad was a shining example of what a true internationalist should be. Eqbal was at home in the history of all the world’s great civilizations. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of states past and present, and he knew that states had a rightful role to play. But he also knew that states existed to serve people, not the other way around, and he had little to do with governments, except as a thorn in their side. To friends, colleagues, and students, however, he gave unstintingly of himself and his time, his example and his memory will inspire many to carry on his work.
—Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations
By complete coincidence, a few weeks ago, just after I had been thinking about writing a few words about Eqbal Ahmad, and had called his daughter Dohra (a friend) to speak about him, I received an email from Columbia University Press offering me a review copy of The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo, and Yogesh Chandrani; Foreword by Noam Chomsky). The book arrived two days ago by mail. Even though Eqbal died in 1999 at a relatively youngish age (he was 66), his political analyses are so sharp and prescient, and perhaps even more important and relevant today, that I decided immediately to introduce him to those 3QD readers who may not know of him, and also to recommend getting the book.
Like his close friend Edward Said (whose book Culture and Imperialism is dedicated to Eqbal, and who followed him to a too-early grave at about the same age a few years later), Eqbal was one of that rare breed of academics: those who bring their intellectual insights into the public sphere and directly engage a much wider world than the professoriate. While Eqbal’s activities and achievements were immensely wide-ranging (teaching, academic writing, political activism, journalism), possibly the most impressive thing about him was his uncannily precise feel for politics, and his ability to dispel the clutter of argument around political issues with a plainspoken insight of lucidity and obvious truth. As Noam Chomsky points out in his foreword:
… Ahmad was able to identify currents of modern history that few perceived. To mention only one distressingly timely illustration, he recognized at once that Washington and its allies were creating a terrorist monster when they exploited Afghan resistance to Soviet invasion by organizing and training Islamic fundamentalist extremists for their own cynical purposes. He warned that these initiatives were reviving a form of violent jihadism that had disappeared from the Muslim world centuries earlier and were also helping to implant similar forces in Pakistan under the brutal Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, with a devastating impact on Pakistani society, Afghanistan, and beyond.
Indeed Eqbal pointed out that, as he welcomed them to the white house in 1985, President Ronald Reagan actually called the Afghan Mujahideen (the future Taliban) “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” At the time, they were battling the Evil Empire, so no degree of hyperbole in their praise could be considered excessive. These “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers” are now, of course, terrorists. Speaking of which, in one essay, Eqbal brilliantly unpacks the term “terrorism.” As Carolee Bengelsdorf and Margaret Cerrulo explain in their introduction:
“Terrorism” in [Eqbal’s] analysis is a floating signifier attached at will to our enemies to evoke moral revulsion. The vagueness and inconsistency of its definition, he insists, is key to its political usefulness. Official discussion will eschew, indeed disallow, any search for causes or motives, to the point where former secretary of state George Schultz, asked about the causes of Palestinian terrorism, insisted “there is no connection with any cause. Period.”
Or consider Eqbal’s foresight in these few sentences (written in 1993) on the Oslo Accord:
Trouble awaits for the accord. Hamas will continue to question its legitimacy and may be joined by other nationalist elements. Attacks on Israeli occupation forces and other acts of resistance shall occur, giving Israel ample arguments against Palestinian statehood. It may stall even on extending limited autonomy to the West Bank. After all, its cooperation is premised on the PLO’s ability to maintain order, especially in Gaza. No one should be surprised if Yasser Arafat ends up as the Pasha of Gaza…
Eqbal was also able to correctly forecast (in 1988) that the birth of Jihad International would coincide with a disastrous rise in tensions between the Sunni and the Shia, with proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran taking place on various battlegrounds, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and as we can now clearly see, Iraq.
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Born in the village of Ikri in the Bihar province of India in either 1933 or 1934 (record-keeping of births was not a priority in the subcontinent until recently so that even I have no birth certificate), Eqbal witnessed the murder of his father one night when only a few years old, who died while trying to protect Eqbal from the blows of his assassins. It was a land dispute.
His grandfather was a wealthy man who had established the Khudabaksh Library in Patna where to this day it remains one of the finest collections of medieval Persian manuscripts. When he was about 14, Eqbal migrated to Pakistan upon its creation with his older brothers. (In 1996, the BBC produced a documentary about this difficult trek in a refugee caravan from India to Pakistan as part of a 5-part series entitled “Stories My Country Told Me.” The others profiled were Edward Said, E.J. Hobsbawm, Desmond Tutu and Maxine Hong Kingston.)
After graduating in economics from the Foreman Christian College in Lahore, Eqbal served briefly as an officer in the Pakistan Army before leaving for Occidental College in California as a Rotary Fellow in 1957, and soon transferred to study political science and middle eastern history at Princeton, where he eventually obtained his doctorate in 1967. While he was conducting thesis research on trade unions, Eqbal lived in North Africa from 1960 to 1964, and became a student and active supporter of the Algerian Revolution. It is not clear if he ever met Franz Fanon, but Fanon certainly knew of Eqbal and they shared a mutual respect. [Photo shows Eqbal at Princeton.]
I recently saw the brilliant Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers (rent it!) and was surprised to learn that Eqbal was a consultant on the film. He helped research the script and was present during the filming. Selected Writings contains an edited transcript of a fascinating lecture Eqbal gave to undergraduates at Hampshire College about the making of the movie. Even though it is a short thing (7 pages), it is a paradigmatic illustration of how packed with strategic insight even the most informal of Eqbal’s writing could be, and I’d like to dwell on it here for a bit. One of the key lessons that Eqbal took away from Algeria was that before revolutionary movements are ready to fight a state entity, they must take away its moral legitimacy by outperforming it at its main task: administration. Here’s Eqbal:
… to be successful, the revolutionary movement must outadminister the enemy before it starts to outfight it. The Battle of Algiers gives you that insight from both sides, Algerian and French. The film closely follows the actual battle, but the emphasis is not on violence; it is on organization…
…Ali is shown leading an angry mob, calling for blood in response to the [French] bombing. In a critical early moment in the film, he goes to see the resistance commander, Colonel Mohammed Jafar, and has an argument with Jafar saying, “We must strike back.” Jafar answers, “No, Ali, not yet; we are not ready. We must first organize the Casbah before we engage in violence. We must clean up the numbers racket, the gambling racket, the prostitution; we must institute discipline; we must offer services to people…”
… A second critical moment in the film is the marriage scene, presided over by an FLN [resistance] militant. It signifies that French rule is over inside the Casbah, that the revolution has outadministered the French. Colonial law stipulated that marriages must be registered with the French government… [but] The French have been cut out of the process…
This, no doubt, has already reminded you of the recent successes of a certain organization today which has taken these lessons to heart and has made itself the sole provider of public services in southern Lebanon. Yes, of course: Hizbullah. Also, interestingly enough, the Pentagon screened The Battle of Algiers for the heads of its Special (counterinsurgency) Forces in August 2003. Another of Eqbal’s points in this lecture is that a revolutionary movement must allow the larger population to appear neutral in the conflict until close to the end, and that the call for a general strike by the resistance leadership was an early mistake in the Algerian Revolution:
… In order to protect people, revolutionaries must maintain the fiction of popular neutrality. The incumbent power (whether colonial or local) has the compulsion to say, “The people are behind us; the revolutionaries, the guerrillas, are merely terrorizing them. We are protecting the people,” as indeed the French said. That rhetoric reduces their ability to attack the whole population. Therefore good revolutionary tactics always create an environment in which the people are overtly neutral, while covertly larger and larger numbers of them support the revolution by various means. In Algeria, therefore, you didn’t do anything to expose the entire people to attack by the other side. No decent revolutionary movement would call a general strike in a situation of warfare until almost the end, when it was winning, and it just need the last push.
This was not the case in Algeria… When the FLN declares the general strike, [French commander] Colonel Mathieu is very happy and says, “Now we can lick them. They have made their first bad move.” Why? Because they are announcing themselves to be on the side of the revolution. He can plan his operation: arrest everyone who is on strike and torture the bloody lot. Interrogate them. Some of them will turn out to be activists, some of them will turn out to be neutrals. But now he has a large pool from which he can get information… Seventy-seven thousand people in a period of just about twelve days were tortured, badly, in the city of Algiers… Six of the French who carried out the operation were eventually censured for torture.
The third point that Eqbal makes is that because of this mistake, the FLN was decimated in Algiers and its leadership had to move to weaker positions in Tunis. This insecurity caused them to raise a conventional army there (the Armee de Liberation Nationale, or ALN), complete with tanks, and even a small air force. When independence finally came in 1962, the ALN under Colonel Houari Boumedienne, which was not a revolutionary force, turned on the FLN leaders. By 1960 everyone knew the Algerian people were going to win; there was no need for the conventional army. Eqbal’s disappointment is palpable here:
Without that conventional army, the revolution would have been at least partially successful. It has not been even partially successful. It only succeeded in getting rid of France; it failed at building a democratic, revolutionary society.
In the mid-to-late 60s, Eqbal taught at various American Universities and became “one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of American policies in Vietnam and Cambodia.” In November of 1970, after reports to congress by J. Edgar Hoover, Eqbal was indicted along with the antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan and six other catholics on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam. The group came to be known as the Harrisburg 8. [Photo shows a press conference for the Kissinger trial. Eqbal is seated at extreme left.] One measure of Eqbal’s unwavering integrity and unerring moral compass is that in April of 1971, during his trial on these trumped up conspiracy charges, he took note of the worsening situation in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and the Pakistani army’s shameful atrocities there. At a time when hardly any other Pakistani raised a voice in protest, and under all that personal stress, Eqbal took the time to write a “Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat” which is included in Selected Writings. After laying out a seven-point argument for why the Pakistani government’s actions would only end in disastrous secession (which, of course, they did within the year), he writes:
I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army.
After their deliberations, the jury declared a mistrial in the Harrisburg 8 case in April of 1972. For the next decade, Eqbal continued writing while a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., also serving as the first director of its European affiliate, the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. He also held various visiting professorships during this time, and further consolidated his reputation as an intellectual’s intellectual. (“I’ve spent much of my adult life, it seems, reading and learning from Eqbal Ahmad.” —Seymour M. Hersh) From 1982 Eqbal was a professor of political science at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts until his retirement in 1997. But from 1992 onwards, he had started dividing his time between Amherst and Islamabad. Eqbal Ahmad died on May 11, 1999.
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Starting in the early 90s, Eqbal’s dream was to start a new secular university of the highest academic caliber in Pakistan, which he wanted to name Khaldunia after the famous fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. I only met Eqbal Ahmad once: after the screening of the BBC documentary about his migration to Pakistan (which I have mentioned above) at Columbia University. Akeel Bilgrami introduced me to him and we all went to dinner together. (I’m quite sure Robin Varghese was also present.) There, I asked him how the Khaldunia project was going, and he replied that he would tell me but first I must commit to teaching there for two years. Of course, I immediately and happily did, but alas, Khaldunia never came to be. The corrupt Pakistani bureaucracy put hurdles in Eqbal’s path at every step and finally even rescinded the land grant they had given him years earlier. Still, Eqbal kept trying, and during these years also became a columnist for Karachi’s largest English daily, Dawn. He wrote his last column on April 25th, 1999, and died two weeks later. Eqbal really was one the most widely beloved and respected men I can think of. Edward Said spoke at his memorial service, ending thus:
Bantering, ironic, sporty, unpedantic, gracious, immaculate in dress and expression, faultlessly kind, an unpretentious connoisseur of food and wine, Eqbal’s themes in the end were always liberation and injustice, or how to achieve the first without reproducing more of the second. He saw himself perceptively as a man of the eighteenth century, modern because of enlightenment and breadth of outlook, not because of technological or quasi-scientific “progress”. Somehow he managed unostentatiously to preserve his native Muslim tradition without succumbing either to the frozen exclusivism or to the jealousy that has often gone with it. Humanity and genuine secularism in this blood-drenched old century of ours had no finer champion. His innumerable friends grieve inconsolably.
You may read the rest of Said’s speech here, and other tributes can be seen here. Over the years, Robin, who knew Eqbal Ahmad intimately and worked with him for a while, has frequently entertained and edified me with anecdotes of Eqbal. Rather than try to recall these and give a second-hand account, I urge Robin to set down some of his personal reminiscences of Eqbal himself here at 3QD in the near future. But for now I give the last word to Arundhati Roy who speaks for many in saying: “Ahmad is a brilliant man with brilliant insights. My only complaint about him is that he is not here now, when we need him the most.”
[All photos of Eqbal Ahmad are taken from this website and were provided by Emily Roysdon of Hampshire College.]
My other Monday Musings can be seen here.