A Civilizing Mission

A Civilizing Mission

The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad collects the work of one of our finest postcolonialist critics.


Among anticolonial intellectuals, Pakistani scholar and activist Eqbal Ahmad (1933-99), who toward the end of his life spent fifteen years teaching at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, holds a special place. He never published a classic text on the order of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth or Edward Said’s Orientalism, nor did he achieve anything like fame. (The closest he came was a passing notoriety during the Nixon era, when he was indicted on charges of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger.) Yet everyone who was someone in the vast but–in the West–obscure world of Third World radicalism knew Ahmad, and even his adversaries had a grudging respect for him. As much as Said, he was a mentor to a generation of thinkers, mostly South Asian, who have been active in protest struggles in the West as well as on the subcontinent.

Within a few miles of Ahmad’s birthplace in the Indian state of Bihar stands the mausoleum of Sher Shah Suri, the sixteenth-century ruler who built the Grand Trunk Road across the giant spread of the subcontinent. In a BBC documentary called Stories My Country Told Me, Ahmad, traveling in a car across that great unifying marker in the region, cites Sher Shah’s remark that “roads are the carriers of civilization.” Ahmad’s work as a writer and activist might be said to have performed the same function. It is not only the power but also the wide range of his sympathies that astonish. He was a committed engineer of emancipation, building imaginative roads, linking issues across continents.

Though best known for his eloquent speeches and lectures, Ahmad published with some regularity; his Selected Writings, edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani, are now available from Columbia University Press. They shed light on guerrilla warfare, the cold war, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan. There are more than fifty pieces: Some were written as op-eds, including for The Nation; a few were delivered as speeches; and several were published as scholarly essays.

Yet this collection, for all its riches, offers the merest hint of the scope of Ahmad’s life. He may have taught at a small New England college, but he inhabited a large stage, and his adventures reflected a profoundly committed cosmopolitanism that has since degenerated into a more fashionable, and considerably less dangerous, seminar-talk in cultural studies courses on American campuses. During the early 1960s, while he was a doctoral student at Princeton and doing research in Tunisia, Ahmad rallied to the cause of Algerian independence and befriended a number of high-ranking FLN leaders exiled in Tunis. Upon his return to the United States in the mid-’60s, he became an early and impassioned opponent of the war in Vietnam and then, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights at a time when such a position was virtually taboo in the United States.

Ahmad remained throughout his life a Marxist, but of a special kind, as the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy reminded me in a recent conversation. Sitting in his home in Delhi, close to the shrine of the fourteenth-century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, Nandy described Ahmad as a Leninist who was long “straining at the leash.” Even in the First World, where Ahmad spent many years, “the most creative Marxists had shed the shackles of Leninism.” And Ahmad did the same with age. But what gave his thinking its suppleness, Nandy suggested to me, was that Ahmad had been born in a society where faith was deeply entrenched and secure. Ideology is not so powerful in such places. For some members of the radical left, particularly in the West, people in developing countries are an ideological abstraction, on whom fantasies of liberation are projected from a comfortable distance. These fantasies are not infrequently laced with condescension. Ahmad, by contrast, was led into political activism by a genuine love and compassion for the peoples of the Third World, who were anything but strangers to him. “To identify him with an ideology, as if he were a fully formed Western man,” Nandy told me, “is to do him an injustice. He fought for causes in the Third World and had a robust, life-affirming attitude towards the people among whom he fought.”

Not that anyone would have predicted a career of radical, globe-trotting activism for Ahmad, who was born to a prosperous family of Muslim landowners. But the struggles in British-occupied India, followed by the bloody partition that accompanied independence, changed all that. Ahmad, barely a teenager at the time, was forced to join the long caravan of refugees trekking to Pakistan. His father had earlier been murdered over a property dispute; his mother refused to leave India for Pakistan, reportedly rebuking her sons for having become “Muslim Zionists.” In the course of the long march to the newly created border, young Ahmad served as an armed sentry, shooting down marauders who attacked the caravan. The experience was no doubt scarring.

In a sense, the agony of partition–of bloody interethnic riots, mass displacement and the slaughter of a million civilians–had an effect on South Asian intellectuals not unlike that of the Holocaust on Jewish intellectuals: It became their subliminal reference point, the angle of vision that defined their politics. Ahmad drew very specific lessons from the nationalist bloodletting. Like Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and thinker he admired, Ahmad understood that Indian anti-imperialist movements needed to avoid the ideology of nationalism. In a series of interviews with David Barsamian, published in 2000, Ahmad said, “We rejected Western imperialism, but in the process we embraced Western nationalism lock, stock, and barrel.” The carnage of the partition was inevitable. And also, arguably, the present-day fundamentalist revival with its ultranationalist underpinnings.

Today, many writers from the subcontinent–notably the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, also an admirer of Tagore–echo Ahmad’s assertion that “nationalism is an ideology of difference.” In his recent book Identity and Violence, Sen argues against the imposition of singular nationalist or civilizational affiliations on our robustly plural identities. “The same person,” he writes, “can, for example, be a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a nonvegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God created Darwin to test the gullible.” Like Ahmad, Sen a witnessed, as a child, the brutality of Hindu-Muslim riots. And for Sen, the way out of belligerent, civilizational partitioning lies in cultivating–even acquiring–a complex social identity. This should be true not only of individuals but also of cultures. No civilization has a monopoly on tolerance; each is capable of bigotry. In saying this, Sen is contesting the modern myth that Europe, and Europe alone, has been home to democracy and freedom. In Identity and Violence, Sen points to the tolerant regimes ruled by the Indian emperors Ashoka (third century BC) and Akbar (sixteenth century AD). When, in the 1590s, “the Inquisitions were quite extensive in Europe, and heretics were still being burned at the stake,” Akbar forbade the forcible imposition of faith and advocated individual choice in matters of religious practice.

It is impossible to read arguments like Sen’s without thinking of Eqbal Ahmad, particularly at a time of resurgent racist mythologizing about the supposed divide between “East” and “West.” This divide, according to Ahmad, was reinforced–or, for that matter, bridged–by political and economic interests, not by “cultures.” In his speech “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” a 1998 text that found a new life on the Internet after September 11, Ahmad reflected on the marriage of convenience between the United States and the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen, one that by then had ended in a bitter divorce with the rise of Al Qaeda. As he recalled:

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan received a group of bearded men in the White House…. They were very ferocious-looking bearded men with turbans who looked as though they came from another century. After receiving them, President Reagan spoke to the press. He pointed toward them, I’m sure some of you will recall that moment, and said, “These men are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” These were the Afghan Mujahideen. They were at the time, guns in hand, battling the Evil Empire…. Terrorists change. The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today. This is a serious matter in the constantly changing world of images in which we have to keep our heads straight to know what is terrorism and what is not.

During President Clinton’s bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Ahmad warned: “The United States has sowed in the Middle East and in South Asia very poisonous seeds. These seeds are growing now. Some have ripened, and others are ripening. An examination of why they were sown, what has grown, and how they should be reaped is needed. Missiles won’t solve the problem.”

To read these passages is to be struck not only by Ahmad’s prescience but by his loathing of fundamentalism, his hatred of imperial hypocrisy, his belief in the value of history, and his commitment to resolving political problems through diplomacy, not war. His writing on the Muslim world in particular was notable for its critical vigilance and integrity, its resistance to received wisdom. In a 1984 essay titled “Islam and Politics,” Ahmad wrote that the truth of “the Muslim condition” had “slipped beyond the grasp of most ‘experts.'” In his view, Islam in its exemplary form was a religion of the oppressed. Because its rise was dialectically linked to social revolt, he felt, the “religious force and cultural force of Islam continues to outpace its political capabilities.” The structural unity that Islamic societies had achieved, especially in culture and education, had been disrupted by Western imperialism. As he put it:

The remarkable continuity which, over centuries of growth and expansion, tragedies and disasters, had distinguished Islamic civilization was interrupted. This change, labeled modernization by social scientists, has been experienced by contemporary Muslims as a disjointed, disorienting, unwilled reality. The history of Muslim peoples in the last one hundred years has been largely a history of groping–between betrayals and losses–toward ways to break this impasse, to somehow gain control over their collective lives, and link their past to the future.

Islamic fundamentalists, although they had little trouble raising their voices, only spoke for a minority; the majority of Muslims, Ahmad believed, had their faces turned to the future even as they remained rooted in the past. As he pointed out, the political heroes of the Muslim world in the twentieth century had been “secular, generally Westernized individuals”: Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Pakistan, Sukarno in Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia and the nine “historic chiefs” of the Algerian Revolution. Even the PLO, he added, claimed to represent a “secular and democratic” polity, and “two of its three most prominent leaders [Marxist leaders George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh] are Christian.”

Accurate as this analysis was for much of the twentieth century, it seems incongruous today when much of the region that so concerned Ahmad seethes with a passion that is defiantly unsecular. Muslim anger has, of course, been stoked by America’s war in Iraq and by Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestine and Lebanon. Still, this cannot explain why radical Islam (with its various branches, tendencies and strategies) has managed to co-opt the anti-imperial struggle in the Muslim world–and why, by contrast, the Third World Marxism that Ahmad embodied so brilliantly has been unable to offer existential comfort or a successful political program to the masses.

One senses that Ahmad was deeply sensitive to the waning influence of radical secular politics in the Muslim world, where Islamists increasingly led the opposition to military regimes that had betrayed the dream of independence from colonialism. It may well have been this concern that led him to return, shortly before his death in 1999, to Pakistan, where he hoped to build a university that would teach the humanities. It was to be called Khaldunia University, after the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), whom UN General Secretary Kofi Annan described as “a globalist long before the age of globalization.” (When Annan said that, he was delivering the first Eqbal Ahmad lecture at Hampshire College. Annan was no doubt also thinking of Ahmad when he reminded his audience that Khaldun had “argued that civilizations decline when they lose their capacity to comprehend and absorb change, and that ‘the greatest of scholars err when they ignore the environment in which history unfolds.'”) Alas, Khaldunia University was never built; according to The Economist‘s obituary of Ahmad, he “died before a rupee was raised for it.”

Even if his dream had come to fruition, it is hard to imagine Ahmad running a university. He was too much the congenital outsider. Ahmad’s independence from institutions and political parties allowed him to deliver criticism to those least inclined to listen, and it might have been the reason why he earned the trust of statesmen and revolutionaries throughout the Third World. A critic of power rather than an intellectual seeking power, he turned his weakness into a source of strength.

This past summer, Robin Varghese, a former student of Ahmad’s at Hampshire, recounted a story to me that he had heard his teacher tell in class. When Ahmad was in his 20s, he received a Rotary fellowship to come to the United States for further studies. He knew that he wanted to see four things when he left the subcontinent. Three of those four sites he visited en route to this country. He went to the Highgate Cemetery in London to pay homage to Karl Marx; he also visited 21B Baker Street, for its well-known literary landmark; and he wandered through the British Museum, where his reaction was “Return the loot!” The fourth place that Ahmad wanted to visit was in the United States, in Chicago, and it was the site of the Haymarket riot of 1886. Ahmad wanted to go there because, as a boy, he had been taken to May Day celebrations in India. He now wanted to lay flowers at the Haymarket monument to honor the striking workers who had marched in the first May Day parade.

But several years were to pass before he could visit Chicago. He had arrived in the United States in 1957 to study history at Occidental College; a year later he enrolled at Princeton as a graduate student in political science and Middle East history. His research then took him to Tunisia, an even further detour from Chicago. It was not until 1967, during his three-year stint as a teacher at Cornell, that Ahmad found himself giving a job talk in the city where in 1886 laboring men and women had fought to win the eight-hour workday. He left his hotel, picked up a bouquet of flowers and, when he arrived at Haymarket, asked where he could find the monument. No one seemed to know of it. Finally someone pointed it out to him. It was a statue of a policeman who had preserved law and order on that day long ago. Ahmad brought the flowers back with him and gave them to his girlfriend, Julie Diamond, who eventually became his wife.

In 1968, in a speech at an antiwar sit-in, Ahmad, who was now a fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute in Chicago, spoke of his search for the Haymarket monument. He told the audience how shocked he had been that the historical memory of workers’ resistance, recognized and celebrated throughout the world, had not been honored in its own place of origin. Not long after, two FBI agents showed up at Ahmad’s door. They wanted to know what he had said about Haymarket and who had been in the audience. It turned out that the Weathermen had just blown up the offending statue of the Chicago policeman.

“I am inclined to tell stories,” Eqbal Ahmad had once said, and, in one of his interviews, he offered a vignette about the visit from the two FBI agents:

They first asked me if I was a citizen of the United States. I said, “No.” They said, “Don’t you feel that as a guest in this country you should not be going about criticizing the host country’s government?” I said, “I hear your point, but I do want you to know that while I am not a citizen, I am a taxpayer. And I thought it was a fundamental principle of American democracy that there is no taxation without representation. I have not been represented about this war. And my people, Asian people, are being bombed right now.” Surprisingly, the FBI agents looked deeply moved and blushed at my throwing this argument at them. They were speechless. Then I understood something about the importance of having some congruence between American liberal traditions…and our rhetoric and tactics.”

The story is revealing of Ahmad’s cunning in a delicate situation, and of his sly talent for turning experience into political fable. But it also suggests his humanity, his belief in the power of reason to persuade and to elicit empathy. People like Ahmad do not come along often. That is why the publication of his Selected Writings is an occasion for sorrow as well as celebration.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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