Remembering Eqbal Ahmad

Posted on October 13, 2006
Filed Under >Beena Sarwar, Books, People, Politics
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Guest Post by Beena Sarwar

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in his address to the UN on Sept 20 held up a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003) and recommended it as essential reading to understand contemporary world politics, he could have been talking about The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, for which Chomsky, Eqbal’s long-time friend, wrote the foreword.

Chomsky also gave the main address for this collection of Eqbal Ahmad’s writings (Columbia University Press, 2006) at the book’s launch in Cambridge, USA, on September 28, 2006. John Trumpbour and Emran Qureshi of the Labor & Worklife Program at the Harvard Law School, who organised the event, didn’t publicise the event too aggressively because of the hype Chavez had generated for Chomsky. The hall did get quite full, but they didn’t have to turn anyone away at the door. The venue may have had something to do with this. Chomsky, a linguistics professor now retired from the neighbouring MIT, is rarely invited to Harvard. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowtiz criticises Chomsky for being too “black and white” but often has to concede the basic truth of the points Chomsky makes.

Chomsky’s critics say he doesn’t provide original analysis but he himself notes that he merely provides information that is already available, often from official sources like the U.S. State Department and the U.N. He drew on such sources for his talk titled Confronting Empire: Eqbal Ahmad’s Legacy and the Contemporary Crisis. Habitually low key, he doesn’t need great oratorical skills – the information he juxtaposes is startling enough even for the reasonably well-informed. Chomsky spoke about how aggression not only deters negotiations and makes dissidents and reformers within the society more vulnerable, but how aggression also targets culture and historical memory; things which Eqbal Ahmad held central to politics.

The mainstream media in the USA sidelines such information. They have also sidelined Chomsky for years, which is why he is better known outside the country. When the big media does give him space, it is grudgingly provided – as in the present instance when Chavez left them no choice. Usually, they also give space to critics to counter him. The alternative media struggles to fill the gap, like Amy Goodman’s, and David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio, the latter based in Colorado. Barsamian, that great archivist of discussions and talks by progressive intellectuals like Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Eqbal Ahmad, flew in for the book launch to record the event. He has collected several of Eqbal’s talks and discussions in CDs and books, like Confronting Empire – Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.

Eqbal Ahmad was Senior Fellow at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington (1972-1982), and the first director of its overseas affiliate, the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. His political stance, particularly on Palestinian rights, kept him out of mainstream academia. Hampshire College, a small private institution, in 1982 awarded him a professorship in Politics and Middle East Studies. Pakistani students in the area, who took his classes, revered him.

Another of Eqbal Ahmad’s friends, his “college buddy” from the 1950s at Princeton University, Stuart Schaar, has also paid the price for his support of the Palestinian cause, sidelined in the mainstream academia as Eqbal himself was. Schaar read extracts from his forthcoming biography of Eqbal for which he visited Pakistan in 2004 where he found “the legacy of a global peacemaker.” Since retiring from Brooklyn College where he taught history, he spends most of his time in Morocco and Tunisa. Schaar and Eqbal studied Arabic together at Princeton and he talked of Eqbal “photographic memory” when it came to poetry. Schaar described Eqbal’s excitement at finding an Arabic poem that helped him to better understand Arabic grammar.

Poetry was one of Ahmad’s passions, and he was particularly fond of Ghalib and Faiz whom he would recite endlessly and translate for those around him, perhaps due to his interest in the progressive Islamic traditions and the separation of the religious and worldly powers. Preoccupied with how to achieve this, Ahmad believed that forced change “robbed the people of their soul, and that a backlash would come.” This belief underlay his efforts for Khaldunia, his dream of a liberal arts university in Pakistan named after the great 14th century Arab historian and scholar Ibne Khaldun. However, no government allowed this to take root.

Margaret Cerullo, Ahmad’s colleague from Hampshire College and one of the book’s editors, talked of two main turning points for Eqbal. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and the Arab states failed to respond, he predicted that this “would turn up the heat of Islamic outrage.” When the USA accused Iraq of unlawful seizure of land and development of nuclear weapons in 1991 and fought the Gulf War, Ahmad noted that these charges could also be laid at Israel’s door, but no one ever suggested invading it.

She talked about his theory of the “logic of counter-insurgency” and his argument that the gap between coercive military occupation and the determination of the occupied would only lead to a spiralling of violence and even genocide – an argument that has been all too well illustrated in present-day Iraq. Cerullo recounted small, symbolic protests that must be supported, like the Iraq veteran who hangs up banners with the U.S. casualties in Iraq from different spots every week, “since the Boston Globe wouldn’t publish these figures, and the people who gather in front of government buildings every day to protest Guantanamo. She remembered “so many times when Eqbal said to me, “Margaret, we must do something.” Those who knew him can probably hear him say those words in his voice, with his particular intonations.

What about Eqbal’s stand regarding the Ahmadis? He was clearly against their persecution. Bhutto had got Parliament to declare them as “non-Muslims”. Gen Zia took this a step further by having Pakistani passports declare the holder’s religion, and by making Muslim applicants sign a statement denouncing Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as an imposter. When applying for his passport from the New York embassy, Eqbal refused to sign the statement. Afraid of the international scandal that would ensue if this was made into an issue, the Pakistan government granted him the passport.

I knew Eqbal as a colleague in the human rights and peace movements in Pakistan and India, and spoke of him in that context. To me, as to so many others, he was always “just Eqbal”. Always courteous, he would listen attentively with genuine curiosity to anyone, regardless of differences like age, status and experience, and ask thought-provoking questions that provided new insight. He extended the same courtesy to those who opposed his progressive, secular world view — from military dictators to religious extremists. Some criticised him for this — there are extremists among progressives too, who prefer not to hear the other side.

During the Zia years, Eqbal was unable to return to Pakistan as he faced treason charges punishable by death. He held prestigious academic positions abroad, but found the forced exile extremely painful. By the time he came home, after Zia’s death, he was already a legendary figure in Pakistan, anathema to the establishment but embraced by human rights activists and the intelligentsia.

His close friend Reza Kazim in Lahore believes that the shadow of sadness that crossed Eqbal’s face in repose stemmed from the early childhood trauma of his father being murdered while Eqbal lay next to him, in their family home in Bihar, India. There was also the trauma of migration in 1947 to Pakistan. Eqbal was separated from them at Delhi. It was rumoured that he had run off with a gun to fight for Kashmir’s liberation from India but Stuart Schaar says this was not true. In any case, this first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire that left Kashmir as part of Indian territory — and an ongoing dispute that Eqbal likened to the question of Palestine, with its roots in the history of colonialism and decolonisation.

The alternatives he outlined in 1990 for India are still relevant: continue the suppression “which would entail endless brutalisation of Kashmir and of the Indian polity”, blame Pakistan and go to war – which would not resolve the problem — or “recognise that the problem is political and its solution can only be political which implies an absence of war, an end to repression, and an admission of Kashmiri right to self-determination.”

He was among those who conceptualised and gave direction to the Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) established in 1994 to facilitate people-to-people dialogue between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis. PIPFPD was the first forum to articulate the formula that Kashmir is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, but a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, who must be included in any dialogue to resolve the issue – a formulation that has finally seeped into public discourse and government discussions.

Eqbal supported freedom struggles around the world. Fidel Castro sent him Cuban cigars, but stopped when Eqbal continued to argue for greater civil liberties and democracy. The Indian historian Radha Kumar (who introduces the South Asian portion of this book), says that Yasser Arafat showed her the chair that Eqbal liked to sit in. This friendship too, dimmed when Eqbal stuck to his stand for non-violent strategies and dismissed Oslo as bringing unsustainable peace at the cost of the Palestinian people.

He and six other anti-Vietnam War activists were tried for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up federal buildings (the jury declared a mis-trial in 1972 and the case was eventually dropped). While still under trial he criticized the Pakistan government for the army aggression in then East Pakistan. Few Pakistanis dared take this stand. His seminal ‘Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat’ is reproduced in this collection. He writes that he could not otherwise oppose American crimes in Vietnam or India’s occupation of Kashmir. He condemned the Bengali nationalists’ irresponsible acts but pointed out that these could not be equated with those “of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army. He clearly foresaw that “no genuine restoration of civilian government will be possible until the East Pakistanis were conceded their right to autonomy or even secession. We all know how it ended. His words continue to ring true for other military aggressions today.

After 1990, Ahmad divided his time between America and Pakistan – teaching at Hampshire College, writing his weekly column, participating in human rights and peace related efforts, and working towards Khaldunia. His retirement ceremony at Hampshire College in 1997 drew a couple of thousand adherents. Jack Trumpbour says that “more than the numbers, the more impressive thing was the distance people came, and the distinguished intellectuals and activists in attendance.”

In Pakistan, Ahmad was part of the struggle against the ‘talibanisation’ of society and the use of religion for political purposes. His articles on Jinnah predicted where the country was heading. He articulated the essential link between the rule of law and a country’s stability, noting that Jinnah “did not lose sight of this civic principle even in the darkest hours of 1947″. He wrote against the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1977 that criminalise adultery and make rape an offence in which the survivor has to prove her innocence.

In 1998, Eqbal blasted the BJP-led government for its nuclear tests and argued that Pakistan need not follow suit. He was severely disappointed when the Nawaz Sharif government gave in to domestic political pressures and the severe provocation from India, and turned the Chaghi mountains white.

Eqbal was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in May 1999, as both countries geared up to celebrate their nuclear anniversaries. He died just six days later, on the morning of May 11, the anniversary of India’s nuclear test.

His legacy lives on, in his writings, and in his memory. The Eqbal Ahmad Foundation set up by his relatives and friends holds an annual distinguished lecture series in Pakistan named for him. Noam Chomsky addressed the series in November 2001, and received standing ovations at each venue. Edward Said was to address the series also but sadly, this could not happen.

Under the banner of the Eqbal Ahmad Foundation, Parvez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian made documentary films on the nuclear issue and on Kashmir, opening discussion on subjects that were for long practically taboo. A young interactive media professional Sabeen Mahmud set up a website hosted free b.i.t.s to archive Eqbal’s writings and other material. Many other human rights activists among the younger generation continue to be inspired Eqbal Ahmad’s work. Oxford University Press in Pakistan published a selection of his essays on South Asia (2004), edited by his daughter Dohra Ahmad, nephew Iftikhar Ahmad, and Zia Mian. The Columbia University Press publication adds to this essential reading list, and is expected to be available in Pakistan and India also. Hopefully, there will be translations in local languages so that it reaches the maximum number of people.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who produced a documentary on Eqbal Ahmad for Geo TV (November 2004). A new collection of essays by Eqbal Ahmad has recently been published by Columbia Univeristy Press. Beena Sarwar was one of the speakers at the book’s launch in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This essay is based on her presentation at the launch, a shorter version was published in The News on Sunday (8 October, 2006).

28 responses to “Remembering Eqbal Ahmad”

  1. Amanullah says:

    To those who wonder why Eqbal remained relatively unknown in Pakistan, one of the main reasons (among others) is probably that he spent a very large part of his life and intellect working and writing on Middle East. From Algeria to Oslo, his work remains as much critical for the history of modern Middle East as, let’s say, that of Edward Said.

  2. younis says:

    No White Tongues: Chomsky remembering Eqbal 11.21.06

    thanks Beena serwar & Adil Najim for the article(not to be confused with Dr Mohammed Iqbal 1879-1938 Poet of the East & great philosopher of muslim world, known as the Goethe of East)
    Eqbal Ahmed 1933-1999
    PS. Eqbal was the inspiration for chomsky and long time friend, not taking any credits away from chomsky , but how many people around the world know this genius, just beacuse of colour of his skin and nationality that he remains almost un known

  3. Habib says:

    I saw somewhere a comment about how we can produce Nobel winners. Maybe we will do that when we start valuing intellect and knowledge rather than awards. Eqbal is just one example of how shabbily we treat our intellectuals. Salam was another. In a nation where our heroes are people like AQ Khan who steal and them smuggle other people’s technology rather than true intellectuals liek Eqbal, what do you expect. Your don’t go about ‘producing’ people who win awards. You respect real knowledge and intellect and if you do then the awards come themselves.

  4. iFaqeer says:

    Not having met him, or even read too much of his work, my own reaction to Eqbal Ahmad and, particularly, paeans to him, is twofold:

    * I didn’t go to MIT or Harvard, I lived in lower/middle class Pakistan till I moved abroad; I had never heard of the man till then. So where is my Eqbal Ahmad? Why didn’t y’all that know and say so much about him get his message out into downtown Pakistan while it was fresh and its messenger alive?

    * His idea of the kind of educational and academic institution we need, manifested as Khaldunia, leaves me awestruck. With so many of our most privileged folks (mean us, you and me) so busy trying to help IT institutions and institutions of management sciences get started and be the best they can be, the simple point seems to be that if we are going to be anything other than the raw material source for the rest of the world, we need to have universities and institutions where we can gain–and develop–knowledge. Not just–though we need them, too–factories that turn out code monkeys and deal makers. And for the very people that revere Eqbal Ahmad to not get that point is very, very depressing. I still say that if anyone seems like they really want to make his dream for Khaldunia a reality, I would help in any and all ways I can.

  5. Aisha PZ says:

    Beena, thank you for sharing your writings and for this post.

    Faisal –
    Thanks for your moving words on the personality of dear Eqbal Ahmad – and for the nostalgia. I was hoping you would share your thoughts, as you knew him so much better than I! His affability was truly infectious as you say. He always had a twinkle in his eyes, and when he spoke, we would be in pure awe – his life stories (the true and even the far-fetched sounding ones!) held us all captive. When we spoke, he listened and critically responded, but with sincerity and an almost calm and soothing explanatory tone. I too, was lucky enough to take a few courses with Eqbal during that same period at Hampshire College from my neighboring alma mater, and they indeed were influential in shaping the way I understood the world then and now. His presence is greatly missed.

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