Published in The Muslim News (London); 27 October, 2000 (No: 138), p 12.
The World according to a Muslim Secularist
Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire. Interviews with David Barsamian. Pluto Press, London, 2000. Pp. 177. ISBN 0-7453-1713-8.
Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani-American academic and activist, to whose memory this work is dedicated, was a living embodiment of the courage, compassion and commitment of the secularist intellect. Throughout his nomadic life, Ahmad confronted power, championed universal causes and challenged the ideologies of dominance and exploitation. He was in Algeria during the early sixties where he joined the National Liberation Front and worked with Franz Fanon; he was an outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam and was even indicted, together with anti-war Catholic priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan and others, on the charges of ‘conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger’; and his involvement with the Palestinian struggle was unswerving and lifelong. Attaining notoriety as the guru of the Third-World left, he articulated its aspirations in various radical journals but ultimately came to belong to the select crowd of nonconformist celebrities like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn and the rest. After his retirement in 1997, Ahmad settled permanently in Pakistan and even had the ambition to establish an independent university named Khaldunia (The land granted to him in the early 1990’s was reportedly seized by Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s ‘feudal lord’ and husband). Eqbal Ahmad passed away on May 11, 1999.
Though an academic and an intellectual, Eqbal Ahmad’s peculiar brand of ideational sharpness and analytical acumen found its full rein only in political challenges. His was essentially an activist’s vision and his thought shows every trace of the existential involvement, the concrete specificity of the historical moment, that elicits his intellectual response. Not surprisingly, his bibliography is comprised almost exclusively of terse retorts, brief statements and rapid flashes of insight that are all lacking in sustained thought and extended reflection. In fact, Edward Said, who in this volume supplies an extremely warm and generous, but also insightful and revealing, portrait of his close friend Eqbal, laments that though Eqbal wrote ‘a great deal, scattered, in his typically thoughtless way, all over the globe in articles, scholarly pieces, journalistic interventions, and interviews’, he did not author any ‘big book’.
Part of the reason for this, according to Said, was that Eqbal ‘could never resist being interviewed.’ Thus, ‘wherever he went, he was surrounded by people with tape recorders and notepads, anxious to have one-on-one with him. Trying to get Eqbal to act like a professional was like trying to plow the sea. It was hopeless.’ Eqbal was not unaware of his failings and he sought Said’s counsel. Unfortunately, however, before he could comply with Said’s solicitation ‘not to leave his words scattered to the winds, or even recorded on tape, but collected and published in several volumes for everyone to read’, he died. It is all the more gratifying therefore that David Barsamian has produced this volume where Eqbal Ahmad’s provoking ideas are brought together, befittingly in a series of intimate and wide-ranging conversations, in order to provide a genuine insight into the mind and passions of this gifted thinker and incurable activist.
Eqbal Ahmad is affectionately described as ‘a genius at sympathy’, and there’s no doubt that he was a man possessed by the demands of universal solidarity and torn by his compassion for the oppressed. Nevertheless, his was an anti-imperialist worldview, acquired through the perspective of the marginalized and the dispossessed, that allowed him to express the obscenity of global zulm (tyranny), with full comprehension of its mechanics, in the most economical and unsentimental of languages: ‘For three hundred years before the twentieth century dawned, the world had been transforming, a transformation brought about by modern science, technology and imperialism. It was through the age of capitalist and European expansion that a world system came to be dominated by the West and the international market came to be controlled entirely for the West’s benefit. This sounds rather benign, as though the free market was really free and worked to the advantage of the fittest. Far from it; Western domination was achieved by force so widespread, institutionalized, and legitimized by religion and morality that to date the epistemology of this universal violence still shapes relations between the Western and non-Western worlds.’ In fact, Ahmad kept on reminding the West that imperialism was at the heart of its ‘civilizing mission’, that its historical project too entailed a unity of din and dawla, or that the West without the empire would not be the West at all. Further, he asserted that though there is great emphasis in Western gospel on rationalism, democracy, liberalism and enlightenment etc., the role of imperialism in the shaping of the West’s identity and civilization is conveniently left out. That the same argument has been pursued, in greater detail and with greater fervour, by Edward Said merely testifies to the ideological and intellectual affinity that exist between these two thinkers.
Eqbal Ahmad, however, was not a glib anti-Western rhetorician whose ideology was devoid of all political plans and moral imperatives for engaging with history. Nor was his indictment of the pathology of power in the non-Western world, of the beneficiaries of Empire as it were, any less severe. And he had a genuine loathing for all the ideologies of hate and separation; nationalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and the rest. Nevertheless, as a true Marxist, Eqbal was not willing to renounce the category of ‘class’. For instance, recounting Malcom X’s experience of Hajj, which profoundly altered his colour-consciousness and race-centred perception of the world, Eqbal opines: ‘what he (Malcom) was not fully grasping was that another kind of division was already there – the division of class – which is obliterated during that short pilgrimage during which nobody is allowed to ask, “Are you rich or poor?”.’ For all this, and notwithstanding his self-proclaimed secularism, Eqbal finds himself drawn towards, emotionally if not intellectually, all the respectable Muslim causes. His rage at Naipaul’s chicanery and affectation, in connection with the latter’s depiction of Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan in Among the Believers, is genuine, just as his analysis of the current Western mania for the ‘demonization of Islam’ is both cogent and anguished.
Ahmad describes his own politics as being ‘socialist and democratic’, but defines its content as: ‘By democratic, I mean genuine commitment to equality, freedom of association, critical thought and the accountability of rulers to citizens. By socialism, I mean control of wealth by the people rather than by the state or by corporations.’ Certainly, these commitments are not incompatible with the ideals of Islam – even if the concept of a ‘people’ - and its wealth - that is independent of the state is naïve and self-contradictory! Similarly, Eqbal claims that he is ‘very harshly secular’, but limits it to the functional separation of state and church and to the equality of all citizens. He does not seem to subscribe to the kind of philosophical and metaphysical secularism that posits a materialistic explanation of ‘all that is’ and acquires the trappings of a doctrine. In other words, even Eqbal´s ‘harsh secularism’ is not inherently and incontrovertibly ‘un-Islamic’. It is ironic therefore that when he takes a circuitous rout, through Fanon, to come to the insight about ‘the importance of resistance, of struggle in the discovery of one’s own and the other’s humanity, of coming into the fullness of collective self’, he appears to be articulating nothing but the Islamic ideal of jihad! That a man of Eqbal Ahmad’s intellect, compassion and humanity found no indigenous discourse within which to express his hopes and pains, that he discovered no ‘Islamic’ platform for proclaiming his solidarity with fellow humans existing beyond the ideological prison of his own ‘history’ – though his faith endorsed, nay encouraged, it – is a grim reminder of the inhospitality of traditional discourses to humanitarian conscience. The failure however was not his but ours.