Book Review: Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider and Witness in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar


*Originally written for and published on Eqbal’s Ahmad’s fanpage:

Note:

In the “intellectual indolence” that has reigned in Pakistan, Eqbal Ahmad has been a flare of exception. Although I became acquainted with his life and work long after his demise, his intellectual honesty, courage and brilliance has taught me to think, to learn, to question and to speak up; inspiring me never to dim the dream of a progressive and peaceful Pakistan and world; to stay true to the pursuit of this vision. My admiration for him knows no bounds and I am truly indebted to his work that has educated and awakened the importance of an intellectual consciousness in me. And I would like nothing more than to consider myself but a student of his.

Book Review:

Political scientist, activist, writer, thinker and intellectual, Eqbal Ahmad (1930-1999) was a man beyond his times. Writing his obituary in 1999, the late Edward Said described him as a ‘Companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk’, and ‘perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa.’ Eqbal has rightly been called ‘the astute alarmist’  who uncannily foresaw future trends that later came to develop into concrete realities marking the world. And it is with six incredibly significant examples of this prophetic perspicacity, including the fallout of the Afghan War and that of a possible US invasion of Iraq, that Stuart Schaar begins his book on Eqbal Ahmad.

Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Schaar was friends with Eqbal since 1958 when they were both at Princeton. He carefully traces Ahmad’s journey from a little boy in Bihar who was an early witness to violence, a participant of the Partition, student at the Forman Christian College and Princeton University, one of the notorious Harrisburg 7 (a conspiracy case during the era of the Vietnam War in which the defendants were accused of a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger), professor at Hampshire College in the US, to his return and final years in Pakistan. Each stage steering him towards the distinguished public intellectual and thinker he came to be; a transformation unveiled by light the book sheds on his personal, political and intellectual evolution.

Schaar writes, “The combination of originality, intelligence and fearlessness in confronting power, drew some of the major intellectuals on the Left towards him, including prominent figures in a variety of fields in the US, Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia,. He socialized with writers from around the world and learned from them. He corresponded with leaders of the international Left and in the Indian/Pakistani subcontinent he knew and befriended some of the most gifted intellectuals, while political figures and military leaders courted him for advice.”

Indeed Eqbal Ahmad’s brilliance and numerous travels led to his contact and correspondence with countless people, both those within and outside the realm of power, including Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Frantz Fanon’s widow and Osama bin Laden, and various activists, diplomats, politicians, leaders, journalists, writers, revolutionaries from all over the world. The book makes sure to deal with this important aspect of his life. One of the instances, related to this, mentioned involves Habib Bourghiba’s attempts to get Ahmad to write his official biography while he stayed in Tunisia for his PhD thesis. Ahmad also came to be acquainted with various struggles, especially the liberation movement in Algeria against France.

As his friend, Schaar was able to gain insights not only from his own memories but also from the access he gained to the latter’s family, friends, colleagues and students. Their anecdotes and recollections paint a fuller picture of the person that Eqbal was in each of his relationships: as a father, teacher, friend, colleague and thinker.

[the book even sheds light on the gourmet chef Ahmad was, also including a whole recipe of his at the end]

One of these is dealt with in detail in the book: Eqbal’s friendship with Edward Said, a relationship of immense respect, admiration, solidarity and affinity between both. Regarding which the book holds some wonderful insights in the form of excerpts from the email correspondence between both and the letter of recommendation by Said when Ahmad applied for a job at Hampshire College.

Moreover, the book goes beyond illuminating Eqbal Ahmad’s words and ideas by engaging with his efforts and encounters through which he channelled his ideas and social and political activism; such as his role in organizing and establishing people-to-people Indo-Pak cultural exchanges back in 1980s, which Schaar writes, [they] intended to build a social movement which would….help create a groundswell to move both countries towards reconciliation and peace.”, and his plan to establish a liberal-arts university in Islamabad by the name of Khaldunia (named after the Arab polymath).

Furthermore, Schaar manages to focus on both Eqbal Ahmad’s personal experiences and his ideas and work; by blending both as complements for each other into the narration of his life. To add clarity to the book and lend lucidity to understanding Eqbal’s work, the book neatly divides several of his ideas, stances and polemics on particular issues: (i) Islam and Islamic History; (ii) Imperialism, Nationalism, Revolutionary Warfare, Insurgency and Need for Democracy; (iii) The Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict; (iv) India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh: the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation and Views on Partitioning States; and (v) Critique of US foreign policy: The Cold War and Terrorism. Although these sections do not cover the vast expanse of Eqbal’s ideas in detail, which perhaps can only be accessed through his essays, they are nonetheless, a fair glimpse of his perspective and analytical eminence.

Despite being his friend, Schaar does not remain from revealing Eqbal’s occasional idealism and resulting follies, such as his criticism and attacks on then prime-minister Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari in his Dawn columns all the while hoping and expecting her government to endorse and support his Khaldunia project, which consequently faced many hurdles to its realization.

However, Kabir Babar sees the book as not without its drawbacks for students of Eqbal new and old:

“This book is not without its flaws. A drawback of the anecdotal style in which it is written is that Ahmad’s life is presented with neither chronological nor thematic consistency.

And while the book is revealing, it is by no means a definitive biography, for there are numerous aspects of Eqbal Ahmad’s life that are either ignored or glossed over in this work. For instance, no mention is made of Ahmad’s encounters with Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. Also, while much is made of the impact that Ahmad’s exposure as a boy to Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had on his thought, there is no reference to Syed Abul Ala Maududi, to whom Eqbal acknowledged owing an intellectual debt. Ahmad is said to have directly participated in the Algerian revolution, but few details are provided. In his foreword to a collection of Ahmad’s essays, physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy states that, during successive martial law governments in Pakistan, there were warrants of arrest and death sentences put out on Ahmad. None of this is mentioned in Schaar’s book.”

Nonetheless, Babar is right to point out that, “The subtitle of this book is well-chosen: because he was ideologically difficult to pigeonhole and the scope of his activities and intellect was global, Eqbal Ahmad was an outsider everywhere.”

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All in all, Schaar’s book weaves a truly vivid portrait of the man about whom the late Edward Said said, “Knowing him has been an education”, and on occasion of his [Ahmad] retirement from Hampshire College, “..to paraphrase from Kipling’s Kim – a friend of the world.”. Eqbal was a friend who saw the future before its time, who was an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed all over the world and was an epitome of intellectual honesty and courage – a friend who, in today’s global moment of confusion, crises and clamour, is all the more important to revisit. A revisit for which Schaar builds an important bridge through this book, for there is no doubt that knowing Eqbal Ahmad even today would still be an invaluable education for anyone seeking guidance and direction in hope for a more just, progressive and peaceful world.

—- Hafsa Khawaja

~ On These Roads, Flowers Sell


To the beautiful children of Pakistan; a future forced to be spent on the roads of today.

Photo credits to Maryaa Sajjad on Flickr

          

Weary faces,

Crushed fragrances,

Shoulders small but burdens big,

Tiny hands, roughened and stiff,

Not a wink of sleep and undreamt dreams,

Wilted before they bloomed,

For on these roads, flowers sell.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~ Tyranny of Everlasting Sorrow


On 16/12/14, to which it has been six months yet nothing has changed but the deepening of 141 wounds inflicted upon every single Pakistani till the end of time.

On the mother in a bloodied and tattered green and white.

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Oh beloved mother,

Bloodied and bruised,     

From the tyranny of misfortune,

Your children wished to nurse you tomorrow, 

Yet what trampled you forever, prevailed yet again;

The tyranny of misfortune triumphed,

Into the tyranny of everlasting sorrow. 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Silencing LUMS, Resilencing Balochistan


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”

Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.

Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.

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However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:

“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”

While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.

Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.

To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.

It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.

Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.

The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.

More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.

In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.

This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.

Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.

People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.

And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.

Balochistan is bleeding.

And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.

And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.

As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.

Thus, the ‪#‎ShameOnLUMS‬ trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today

In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.

While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:

“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.

 However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.

@

Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

Less than four months since the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistan has seen the Shikarpur bombing, the Peshawar Imambargah and Youhanabad attacks.

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

Much has been said about attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, and it is often that the violence against them is explained by brushing it into the general epidemic of terrorism afflicting the nation and country; violence that raging yet indiscriminate. Certainly, attacks on religious minorities do add to and reinforce the plague of violence in Pakistan yet they are not one and the same thing. The danger of this explanation is that it is a narrative which blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; specially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Ali Sethi’s recent article in The New York Times on the Youhanabad attack states:

‘According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.’

Moreover, although Youhanabad falls in Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency; he hasn’t visited it once since the attack. This does much to demonstrate the crass neglect and disregard prevalent in the ruling party’s leadership on the issue, aggravating the spiralling state failure at the cost of numerous Pakistani lives.

The extremist intolerance and hate that set off bombs in Youhanabad also bred further violence as two men were burnt alive by the resulting angry mob in broad daylight to the glare of photos being snapped and videos being captured through mobiles by the perpetrators.

As gruesome and reprehensible was the lynching, it is important to view the incident clear of the inevitable and intense emotions clouding it. Waqqas Mir, writing for The News on Sunday, offered the needed perspective:

“A mob is a mob and its violent actions need to be condemned for that reason alone. The religion to which violent individuals belong is not helpful in explaining the violence or, more importantly, controlling it.”

Religion can certainly not be held culpable in cases such as these which are clearly not specific to certain groups in the society if we are to recall that the savage lynching of two brothers in Sialkot happened not long ago.

However, the violent turn of events after Youhanabad revealed an equally important aspect contributing to the dismal position of Christians in the country: cultural and social.

The Youhanabad bombing and the mob that horrifically took the lives of two men spurred a rush of reactions. Soon some sentiments morphed into degradation of the Christian community in Pakistan.

Many expressed shock, outrage and despair at the incidents, yet a flurry of tweets and comments also ran along the lines of “chooray chooray hi hotay hain”. The attachment of choora as a disparaging and condemnatory label for the entire Christian community is neither new nor uncommon, and this was put to ample display during the ugly turn many comments took as the news of the mob murder emerged. Such is the extent of its use and commonality that choora rings synonymously with the Christian community in the country for many.

Language is the vehicle of culture, and inevitably, cultural prejudices.

Choora, a pejorative to belittle and degrade Pakistani Christians, is rooted in the utter lack of respect and recognition associated with those who have menial occupations in the society. The comments sought to shamelessly demean the Christian community by way of the label since socially and culturally, little respect is lent to the work of those who toil after the dirt and filth we leave in our wake, not quite different from this filth spouted at the Christian community; a religious minority whose members included illustrious individuals like Cecil Chaudhry, Mervyn Middlecoat, Justice Cornelius and Samuel Martin Burke who lived their lives for Pakistan.

The application of choora in its cultural context therefore ‘others’ Christians by degrading them as some sort of second-class citizens who are unequal to the rest. This is similar to the linguistic treatment of khawaja sira or khusras which is reflective of our societal treatment of them; in the form of exclusion; subjection to humiliation and jokes.

While to some these may ring only as mere words, they are nonetheless expressions of the deep-seated beliefs prevalent in many segments of the Pakistani society; cultural crutches for the bigotry that perpetuates prejudices against the cornered Christian minority. These reflect and reinforce prejudices that manifest as apathy towards their problems, grievances and pleas, and in the most extreme of cases, as bloody sores as in the form of Joseph Colony, Shama and Shehzad’s cruel murder and the Youhanabad bombing.

The white in our flag is soaked red and it is time it is reclaimed; but for that the state and society must work and change in unison; the latter must rid itself of cultural beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that sustain and perpetuate prejudices against religious minorities in Pakistan.

And for a start, we can all begin by challenging and changing the language of prejudice.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~~

~ Every Inch of This Land is Soaked with the Blood of its People


*Don’t usually prefer penning such despondency but this was written right after the Karachi Airport Attack; with a seared heart:

Every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its people,
Every corner with fear and ordeal;

Peace left long,
Abandoned us with scorn;

From death and violence there is no respite, pakistan-unrest-karachi-airport-1
Helpless screams our plight;

Bodies pile in heaps,
From this land of green, only red seeps;

Grief marches,
And suffering strides,
But bravery reigns,
And resilience still resides;

The sigh between mourning,
The breath between cries,
The time between two calamities;
Is the only peace, out of life, that we can now prise;

They say there is a world beyond,
They say there is a heaven,
And we believe, for we’ve seen our heaven thrown to hell;

For every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its people,
Every corner with fear and ordeal.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~ Enamoured


 

 

To those afar, she appears the pompous plump;

Her bearing ostentatious,

Her voice piercing;

Her beauty mendacious;

 

But to those who opened their eyes to her dazzle,

She is a goddess,

Of vivacious manners,

Under whose spell fell numerous warriors and rulers,

Adorning her with the jewels of their civilizations,

They sought to bring her under their own banners;

But history took to unsheath her mercilessness,

And withered all Maharajas, Rajas and Emperors,

Yet she remained unblemished,

Bestud with all the kingdoms’ splendour;

 

 view of Historical Badshahi Masjid lahore

 

With the richness of diversity her bosom swelled,

Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Parsi – all to her embrace were impelled,

Her body became the canvas of cultures,

And her gardens accomplices in forbidden meetings of lovers;

From her veins the poets drank to intoxication;

In her company philosophers and thinkers indulged in contemplation;

 

 

The winds of time have rumbled past since,

But even today,

Infront of her majesty and grandeur,

Can dare not stand a rival or contender;

 

She throbs with life, with no blink of sleep,

Pounding with vibrant resilience as the heart of a land whose wounds are deep;

 

A part of me, she has become,

I dwell in her, and she dwells in me;

There is calm in her clamour;

In which whirls my soul,

As I love her for her all madness; enamoured.

~ Hafsa Khawaja