It has been 20 years since Eqbal Ahmad bid farewell to this world.
In 2011, in an article of his, the late Christopher Hitchens termed Pakistan “a land virtually barren of achievements.” I read it and I, a 16 year old, was outraged, seething with rage. It was then that I decided to write a blog to show that the Pakistani nation had produced its fair share of achievements, pride and glory in every field. And so I began to do a little research of my own.
It was during the course of that research that I came across the name Eqbal Ahmad, “a distinguished intellectual, prolific writer and journalist, widely consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world.”
I was fascinated. And even more so to read that the great Edward Said had penned a moving obituary for him in 1999. He wrote, and I quote,
Who was this man that the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky praised lavishly? Why was it that I knew of Edward Said and not Eqbal Ahmad, despite him being one of our own? I began to read him and so began the chapter of my utmost admiration for him.
Eqbal, for me, was and is an ideal.
Born in Bihar in either 1932 or 1933, Eqbal Ahmad migrated to Pakistan as a young boy during Partition and went on to study at the Forman Christian College. He then earned his PhD in the late 1960s from Princeton where he studied political science and Middle Eastern history. As part of his doctoral dissertation which focused on labour movements in North Africa, he travelled to Tunisia and Algeria.
It was in Algeria that he became involved in the Algerian Revolution, meeting and working with Fanon and also becoming a member of the Algerian Revolutionary Council. After the success of the revolution, he was even offered an opportunity to join the first independent Algerian government but he refused. According to Edward Said, Algeria was a turning point for Eqbal Ahmad’s life which formed “an almost instinctive attraction to liberation movements, movements of the oppressed and the persecuted, causes of people who were unfairly punished — whether they lived in the great metropolitan centres of Europe and America, or in the refugee camps, besieged cities, and bombed or disadvantaged villages of Bosnia, Chechnya, south Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran and, of course, the Indian subcontinent.”
Eqbal Ahmad was a vocal advocate of the Palestinian cause (an advocacy that left him alienated and isolated; not one of his colleagues would sit with him during lunch at Cornell), and a prominent and vehement opponent of America’s intervention and policies in Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, In 1971, he was part of a group of anti-war activists, the Harrisburg Seven, who were tried on the charges of a failed conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger.
Eqbal Ahmad then went on to teach at Cornell University until 1968. In 1982, he joined the Hampshire College as a tenured professor where he taught until 1997. He befriended, influenced and collaborated with thinkers such as Chomsky, Said, Howard Zinn, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fredric Jameson and Daniel Berrigan.
His knowledge, thinking, observations and experiences lent him a remarkable grasp on global developments, leading him to be “consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world” and allowing him prophetic foresight which identified, among others, the disaster the American exploitation of Islamic fundamentalism against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan would bring, its terrible implications for Pakistan, and the the devastating consequences which would follow any military action to remove Saddam from Iraq.
In the 1990s, he began shuttling between Pakistan and the U.S and began writing for Dawn, while working to establish a liberal arts college named after Ibn Khaldun in Islamabad. The project, however, was wrecked by political realities in Pakistan:
“In the early 1990s, he was granted a parcel of land by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government to build an independent, alternative university, named Khaldunia. The land was later seized by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, reportedly to build a golf course and club.”
Previously in Pakistan, his criticism of military and political actors and policies had irked powerful quarters. He was a fearless critic of authoritarianism, militarism, political corruption, nuclear arms and extremism, and an ardent advocate of democracy, peace, self-determination, social justice and egalitarianism.
Eqbal passed away in May 1999 from colon cancer. Upon his demise, “editorials and newspaper columns published around the world quickly paid homage to a unique and fearless thinker. Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote “Palestine has lost a friend”, while the New York Times, whose Vietnam and Palestine policies Eqbal had forcefully criticized, admitted that he “woke up America’s conscience”. The Economist described him as “a revolutionary and intellectual who was the Ibn-Khaldun of modern times.”
While we are unfortunate to not have him among us anymore, the possibility of turning to him still remains; because while the issues of our time may be slightly different from that of his, the ethic he embodied, espoused and exemplified beckons for us to adopt and cultivate it. This was an ethic of being a global citizen in times of myopia and division; of refusing binaries and bigotries; of fighting oppression, imperialism, injustice and employing scholarship in the service of these causes; and of speaking truth to power both at home and abroad. It is after all, a testament to his intellectual honesty and principles that during the Harrisburg 7 trial in the United States, he penned his famous Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat in 1971 which was a letter of protest and condemnation of the Pakistani government’s military operation in East Pakistan. In it, he wrote:
“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.”
His was an ethic of truth, a truth that transcended boundaries and borders.
His advice and call to action for the younger generation was,
“Number one, read. Number two, intervene. For God’s sake, let us not be only consumers of information. Each person knows some truth – and I really think that almost anyone who is listening to you and to me right now has some knowledge, some truth, some understanding of the world, that is different from that of the dominant media institutions. The moment you find that your truth clashes with what is being peddled as their truth, intervene.”
His was an ethic of intervention, action and practice.
Eqbal was generous enough to leave behind an ethic, an ideal and an education for all to freely embrace, and which, in today’s global and local moment of confusion, censorship, suppression of ethnic movements for constitutionalism, the rise of the right wing, and clamour, is all the more important to revisit and learn from.
And at the end, it is up to us to honor this ethic and its legacy, and to recover its phenomenal promise, power and possibility.
So here’s hoping we turn to Eqbal Ahmad, for to turn to him is to turn to an ethic of supreme intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual responsibility, intellectual independence and imagination. To turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to engage with an ethic of love, empathy, solidarity, of thinking critically and of thinking fearlessly. And to turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to know that not only is this ethic possible but incumbent upon all of us.
For those interested in learning about him, please do refer to the following resources:
- Confronting Empire; Eqbal Ahmad interviewed by David Barsamian
- The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad
- Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia
- Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar
- The Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education
- The Transnational Institute
- Eqbal Ahmad Fan Page
- Google is your friend: search for Eqbal Ahmad and you’ll come across articles such as this and this here and there. Lots of fantastic speeches of his available on Youtube too.