Eqbal Ahmad: An Ethic


It has been 20 years since Eqbal Ahmad bid farewell to this world.

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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,

Eqbal Ahmad brought wisdom and integrity to the cause of oppressed peoples.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

output-f_large-e35f94bab0216ee21afad6c020f6a45aEqbal 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.

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For those interested in learning about him, please do refer to the following resources:

  1. Confronting Empire; Eqbal Ahmad interviewed by David Barsamian
  2. The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad
  3. Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia
  4. Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar
  5. The Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education
  6. The Transnational Institute
  7. Eqbal Ahmad Fan Page
  8. 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.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Pakistan’s Image Insecurity and The ‘Aal Iz Well’ Syndrome


As written before:

‘Since the onset of Pakistan’s engagement in the War on Terror, the country nosedived in its entirety; politically, socially and economically. Not only was this unfortunate plunge a harbinger of possibly, the worst of times for it but heralded the introduction of a gamut of negative stereotypes in relation to Pakistan and its citizens.

Largely owing to the almost-routinely involvement of Pakistan or any individual with even a faint connection to it in incidents or reports of terrorism, the spread of these stereotypes fixed its image as ‘The most dangerous place on Earth’’

This particular instance had consequential effects on both sides; of the Pakistanis and the rest of the world.

Concerning the latter, [ for most of them ] Pakistan’s picture became what was a hodge-podge of stereotypes and words such ranging from terrorism, terrorists to poverty, illiteracy and bloodshed.

For the Pakistanis, grivieances were nurtured of being portrayed in the single shade of negativity in international media, an obejction or grouse justifed at times, while many ventured and are venturing to show the ‘real’ image [ As said in the Pakistani lingo ] and positive angle of their country.

With each passing day, as the worsening of Pakistan’s state ensured its quick descent into chaos with degeneration in every quarter of the country – certain approaches developed amongst the people – one of them associated with ‘insecurity of image’, after being swung onto a somewhat defensive edge by the quick spin of events involving the country.

This evolved into an attitude relating to ‘Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no Evil’ [ Which in some interpretations, ‘is used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by looking the other way, refusing to acknowledge it, or feigning ignorance.’ ]. Many Pakistanis chose to shut their ears, close their eyes and sew their lips to silence when it came to the ills in the society and country. This has eventually lead to a self-concoted national ignorance, that has inevitably given birth to a sociteal conspiracy of silence.


As the numbers who chose to immerse themselves in this practise grew, a culture of shame, conspiracy theories, denialism and dogmatism flourished with it due to which any pinching incidents or facts that proffered chances for clamant introspection were tossed away by the dismissive wave of a hand after much nugatory tub-thumping and dramatic statements on the media by individuals.

With the PTA reporting over 22 million Pakistani internet users, which is about 12% of the total 180 million population, this concept and societal mindset slid onto the virtual world.

Plenty of these Pakistanis have been vociferating their opinion that no news regarding the country should be posted or discussed on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter [ where many have friends from other countries ] that sharpens the features of the poor picture that lots hold globally of Pakistan. This is the extent of the ‘image insecurity’.

One wonders how would the prevention of posting unfavourable Pakistanis news [ Say, cases of the treatment of minorities here, rape victims etc ] on these sites from reaching a handful of foreign people help in this digital age and era of electronic media where even a minor happenings are broadcasted or published through hundreds of channels and sites to millions all around the world within split seconds of their occurance.

Also, as of yet Pakistan has, in fact – no image at all. And it is food for thought, that if social networking sites could be tools for revolution, can’t they be instruments to stir a societal change? It is defined, that societies are the footing for nations that inhabit countries. Any change within the society will affect the nation which will inevitably reform/rebuild Pakistan’s perception positively that will come in its ripple effect.

But for that, the bizarre approach needs to abandoned. Pakistanis must shed the guise of ignorance and keeping mum while being cognizant about plagues and cultural malaises.

The people must be made aware of the innumberable and untold stories and issues stinging the core of Pakistan’s culture, society, politics and nation. They must be awakened from this sleep of dormancy that has been prolonged for too long a time, 64 years.

Debate should be initiated about them at all forums [ The internet, the streets, national media or at homes ] after this.
One of the reasons for the palpable and glaringly low tolerance in Pakistan is the absence of debate and arguments among people, which has helped to foster and instill a proclivity in each person for sheer insularity and unwillingness to hear opposing views – that if heard, are answered by profiling [ labelling someone as a RAW/MOSSAD/CIA Agent or a ‘liberal facist’ ] , judgements and fatwas rather than refuted by facts.

The stimulation of discussions will so, instill gradually a sense of open-mindedness along with stirring people to comprehend the situations, think, measure their words and then freely express their opinions.

Debates might also commence into finding solutions for the problems they are based on and individual efforts may be encouraged to apply those. Joint efforts may also be made. And the more the pandemonium and clamor of the people is, the more it is bound to reach the corridors of power and ensure decisive action.

There is an idiom in Urdu; Kabotar ka billi ko dekh kar ankhein band kar lena.
‘The shutting of eyes by the pigeon as he spots the cat’.

Some expound it as one’s turning away after seeing a difficulty. This might just be what the aforementioned Pakistanis are doing.

By averting one’s gaze from a problem [ Not accepting the existence of or talking about it ], it does not dissolve it. It needs to be faced. Pakistanis need to yield the need to identify conundrums, national dilemmas and social contaminations for only when they are recognized as problems, does one seek a remedy to be extricated from them.

The lean line separating resilience from indifference also needs to be accentuated and compreheneded. Pakistanis have begun to dwell more into the realm of the latter than the former. To be struck by bomb attacks, blasts and natural calamities and again get back and continue life with the same vigour is resilience but to see myriad cases of rape, discrimination against minorities, a selective genocide against the Baloch and yet remain silent – is shameful apathy.

Being lulled into a state of false security and satisfaction by not raising your voice against wrongdoings, thus they are not brought into the light of scrutiny and attention as they derserve to be, will only stoke the fire of such perversions and injustices for those committing it would certainly be basking in the knowledge of the nation’s propensity to remain indifferent towards them.

And as Sana Saleem wrote in one of her ever-brilliant articles;

‘The mindset that believes that acknowledging our issues is threatening to our ‘image’. What good is an image, other than deceiving ourselves, is another question altogether.’

Pakistanis have acquiesced with whatever has swept the country for too long and it has cost them too much.

Or as Ayaz Amir penned in his thought-provoking and must-read ‘Woes of an Ostrich Republic’;

‘Islam is not the state religion of Pakistan, denial is. And our national emblem should be the ostrich, given our proclivity to bury our heads in the sand and not see the landscape around us as it is.’

It will be nugatory to tart up Pakistan’s image for the world and act for them and for ourselves [ in betrayal of reality and as an ode to denialism ] as if everything is ‘Aal Iz Well’ while succumbing to the death-knell of destruction in the country due to national apathetic torpor that binds us in bondage of inertia relating to the situations in the country.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

For Syria, It Shall Be Hamza Al-Khateeb!


This is Hamza Al-Khateeb, a 13 year-old Syrian boy who marched with his family in a rally to break the siege of the city of Daraa. On April 29th,  he was detained with hundreds of other Syrians during the massacre of Siada [ where citizens of Deraa were randomly killed by Syrian security forces] .

His whereabouts were unknown until 25th May, when his dead body was delivered to his family – swollen with bruises with countless marks of torture, his gentials cut off [ Its being said, he was shot after this brutality ] and disfiguired due to decay.


This is the video of his body [ Extremely graphic ] :

Hamza is one of the thousands murdered savagely by the Syrian Forces [ Which is almost a mafia system under the command of the Assad Family, their cronies and mainly Maher Al-Assad who heads the 4th Divison – the most ruthless of all ] to smother the rebellion that erupted in the country on 15 March 2011 as part of the Arab revolutions that raged into an inferno this year.


Beginning with laying sieges to cities; cutting of water and electricity in the city of Daraa along with confiscation of flour and food. [ Similar situations occured in Homs, Baniyas, Hama, Talkalakh, Latakia, the Midan and Duma districts of Damascus, and several other towns ] – Bashar’s regime expanded and ran a whole gamut of inhuman tactics from flagrant killings, detentions, piling up of dead bodies in refrigerators to myriad of cases of unimagineable barbarity.

Bashar, whose quite the chip of the old block , is like all other despots clinging onto authority and declaring the revolution as a ploy by ‘armed terrorist groups’ as both to justify the crackdown on the people and display the revolt which calls for his removal in their list of demands – as a threat to the world posed by ‘terrorists’ who might takeover if he leaves.

The people of Syria, Libya and Yemen need to be supported wholly in their fight for liberation against the savages that have been throttling them since ages and in their struggle for basic human rights, social justice, freedom of expression, action and the right to take back the power to rule their countries.

As for Syria, Mosa’ab Elshamy [ One of the prominent youth activists in Egypt who took part in the revolution and has been just released after being detained for protesting infront of the Israeli Embassy on Nakba Day] aptly put it :

‘ Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi. Egypt, Khaled Saeed. Syria, Hamza El Khateeb.’

DOWN WITH BASHAR THE BUTCHER!

 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

* Also, a thank you to @tweets4peace for helping me with this!

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 Updated: It surfaced yesterday that Shahd, a beautiful 5 year old Yemeni girl was martyred due to the attack on Alhasba.

Oh and, will the West that claims to be the torch-bearer of All-that-is-right-and-good please raise its voice against these Heads of States/terrorists too, on whose head they kept their hands as Godfathers?

From Fascination To Inspiration : What Tunisia’s Revolt Signifies & Teaches Us



 
Seldom does the world get to witness nations standing up to take hold of their country from tyrannical heads and their atrocious hands.

Recently it did, watching in fascination as Tunisians came out on the streets to revolt against the corrupt and autocratic government of Ben Ali, their President in power since 1987.
 


What eventuated this uprising in opposition of unemployment, inflation and for civil liberties that lead to Ben Ali absconding the country just after 29 days of unrest as a young, jobless man Muhammad Bouazizi.
 
International Business Times writes about him under the title  ‘The Story of Mohammed Bouazizi, The Man Who Toppled Tunisia’ :
 
“Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old Tunisian with a computer science degree.

Like millions of angry and desperate Tunisians, he faced the unpleasant combination of poor employment prospects and food inflation. Moreover, the Tunisian government was seen as corrupt and authoritarian.
By December 17, resentment against authorities has been brewing for a while.
To make ends meet, the unemployed Bouazizi sold fruits and vegetables from a cart in his rural town of Sidi Bouzid, located 160 miles from the country’s capital Tunis. He did not have a license to sell, but it was his sole source of income.

On December 17, authorities confiscated his produce and allegedly slapped his face.
Bouazizi became incensed.
                                                                                                                                                          

He then drenched himself in gasoline and set himself on fire outside the governor’s office. Bouazizi survived his initial suicide attempt. After being transported to a hospital near Tunis, he was visited by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali before passing away on January 4.

 

 

After his suicide attempt, unrest broke out in Sidi Bouzid. The police cracked down on the protestors, which only fueled the movement. The revolt eventually spread to the capital city.”
 
For decades, many a nations under totalitarian regimes have eagerly fancied the idea of a revolution – waiting for the ‘right time’ and a leader to take them forward to actualize it but Tunisians have shown that when it comes to taking back the ownership of their country, no nation needs a leader rather their actions have asserted the reality that nations are their own leaders.
 
Those who had been following the unfolding of events in the Arab country since December had their thoughts about the marches, protests and riots dangling between doubts over their success yet the citizens of Tunisia proved that it is people like them who deserve a country and freedom – for they value and fight for it and in the end, the power and will of the people is what will always surface to reign high.


 
Award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, Mona El-Tahawy has penned-down a notable piece on the happening in The Washington Post:
                                                                                                                                                              

For decades, a host of Arab dictators have justified their endless terms in office by pointing to Islamists waiting in the wings. Having both inflated the egos and power of Islamists and scared Western allies into accepting stability over democracy, those leaders were left to comfortably sweep “elections.”
                                                                                                                                                      

Ben Ali was elected to a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote in 2009.


All around him is a depressingly familiar pattern. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi (68 years old) has been in power since 1969; Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (64) has ruled since 1978 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (82) since 1981. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (73) is a relative newcomer, having been in power only since 1999. Not so much fathers as grandfathers of their nations, these autocrats cling to office – and are increasingly out of touch with their young populaces.

No doubt, every Arab leader has watched Tunisia’s revolt in fear while citizens across the Arab world watch in solidarity, elated at that rarity: open revolution.”

This is not only a matter of much relevance and significance for Arabs but also countries like Pakistan, which today staggers towards the precipice of danger finding it hard to balance the burden of terrorism, inflation, poverty, rife corruption, institutional dysfunctions etc – hoisted on its back by years of military rule and political tug of wars for control of the state.
                                                                                                                                                           

One hopes that the result of the Tunisian rebellion and revolt is a domino effect. Are Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Syria or Pakistan next? After all, the nations of these countries do possess simmering feelings of frustration and have been forced to swallow too many bitter pills over the years.
                                                                                                                                                              

Every population is as capable as that of Tunisia to kick start a movement of dissent yet what most of them lack currently is the will, unity and valor of the Tunisians to exercise this, for which they must be saluted.
  
An Egyptian friend and youth pertinently comments on the whole situation:
                                                                                                                                                             

All we lack is the start. What started it in Tunisia is one of the most commonly incidents that you can see daily, a simple man burning himself up protesting for being unemployed, which led to one of the biggest protests in the Tunisian history…

We also need to realize that its our own countries not theirs (rulers), so every right in these countries is ours, not them being so ‘kind’ giving them to us. We should be the feared side.

While it may be too soon or facile to term this revolt a complete success, it has come to symbolize what can be labeled as an inspiration for countless countries and future order of events.
 

 Vive Le Tunisia!

 

– Hafsa Khawaja