The as­tute dis­si­dent

A bi­og­ra­phy looks at the life of Eqbal Ah­mad, an ac­tivist who sup­ported Bos­ni­ans when the West looked the other way. We sorely need his brav­ery to­day, writes Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad

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Shortly af­ter the col­lapse of the Ber­lin Wall, the Balkans were plunged into a ruth­less war that put the western left in a quandary.

Rhetor­i­cally it had al­ways been com­mit­ted to “peo­ple’s” strug­gles, but in prac­tice “anti-im­pe­ri­al­ism” trumped other con­cerns. The ex­treme na­tion­al­ism of Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic’s eth­nic cleansers did not lend it­self to easy iden­ti­fi­ca­tion so the left went to war against its op­po­nents. Bos­ni­ans were painted as pawns of western im­pe­ri­al­ism, their short­com­ings were am­pli­fied and any ac­tion to end their suf­fer­ing was re­sisted. Hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cerns were laid by the way­side.

There were few de­vi­a­tions from the party line. No­table among th­ese was the in­flu­en­tial Pak­istani in­tel­lec­tual Eqbal Ah­mad.

With decades of anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist ac­tivism and pro­lific dis­sents on western pol­icy be­hind him, Ah­mad’s cred­i­bil­ity could not be gain­said. But he dis­cov­ered to his dis­may that be­yond in­tro­spec­tive in­di­vid­u­als like the late Ed­ward Said, few were will­ing to de­vi­ate enough from dogma to de­mand timely ac­tion.

It would take three years and more than 200,000 deaths be­fore the world would act to bring the slaugh­ter to an end.

This hu­man­ist univer­sal­ism, an­a­lyt­i­cal acu­ity and re­sis­tance to or­tho­doxy were Ah­mad’s dis­tin­guish­ing at­tributes. Th­ese are the fea­tures of his per­son­al­ity that ra­di­ate through the pages of Stu­art Schaar’s es­sen­tial new bi­og­ra­phy Eqbal Ah­mad: Crit­i­cal Out­sider in a Tur­bu­lent Age. From the van­tage point of per­sonal ac­quain­tance, and fol­low­ing years of re­search, Schaar has com­posed a com­pelling por­trait of the dis­si­dent as a man of sense, sen­si­bil­ity and prin­ci­ple.

Ah­mad lived an ex­tra­or­di­nary life that brought him into con­tact with fig­ures rang­ing from Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore to Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden. United States pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s jus­tice depart­ment would charge him with plan­ning to kid­nap Henry Kissinger; Tu­nisian pres­i­dent Habib Bour­guiba would try to per­suade him to write his of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­phy; Pak­istani dic­ta­tor Ayub Khan would try to re­cruit him as the coun­try’s for­eign min­is­ter. Ah­mad would build no­table in­sti­tu­tions in sev­eral coun­tries. He ac­cu­rately pre­dicted the con­se­quences of western reck­less­ness in Afghanistan, and his warn­ings on US in­ter­ven­tion in Iraq would prove prophetic. Ah­mad’s early years were marked by tragedy. At the age of 7, he wit­nessed his father be­ing mur­dered one night by peas­ants work­ing for a neigh­bour­ing land­lord. A man of cul­ture and sen­si­bil­ity, his father had en­raged fel­low land­lords by in­tro­duc­ing mea­sures to em­power the peas­antry. Fear­ful for their priv­i­leges, his peers acted pre- emp­tively and had him hacked to death. Ah­mad was raised by his brother there­after but he suf­fered fre­quent abuse at the hands of his brother’s in­laws.

In 1947, when In­dia was par­ti­tioned, Ah­mad mi­grated to the newly-es­tab­lished state of Pak­istan. Po­lit­i­cally in­clined and a fer­vent be­liever in the na­tion­al­ist cause, Ah­mad was soon spot­ted by re­cruiters for the fight over Kash­mir. It was the first mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion be­tween the two newly-in­de­pen­dent states. With its army still led by Bri­tish brass, Pak­istan opted to by­pass re­stric­tions by in­fil­trat­ing tribal and na­tion­al­ist vol­un­teers into the val­ley. Ah­mad joined one of th­ese groups and fought for four months be­fore be­ing in­ca­pac­i­tated by in­jury.

He re­turned from the bat­tle with few il­lu­sions about the cause. He had seen tribal vol­un­teers com­mit many un­speak­able crimes but it was a for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence nev­er­the­less since his unit was a com­mu­nist one and this first en­counter with Marx­ism left an im­pres­sion (though he never joined the Com­mu­nist Party).

Equally pow­er­ful im­pres­sions had been left on him by his early en­coun­ters with Gandhi and the Ben­gali poet, ed­u­ca­tor and philoso­pher Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi im­parted to Ah­mad a sense of the power of mass, non-vi­o­lent mo­bil­i­sa­tion; Tagore in­stilled in him a sus­pi­cion of parochial iden­ti­fi­ca­tions.

This di­ver­sity of in­flu­ences en­abled him to avoid all or­tho­dox­ies. Ah­mad be­lieved in the power of ideas, but he also knew that ideas sub­or­di­nated to political projects could har­den into dogma. He re­sisted the temp­ta­tion of com­fort­ing cer­tain­ties and main­tained his in­de­pen­dence, re­gard­less of per­sonal and political costs. He con­fronted the pow­er­ful and, where nec­es­sary, parted with com­rades to re­main true to his prin­ci­ples. Ah­mad ad­mired Karl Marx for fo­cus­ing the “in­tel­li­gentsia’s at­ten­tion in a pos­i­tive way on the other, the poor, the weak ... on the com­mon good”. But this never led him into camp­ist iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the nom­i­nally Marx­ist Soviet Union dur­ing the Cold War. In­deed, he con­sid­ered Soviet com­mu­nism “one of the most de­fec­tive for­ma­tions hu­man­ity has ever seen”.

He in­clined more, writes Schaar, to­wards the “hu­man­is­tic so­cial­ism of An­to­nio Gram­sci”, the Ital­ian Marx­ist thinker best known for his Prison Note­books, writ­ten while im­pris­oned un­der Ben­ito Mus­solini’s fas­cist rule. From Gram­sci, Ah­mad learned the value of change through civil so­ci­ety rather than an un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive revo­lu­tion­ary van­guard.

Education and in­sti­tu­tion build­ing were his pre­ferred meth­ods of change. But his ca­reer as a re­former had an abortive start. When he led a bus­load of stu­dents to the fron­tier back­wa­ter of Kal­abagh, Pun­jab, to set up a school, he was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously evicted by the Ox­ford-ed­u­cated aris­to­crat lord­ing over the re­gion. “We don’t want education here,” he was told, “and if you don’t leave, you’ll be skinned alive.”

Ah­mad’s next ex­pe­ri­ence as an ed­u­ca­tor, teach­ing political the­ory to the Pak­istan Army, was less event­ful. He de­camped to the US soon there­after to re­sume grad­u­ate education at Prince­ton.

His stu­dent ac­tivism, his ir­re­press­ible charisma and his gre­gar­i­ous­ness made him a pop­u­lar fig­ure on the Amer­i­can left. His Pak­istani hos­pi­tal­ity and his su­pe­rior culi­nary skills (the book in­cludes the recipe for Ah­mad’s fa­mous “Chicken Tikka Masala Mari­nade”) guar­an­teed a pa­rade of fa­mous guests to his home. He men­tored Ed­ward Said and be­friended Noam Chom­sky, Howard Zinn and Daniel Ells- Stu­art Schaar Columbia Univer­sity Press Dh125 berg. He also con­spired with the Ber­ri­gan Brothers (Philip and Daniel, prom­i­nent Je­suit ac­tivists) in ef­forts to end the Viet­nam War. Later, when Daniel went un­der­ground, he or­gan­ised a net­work of safe houses for the con­sci­en­tious fugi­tive.

Re­gard­less of his ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ments, in­clud­ing stints in Paris, Tu­nisia and Am­s­ter­dam (where he served as the found­ing di­rec­tor of the Transna­tional In­sti­tute), Ah­mad’s ac­tivism on be­half of Pales­tini­ans would make him per­sona non grata at the Amer­i­can academy.

Af­ter a long stint at Hamp­shire Col­lege, to­wards the end of his life, Ah­mad re­turned to his na­tive Pak­istan with the in­ten­tion of es­tab­lish­ing Khal­dunia Univer­sity, an in­sti­tu­tion that would de­liver a lib­eral arts education steeped in Is­lamic cul­ture and tra­di­tion (rather than the­ol­ogy). But his un­com­pro­mis­ing crit­i­cism of the coun­try’s ve­nal lead­ers en­sured that he got lit­tle sup­port and was ob­structed of­ten. He died in 1998, be­fore he could re­alise the dream.

To­day, western in­tel­li­gentsia is once again in a quandary, con­founded by the de­vel­op­ments in Syria. At the peak of the Bos­nian War, Ah­mad broke with the western left to call for the arm­ing of be­sieged Bos­ni­ans.

To­day, as the de­fend­ers of Aleppo are left to fend for them­selves, Schaar’s book is in­valu­able in re­mind­ing us of the acute need for a dis­abused in­tel­li­gence like Eqbal Ah­mad’s.

Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad is the au­thor of The Road to Iraq: The Mak­ing of a Neo­con­ser­va­tive War. He is cur­rently writ­ing a book on the war of nar­ra­tives over Syria.

Bettmann / Cor­bis

Eqbal Ah­mad, third from right, ges­tures as he leaves the Fed­eral Build­ing, Wash­ing­ton, DC, in May 1971, as part of the Har­ris­burg Seven. The Har­ris­burg Seven were a group of anti-war ac­tivists un­suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted for al­legedly plot­ting to kid­nap Henry Kissinger, US pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor.

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