Monday, June 25, 2007

Book Review: Selected Readings of Eqbal Ahmed

A voice of reason and empathy
By Mohsin S. Jaffri: The News, June 21, 2007

The Selected writings
of Eqbal Ahmad
Foreword by: Noam Chomsky
Edited by: Carollee Bengelsdore, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani
Publishers: Oxford University Press,

Eqbal Ahmad, an academician, a journalist, columnist, and an highly acclaimed, intellectually having a visionary's perspective wrote extensively on events taking place in the world with a view from the perspective of Asia and from Asia presenting a view of the Western leaders. It is fascinating to read and look through his eyes the major events taking place in the world and grasp the analytical results presented by Eqbal Ahmad. Noam Chomsky, in his Foreword to the book describes Eqbal Ahmad in these words, "Such honesty and generosity ar also rare qualities, and they suffuse his work, lending it a special layer of significance. Ahmad was an inspiring figure, in his work and his life. There could hardly be a better model to try to follow, as best we can."

The book is divided in five parts. Each part takes up a different discussion and deals with various issues in a concise manner. In this way, the five sections present a logical and in-depth view and an analysis for better understanding of the concerned issues and events.

(1) Revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency

In this section some thirty years of a world dominated by the democratic and liberal ideas of the USA and the Soviet Union, presenting a totalitarian concept, created blocs of nation in support of their views, dividing the world in two leaving a very just a few who decided to remain aloof. In this, mainly conflict of ideas scenario, the two countries, the USA and the Soviet Union, remained engaged in a Cold War environment avoiding major conflicts by trying to obtain supremacy over one another by churning out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and letting the threat balanced by weapons only.

Eqbal Ahmad discusses this period in his various writings focusing on national liberation struggles, revolutionary warfare, and counterinsurgency as the defining features of post-World War-II world politics and takes up an analytical approach by exploring their roots and dynamics.

This is the time when conflicts and struggle movements were ripe in many areas of the world -- Algeria, Vietnam, PLO and Iran, and the world opinion was being influenced by extensive propaganda by the parties involved in the happenings at the time. As Eqbal Ahmad pointed out; the first and most critical of these principles is the primacy of politics in revolutionary warfare. The many papers, discussing major issues, includes: revolutionary warfare: how to tell when the rebels have won; radical but wrong; counterinsurgency; the lessons of Vietnam; PLO and ANC; Iran's revolution; and the making of the battle of Algiers.

(2) Third World politics: pathologies of power. Pathologies of resistance

In this section, Eqbal Ahmad takes up the post colonial societies, His writings focus on anti-colonial struggles for independence and national liberation. His analysis brings him to the conclusion that "the authoritarian legacies of colonialism were not dismantled or eroded with de-colonisation but relentlessly, and when necessary, violently , expanded in new "indigenous" forms."

What is interesting here is that Eqbal Ahmad takes a different path from the more convenient conventional approach and creates an understanding with "the dominant and layered mythologies within which the Third World has been studied and interpreted in the major western traditions of social science and political theory. Thus he challenges both mainstream modernization and neo-modernisation literature, as well as classical Marxism and dependency theory."

Eqbal Ahmad's interest in the extent and character of the links between the civil society and the state takes him to analyse modes of power in the context of their legitimacy, the balance of force and the patterns of behaviour of rulers and the ruled. The other aspect that is visible in Eqbal Ahmad's work is "passive revolution" the second Gramscian concept "in which the political class relies primarily on the state, substitutes itself for the people, and sustains itself in power bt6hrough bureaucratic and military links with society, an encompassing of society by the state.

The papers in this section include: from potato sack to potato mash; post-colonial systems of power; the neo-fascist state; war of the rentier states; Islam and politics; and roots of the religious right.

(3) On the cusp of the Cold War: portents of a new century

In this section, Eqbal Ahmad takes the discussion into the world at Cold Wars end. "Ahmad's views of the post-Cold War world depends on the interpretation of the Cold War he held to for the entirety of his life: as the latest mechanism for organizing and legitimizing a four-centuries-old system of imperial domination."

Eqbal Ahmad's views come to life in his discussions of US imperial culture where there is a distinct trend and a strong desire to control the future as well as the past. This theme is fully presented in "The Cold War from the Standpoint if It's Victims," where Ahmad looks deep into the Vietnam war, the Western views on its justification and the struggle by the Vietnamese to free their homeland from the US occupation.

On the Middle East, Arab states, oil power and politics, Eqbal Ahmad argues in different manner than the conventional approach. He says, "The war in the gulf and the subsequent decades of sanctions and military strikes against Iraq were justified respectively as a response to Iraq's unlawful seizure of land and the threat to its neighbours of its nuclear weapon potential - both charges the US refuses to make against Israel. The failure to deal with this reality, Ahmed argues would make the Gulf War not the triumphant launching pad for the next American Century, as the first President Bush declared it, but something else entirely. Blatantly contradictory, violent US actions would, "turn up the heat of Islamic outrage. This would be the "nightmare victory" he foresees in all his articles about the consequences of the war in the gulf and its aftermath."

The papers in this section include: the Cold War from the standpoint of its victim; yet again a new Nixon; cracks in the Western world view; after the cold war; terrorism; a time to remember; welcome war in Bosnia; America's Gulf War; the hundred hour war; covering the Middle East; and after the winter bombs.

(4) The Palestinian -Israeli Conflict: Colonisation in the Era of Decolonisation

In this section Eqbal Ahmad, analyses the background of Israel, the basis of conflict with the state of Palestine, as he called it, "the quintessential cause for the Third World: "Our painful colonial past, neo-colonial present, and the dangerous perspective for our future" rests upon the question of Palestine. He called it a "tragedy" that "at the dawn of decolonization, Palestine was colonized.

Eqbal Ahmad's critique for the Arab states which "lack the will and capacity to translate their wealth into power" came out strongly in an article, On Arab Bankruptcy, in the New York Times, at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon gave clear views about the division in the Arab world, incompetent leadership and lack of will to establish a place for themselves in the comity of nations.

Papers included in this section are: pioneering in the nuclear age; a world restored - revisited; an essay on reconciliation; on Arab bankruptcy; the public relations of ethnocide; peace of the weak, beyond Arafat's antics; an address in Gaza; and King Hussein's dual legacy.

(5) South Asia

Here, there are a number Eqbal Ahmad's papers on South Asia. These articles have been selected from his writings over a period of three decades. In the context of the division of India he says, what began as the colonial strategy of divide and rule was soon transformed into "the two-nation theory" with the arrival of mass politics between the two world wars. Colonialism, mass politics, and nationalism enabled the consolidation of community identities on the basis of religion, with far reaching implications for the new states of India and Pakistan.

In Indian Muslim's context, speaking about Jinnah, Ahmad argues that he aught to be remembered as a paradoxical figure, one who sought to speak for India's Muslim minority, appealed to Muslims as Muslims, and yet committed to secular, constitutionalist politics.

He discusses, the global "jihad" as the American and Saudi sponsored war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In these articles it became clear that what Western officials and media now call Islamic fundamentalism emerged in the context of America's covert war against "godless communism" and is in fact a very modern mix of dollars, drugs, guns, realpolitik, and religious radicalism.

Papers in this section include, partitioned lands, divided sentiments; Pakistan's military: letter to a Pakistani diplomat; Pakistan: sign post to a police state; Gen Zia is now the law; Afghanistan: bloody games; stalemate at Jalalabad; in a land without music; Taliban's unlikely story; what after "strategic depth"; Jihad international inc; Kasmir and India-Pakistan conflict: beyond mutual destruction; India's obsession, our choice; no alternative to dialogue; Pakistan: the return of the generals; no not again; the signals soldiers pick; and shotgun governance.

There are three editors, Carollee Bengelsdorf, Maqrgaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani, all from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA.

Carollee Bengelsdorf was Eqbal Ahmad's colleague and is Professor of Politics, teaches American Foreign Policy, Latin American Studies, revolution in the Twentieth Century, and post-modern Political and Cultural Theory. Maqrgaret Cerullo was Eqbal Ahmad's colleague and is Professor of Sociology and Feminist Studies, and Yogesh Chandrani was Eqbal Ahmad's student at the College.

Eqbal Ahmad (1934-1999) was born in Bihar, India. He studied at Foreman Christian College in Lahore and obtained his degree (1951) in economics, M.A. in modern history (1953) from Punjab University in Lahore, and went on to study American history at Occidental College in California as a Rotary fellow (1957) and political science and Middle East history at Princeton. In 1967 he earned his Ph.D. from Princeton. He taught at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Cornell University and Hampshire College. He was a fellow at The Institute for Policy Studies and the first director of its overseas affiliate, The Transnational Institute.

Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States describes Eqbal Ahmad in the following words, "Ahmad's world outlook transcends nationalist pride, expressing a profound passion for the equal right to dignity of humans in every corner of the globe. His knowledge of world affairs was formidable, coming in part from his personal acquaintance with important political actors on several continents. His style, both in speaking and writing, was dramatic and witty. He was not an armchair analyst, but a participant in some of the most important struggles of our time in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Palestine. He was never bound by a single ideology, always committed to social justice and nonviolence. In short, an exemplary human being."

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