Published in SouthAsia (May 2009)
A prolific writer, brilliant intellectual and powerful activist, Dr. Eqbal Ahmad was admired by a large number of revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders, students and policymakers around the world, writes Ayesha Hoda
“Artists and intellectuals are in the business of working with their minds. What distinguishes humans from animals is the manner in which people use the mind. And what distinguishes various levels of civilization – their literary and artistic achievement, economic prosperity, and moral outlook – is the extent and manner in which the resources of the mind are put to use. This is a profoundly complex subject. There are myriad aspects to it. I shall discuss only one which I deem important. It has to do with the notion, by no means uncontested, that it is the intellectual’s special responsibility to affirm the good and just and resist the bad and unjust,” opined Eqbal Ahmad on intellectuals’ role in society, in one of his articles for Daily Dawn.
Ahmad was a Pakistani writer, journalist and anti-war activist. Born in a village in Bihar in the early 1930s, Ahmad had witnessed violence at an early age. His father was murdered over a land dispute as a young Ahmad lay beside him. He therefore stood for justice and putting an end to violence throughout his life. He was instinctively attracted to liberation movements and to causes of the oppressed.
Edward Said, in his tribute to this great intellectual, after Eqbal Ahmad’s sudden death on May 11, 1999, wrote, “No one more than Eqbal Ahmad captured and understood the human suffering and distorted vision that produced the reckless violence of people or movements who, in his memorable phrase, were radical but wrong. Whether it was the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or India and Pakistan, he was a force paradoxically for a just struggle but also for just reconciliation…He was that rare thing, an intellectual unintimidated by power or authority, a sophisticated man who remained simply true to his ideals and his insight till his last breath.”
Eqbal Ahmad and his elder brothers migrated to Pakistan in 1947. He graduated in economics from Forman Christian College in Lahore, in 1951. After a brief stint as an army officer, Ahmad went to Occidental College in California as a Rotary Fellow in American History in 1957. He also studied political science and Middle Eastern history at Princeton, earning his PhD from there.
For a few years, Ahmad worked in North Africa, mainly in Algeria, where he joined the National Liberation Front and worked with Frantz Fanon during the revolt against the French. He was a member of the Algerian delegation to peace talks at Evian.
On his return to the United States, Ahmad taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago and then at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He came to be known as “one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of American policies in Vietnam and Cambodia.”
In 1971, he was indicted along with six anti-war Catholic priests and pacifists, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger as a protest against US involvement in Vietnam. After fifty-nine hours of deliberations, the jury dismissed the case.
Ahmad was also strongly critical of the Middle East strategy of the United States as well as of nationalism and religious fanaticism in countries like Pakistan. In 1967, he addressed a group of students at Cornell about the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states. In his speech he argued that the conflict was more complicated than the media portrayals. However, this point of view was not popular and Ahmad became an outcast from mainstream academia.
Ahmad left Cornell and did some freelance work. For about a decade, he was Senior Fellow at the Institution for Policy Studies. He also founded and served as the first director of its overseas affiliate, the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam for two years.
In 1982, he joined the faculty at Hampshire College, in Amherst Massachusetts, where he taught world politics and political science till 1997. His wisdom and insights inspired two generations of students.
He was also an editor of the journal Race and Class, contributing editor of Middle East Report and L’Economiste du Tiers Monde, co-founder of Pakistan Forum, and an editorial board member of Arab Studies Quarterly.
In the early 1990s, Ahmad was granted land in Pakistan by Late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government for his dream project. This was to build an independent, alternative and world-class liberal arts university, named Khaldunia after the 14th century Islamic scholar and historian, Ibn Khaldun. He was especially inspired by Muqaddimah, one of Ibn Khuldun’s great works.
Unfortunately his dream could not be realized although a respectable school named Khaldunia High School was established in Islamabad. Ahmad settled permanently in Pakistan in 1997, where he wrote weekly columns for Daily Dawn.
Eqbal Ahmad also became the founding Chancellor of the Textile Institute of Pakistan (TIP). As many of the ideals proposed by Eqbal Ahmad are considered the driving spirit of TIP, the institute organizes a series of lectures on Eqbal Ahmad Memorial Day and also presents the much coveted Eqbal Ahmad Award to the best graduate.
Poetry was also one of Ahmad’s passions. His interest in progressive Islamic traditions made him particularly fond of Ghalib and Faiz. He would recite their poetry and translate it for those around him.
Ahmad believed that religion and worldly affairs should be separated and that forced change “robbed the people of their soul, and that a backlash would come.” He wrote extensively on the relationship between the West and the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia.
As he was always concerned about the welfare of people, he was completely opposed to war and violence, whether by nation states or by ideological, nationalist or fundamentalist movements. He was an expert at critical analysis which made him a valued counsellor, as well as a critic, of leaders and intellectuals in the Middle East, Pakistan, etc. His works and interviews have been compiled in several books i.e. Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad and Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire.
His articles and essays also appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and other major newspapers and journals throughout the world. He believed that people should not blindly trust the way mass media portrayed issues. They should read and question. In an interview with David Barsamian, he stated, “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.”
Eqbal Ahmad truly had the courage to stand up for what he believed in even if his ideas were not appreciated by a great majority. He was always ready to answer questions and respected opinions which were different from his own. He worked endlessly to broaden the horizons of knowledge. His struggle for resistance against imperialism in different parts of the world and other services are an example set by very few Pakistanis till date.