First, a quick correction re: my account of Musharraf on the The Daily
Show with Jon Stewart. Sohail Habib says: "Actually he was asked
who (Bush or Bin Laden) would win elections for mayor of Karachi and his
answer was `Both would lose miserably.' Damn sight better than
saying neither. I'd say the man has balls."
Ahmad Faruqi: "I was impressed by the general's unrehearsed and
spontaneous performance on the Jon Stewart show. His response to the Hot
Seat question was: Both would lose miserably. Which was right on target.
So the question is: Who would win? The general?"
Good question. What keeps him going in the face of tremendous criticism?
Shafaat Rasool in Karachi believes it is money: He gives the Americans
"whatever they demand: We do not even have a fig leaf left. They
have the mobile phones, the motor vehicles and the houses. The military
has the budget, the top appointments in civil jobs and (above all) the
plots. It is the fear of losing American money which keeps the glue of
Bush, Mush and Pak Public from losing its holding power. And Bush values
loyalty above performance. The General gives loyalty like a true
darbari. Leaves Blair panting in that race"
Below, my account of the Eqbal Ahmad book launch last week. Open to
corrections if I got something wrong.
`The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad' (Columbia University
Press) was launched on September 28, 2006, in Cambridge, MA, with the
300-capacity Ames Hall (Harvard Law School) nearly full. The organizers
hadn't put up many posters or done any aggressive inviting, in case
of over-crowding, given the publicity about Chomsky following
Chavez's address to the UN.
The organizer, Jack Trumpbour of the Labor & Worklife Program at the
Harvard Law School introduced the event, starting with a small clip from
the documentary on Eqbal (that Asia Foundation commissioned me for Geo
TV; 20 min; broadcast Nov 2004; Urdu - needs to be subtitled in
English). He talked about the concept of Empire as Eqbal defined it, not
just physically subjugating other countries as the British colonizers
did, but dominating them through other means as America has been doing
since the downfall of the British.
David Barsamian of Alternative Radio in Colorado made an audio-recording
of the event, which should soon be available on his website
> and on CDs.
Several of David's books, including those based on Eqbal's
interviews, `Confronting Empire' and `Terrorism: Theirs and
Ours' are available at Amazon.com.
`Confronting Empire' was also the main theme of the Chomsky talk
on Eqbal Ahmad's legacy and the contemporary crisis. Always low key,
Chomsky juxtaposes valuable information that brings out the irony of the
situation. His detractors criticize him for not providing original
analysis but he himself has never claimed to do more than put together
information that is already available. The mainstream media sidelines
this information, and also Chomsky. When they do give him space, it is
done disparagingly, and far greater space is given to his detractors.
Chomsky talked about the "international community" -- defined
essentially as the US and its allies, Bush's "messianic
mission", and the "unusual historic event we are witnessing"
today -- the destruction of a nation in Palestine, because the
Palestinian people "committed a terrible crime in the last free
election: they voted in the wrong people."
By Israeli attacks, he means "Israeli and US attacks, since the USA
is supporting Israel with weapons as well as diplomatic and ideological
support". The recent round of aggression was preceded by the June 24
capture of two Palestinian brothers by the Israeli forces, which "is
a far more severe crime than kidnapping soldiers" that Hezbollah did
on July 6, its first aggressive act in months.
The real reason for the Israeli (US-Israeli) aggression, believes
Chomsky, is that the Hezbollah provides the only meaningful support for
Palestinian rights. Another reason is to eliminate Lebanese deterrents
that stand in the way of an attack on Iran.
The aggression has two consequences: first, it deters negotiations, and
secondly, it makes the dissidents and reformers within the society more
vulnerable, as regimes under attack tend to become harsher. Shirin Ebadi
and others testify to this, as can others in such societies (to which I
would add the USA, its many freedoms notwithstanding).
Such aggression has also systematically destroyed the culture of the
areas being bombed besides the museums and libraries, the living
intellectual centers of Baghdad and Beirut have been destroyed, the
streets where freewheeling exchanges took place, in bookshops and cafes,
even under Saddam. Given the importance of historical memory, it is part
of US policy, to wipe out cultural vitality of these societies he says.
A panel immediately following Chomsky's talk was addressed by Stuart
Schaar, Eqbal's "college buddy" at Princeton, Margaret
Cerullo, his colleague from Hampshire College and one of the book's
editors, and me, as a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Pakistan
who produced a documentary on Eqbal and knew him as a colleague in the
human rights and peace movements. Emran Qureshi of Harvard Law
School's Labor & Worklife Program summed up.
Prof. Schaar read extracts from his forthcoming biography of Eqbal
(publisher being negotiated) for which he visited Pakistan in 2004, and
found "the legacy of a global peacemaker". Since his retirement
from Brooklyn College where he taught history, he spends most of his
time in Morocco and Tunisa - Eqbal first traveled to Morocco with him
after Algeria's independence from France. They studied Arabic
together at Princeton, where they also organized a cafeteria labour
Eqbal had graduated from Forman Christian College in Lahore
incidentally, also the alma mater of Gen. Musharraf. He spoke several
languages besides Urdu and English, including French, Arabic, and even
some Hebrew. When he first met Julie, later his wife, in France in the
1960s, she thought he was French. She learnt some time later that he
taught at an American university and only later did she find out that he
Prof. Schaar's biography goes into detail about the Henry Kissinger
kidnapping trial. He talks about Eqbal's love for Urdu poetry and
the progressive Islamic traditions, in which there was a clear
separation between religious and worldly powers. A question that
preoccupied Eqbal was how best to achieve this again he believed
that forced change robbed the people of their soul, and that a backlash
would come. This preoccupation later grew into his efforts for
Khaldunia, a liberal arts university named after Ibne Khaldun, the great
14th century Arab historian and scholar, that no government would allow
despite lip service to the cause.
Margaret Cerullo talked briefly of the two turning points for Eqbal. One
was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when the Arab states failed to
respond, when he predicted that this "would turn up the heat of
Islamic outrage". The second was the Gulf War of 1991, when Iraq was
accused of unlawful seizure of land and development of nuclear weapons
charges that can also be laid at Israel's door, but no one has
ever suggested invading it.
She talked about his theory of the "logic of counter-insurgency"
and his argument that the gap between coercive military occupation and
the determination of the occupied would only lead to a spiraling of
violence and even genocide an argument that has been all too well
illustrated in present-day Iraq.
Prof. Cerullo ended by talking about an Iraq veteran she knows who hangs
up banners with the Iraq casualties from different spots every week,
since the Boston Globe refuses to print these figures, and how people
are gathering in front of the state court house every day to protest
Guantanamo. These are small, symbolic protests that must be supported,
she said, recalling the number of times Eqbal said to her,
"Margaret, we must do something". Those who knew him can
probably hear him say those words in his voice, with his particular
I talked about Eqbal in the Pakistani context and as someone who was
"just Eqbal" to so many, regardless of differences like age,
status and experience. Always courteous, he would listen attentively
with genuine curiosity, then ask thought-provoking questions that
provided new insight. He extended the same courtesy to those who
opposed his progressive, secular world view -- from military dictators
to religious extremists. Some criticised him for this -- there are
extremists among progressives too, who prefer not to hear the other
During the Zia years, Eqbal was unable to return to Pakistan as he faced
treason charges punishable by death. He held prestigious academic
positions abroad, but found the forced exile extremely painful. By the
time he came back, after Zia's death, he was already a legendary
figure in Pakistan, anathema to the establishment but embraced by human
rights activists and the intelligentsia.
His friend Reza Kazim in Lahore feels that the shadow of sadness that
crossed Eqbal's face in repose stemmed from the early childhood
trauma of his father being murdered while Eqbal lay next to him, in
their family home in Bihar, India. There was also the trauma of
migration in 1947 to Pakistan. Eqbal was separated from them at Delhi.
It was rumoured that he had run off with a gun to fight for
Kashmir's liberation from India but Stuart Schaar says this was not
true. In any case, this first war between India and Pakistan over
Kashmir ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire that left Kashmir as part of
Indian territory -- and an ongoing dispute that Eqbal likened to the
question of Palestine, with its roots in the history of colonialism and
The alternatives he outlined in 1990 for India are still relevant:
continue the suppression "which would entail endless brutalisation
of Kashmir and of the Indian polity", blame Pakistan and go to war
which would not resolve the problem -- or "recognise that the
problem is political and its solution can only be political which
implies an absence of war, an end to repression, and an admission of
Kashmiri right to self-determination."
He was among those who conceptualised and gave direction to the Pakistan
India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy, or PIPFPD, established in
1994 to facilitate people-to-people dialogue between ordinary Indians
and Pakistanis. PIPFPD has since then grown tremendously, with many
offshoots all over both countries. It was the first forum to articulate
the formula that Kashmir should not be seen as a territorial dispute
between India and Pakistan, but as a matter of the lives and aspirations
of the Kashmiri people, who must be included in any dialogue to resolve
the issue a formulation that has finally seeped into public
discourse and government discussions.
Eqbal supported freedom struggles around the world. Fidel Castro sent
him Cuban cigars, but stopped when Eqbal continued to argue for greater
civil liberties and democracy. The Indian historian Radha Kumar (who
introduces the South Asian portion of this book), says that Yasser
Arafat showed her the chair that Eqbal liked to sit in. This friendship
too, dimmed when Eqbal stuck to his stand for non-violent strategies and
dismissed Oslo as bringing unsustainable peace at the cost of the
He was still under-trial for the Kissinger kidnapping in America when he
criticized the Pakistan government for the army aggression in then East
Pakistan, at a time when few Pakistanis dared do so. His seminal
`Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat' is reproduced in this
collection. He writes that he could not otherwise oppose American crimes
in Vietnam or India's occupation of Kashmir. He condemned the
Bengali nationalists' irresponsible acts but pointed out that these
could not be equated with those "of the government and the criminal
acts of an organized, professional army." He clearly foresaw that
"no genuine restoration of civilian government will be possible
until the East Pakistanis were conceded their right to autonomy or even
secession." The war ended in secession and the birth of Bangladesh.
His words continue to ring true for other military aggressions today.
Eqbal was Senior Fellow at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies
in Washington (1972-1982), and the first director of its overseas
affiliate, the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. He taught at
Columbia and other universities but his political stands, particularly
on Palestinian rights, kept him out of mainstream academia. Hampshire
College, a small private institution, in 1982 awarded him a tenured
professorship in Politics and Middle East Studies. Pakistani students in
the area, who took his classes, revered him.
After 1990, Eqbal rented a small house in Islamabad divided his time
between America and Pakistan teaching at Hampshire College,
writing his weekly column, participating in human rights and peace
related efforts, and working towards Khaldunia.
His retirement ceremony at Hampshire College in 1997 drew thousands.
After that, he spent most of his time in Pakistan, very much part of the
struggle against the `talibanisation' of society, and the use of
religion for political purposes. His articles on Jinnah predicted where
the country was heading. He articulated the essential link between the
rule of law and a country's stability, noting that Jinnah "did
not lose sight of this civic principle even in the darkest hours of
1947". He wrote against the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1977 that
criminalise adultery and make rape a private offence in which the
survivor has to prove her innocence.
In 1998, Eqbal blasted the BJP-led government for its nuclear tests and
argued that Pakistan need not follow suit. He was severely disappointed
when the Nawaz Sharif government gave in to domestic political pressures
and the severe provocation from India, and turned the Chaghi mountains
Eqbal was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in May 1999, as both
countries geared up to celebrate their nuclear anniversaries. He died
just six days later, on the morning of May 11, the anniversary of
India's nuclear test.
His legacy lives on, in his writings, and in his memory. The Eqbal Ahmad
Foundation set up by his relatives and friends holds an annual
distinguished lecture series in Pakistan named for him. Noam Chomsky
addressed the series in November 2001, and received standing ovations at
each venue. Edward Said was to address the series also but sadly, this
could not happen.
Under the banner of the Eqbal Ahmad Foundation, Parvez Hoodbhoy and Zia
Mian made documentary films on the nuclear issue and on Kashmir, opening
discussion on subjects that were for long practically taboo. Sabeen
Mahmood in Karachi set up a website hosted free by her company,
Bitsonline, to archive Eqbal's writings and other material. Many
other human rights activists, particularly among the younger generation,
continue to be inspired by and learn from Eqbal's work.
Eqbal's writings are compulsory reading for anyone who wants to
understand and improve the state of the world today. Oxford University
Press in Pakistan published a selection of his essays on South Asia
(2004), edited by his daughter Dohra Ahmad, nephew Iftikhar Ahmad, and
Zia Mian. The Columbia University Press publication adds to this
essential reading list. It is expected to be available in Pakistan and
India also. Hopefully, there will be translations in local languages so
that it reaches the maximum number of people.
Due to a shortage of time, only a few questions could be taken. I
don't remember all of them, but one had to do with the
"Salvadoran option" and the appointment of John Negroponte as
Director of National Intelligence in the U.S. Chomsky said that this was
an appropriate appointment for a "leading terrorist", who had
lied to Congress in order to deny State crimes in Honduras. The
"Salvadoran option" of course, was a euphemism for the mass
slaughter unleashed, after the Catholic bishops in El Salvador started
going back to the Gospel, "a radical pacifist doctrine".
A journalist from Africa asked about Eqbal's stand on the Ahmadi
sect that Bhutto had got Parliament to declare as "non-Muslim".
Gen Zia took this a step further by including the religion section in
Pakistani passports, in which any Muslim applicant has to sign a
statement denouncing Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as an imposter. Many of us have
grumbled about this, but when applying for his passport from the New
York embassy, Eqbal simply refused to sign the statement. Afraid of the
international scandal that would ensue if this was made into an issue,
the Pakistan government granted him the passport anyway.
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