Book review: Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age – a compelling portrait of a Pakistani activist

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 intellectual bravery today.

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

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 in-laws.

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 Ellsberg. 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.