Eqbal Ahmad, activist scholar, was born in India probably in 1934. He’s not quite sure. In 1947, he left with his brothers for the newly created state of Pakistan. He came to the United States to study at Princeton in the 1950s, and then went to Algeria. Ahmad worked there with Frantz Fanon during the revolt against the French. He was active in the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1971, he was prosecuted (along with the Berrigan brothers and several others) on the trumped-up charge of trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger. The case was dismissed.
Ahmad has long been active on the issue of Palestinian sovereignty. This work brought him into a close friendship with Edward Said, who dedicated Culture and Imperialism to him. It also brought him to the attention of Yasser Arafat, who met him several times but, Ahmad says, never took his advice.
In the 1960s, Ahmad taught at Princeton, the University of Illinois, and Cornell. After making a speech to a group of students about the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states in 1967, in which he argued that the conflict was more complicated than the media were portraying it, he found himself ostracised in the academy. “A large majority of the faculty at Cornell took great exception to that,” he told me. “For the next year, I found myself increasingly so isolated that sometimes I would sit at the lunch table and large numbers of people would be lining up for a table and nobody would sit at mine.”
Ahmad left Cornell, did some freelance work and helped found the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, which is affiliated with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. From 1982 to 1997, he taught International Relations and Middle Eastern studies for a semester each year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Ahmad’s retirement ceremony from Hampshire College in October 1997 was a memorable two-day affair. Entitled “Celebrating Eqbal Ahmad”, people had come from places as far away as California, Canada, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan to be part of it. Speakers included Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Edward Said, all close personal friends of Ahmad’s. The establishment of the “Eqbal Ahmad Distinguished Lecture Programme” was also announced during the event. (The first Eqbal Ahmad Lecture was delivered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at Hampshire College in September 1998.)
Now Ahmad spends most of his time in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he is trying to establish an alternative university. He also writes a weekly column for Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English newspaper. His work in Pakistan consists chiefly of trying to bridge differences with India on the issues of Kashmir and nuclear weapons.
The first time I ever interviewed Eqbal Ahmad was in the early 1980s at his apartment in New York’s Upper West Side. It was memorable. On my way home, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got a great interview!” But when I sat down to listen to it, the tape was blank. I had failed to turn the machine on. With considerable embarrassment, I explained to Eqbal what had happened. He invited me over the next day, and we did another interview, and this time I pressed the button.
The major portion of the current interview is the product of two marathon sessions in his small apartment in Amherst (sections have been added from a later interview in Boulder, Colorado). The last session at Amherst began in the afternoon and ended with an Urdu poem at 2 am. It was punctuated by a couple of wonderfully spicy meals and a hike around nearby Mount Holyoke.
You, personally, saw the beginnings of the tensions between Pakistan and India when you were young. How did that affect you?
Witnessing the partition of India had a very lasting impact on me because what I saw then was the ease with which humanity, perfectly good humanity, can descend into barbarism. I saw the extent to which ideas, ideology, political affiliations change human behaviour.
And what about the murder of your father?
That played an important role because in addition to leaving a very deep scar on me as a child, it made me unconsciously absorb certain conclusions about life. One is that property is more dear to people than friendship or blood ties. Some relatives of my father were involved in his murder because they felt their property rights were being threatened by his politics.
Was he involved in the Gandhian movement?
Yes, he was involved with the Indian National Congress, and he was giving away some of his land to the poor.
Were you with him when he was killed?
We were sleeping in the same bed. He tried to protect me and obviously succeeded. I’m still sitting here.
When you look back at Gandhi and the movement to free India from colonial rule, was there any way to prevent the partition of India and the bloodbath that followed?
I think so. When two communities have actually coexisted with each other for 700 years, it is impossible not to find ways not to separate. I just don’t understand why the leadership of India, both Muslim and Hindu, including Gandhi, failed to ensure that its two communities, one Hindu and the other Muslim, could continue to live side by side. There were tensions in this relationship, as there are tensions in, frankly, all relationships. But, by and large, these two peoples had lived collaboratively with each other. A civilisation had grown, a new language, Urdu, had emerged, new art, architecture, music, and poetry developed.
Partition could have been avoided, but it could not have been avoided unless Indian anti-imperialist movements also understood the necessity of avoiding the ideology of nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology of difference, and Gandhi is at least as responsible for contributing to the division of India as anyone, if not more. Lest Gandhi is understood as sort of a Hindu communalist which is the Pakistani nationalist line against him, a line I do not share, I should say that he was, above all, an anti-imperialist opportunist. It is that streak of opportunism in Gandhi that led him to pursue a politics that spiritualised and sectarianised the politics of India.
Gandhi began to take on Hindu symbols because they were the symbols of the majority people. They had the most capacity, the most power as mobilising symbols. In the process, the Muslim community got very frightened that its own cultural traditions were being shunted aside. Gandhi would do anything within the framework of his non-violent philosophy that would mobilise the masses.
What about Britain’s role?
World War II exhausted Britain’s imperial will. When the war was over, Britain half-heartedly engaged in a holding pattern and then kind of suddenly gave up. The British were careful only to not renounce their energy holdings. They doggedly controlled the areas where energy resources were concentrated in World Wars I and II. They had come to a rather deep, respectful realisation of the importance of oil. They cared about places like India much less. They seemed to care about two things: oil and English people. Wherever there was a large English colony, such as Kenya, they hung on to it. Where there was oil, they hung on to it. The rest of it, they were almost irresponsible.
I was a child of about 12. I have this vivid memory of my brothers, all nationalists, talking in 1946 about the worst that can happen would be the British pulling out prematurely. They did not even have the staying power to ensure an orderly withdrawal. I think what we witnessed in 1947 in India and then again in 1948 in Pakistan were hurried, unthought-out, irresponsible, and, frankly, cowardly withdrawals.
What do you make of the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in India in March 1998?
It is anti-minorities, mainly because it seeks to create out of India, which has for thousands of years been a rather multicultural, multireligious, pluralistic society, a kind of unified, uniform Hindutva, Hindu society in the state. Once you have that vision of India, a number of things follow. They are very resentful of that history of India which is not specifically Hindu from their point of view. That excludes the Buddhist part of Indian history. It excludes 750 years of what they view as the Muslim part of Indian history, Muslim-dominated history, and it excludes the colonial part. It is not merely an ahistorical but an anti-historical movement. The destruction of the 16th-century Babri mosque was an expression of that anti-historicism, anti-historical outlook. They would destroy all in Indian history that was not specifically Hindu.
This entails imagining a different history of India. When those in power imagine a different history, they tend to create a different history and destroy an old history. We have seen that with the Zionist movement, which proceeded to create a different history of Palestine and to a certain extent, at least in the Western world, has succeeded in doing so. It held good of the racist movement in the 19th century that proceeded to create a different history which ascribed such things as the city of Istanbul to Western creations. Even the Taj Mahal was described as having been built by Italian artists.
This mindset necessarily turns hostile to minorities. Minority groups in India, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, all feel fearful that in its drive towards cleansing India of non-Hindu elements it would commit extreme excesses. This anti-minority mood, is rather reminiscent, fortunately hasn’t reached that point, and hopefully will not do so, of the fascist campaign against Jews in Europe or the Serb campaign against Muslims in former Yugoslavia.
Finally, this tendency would mean, among other things, increasing militarisation of India as a country. India has been pulled, since the emergence of the colonial encounter, in opposing directions of organised violence and non-violence, of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gandhi. It seems that with the BJP now in power, a certain, hopefully not a final, ascendancy has been achieved by the militaristic wing of Indian nationalism.
In the BBC documentary about you entitled Stories My Country Told Me, you say that “all sorts of historical truths and untruths are mixed then, and you organise collective emotion on the basis of difference and that’s going to promote extremes and hatreds”.
It’s happening. In that documentary I was speaking of nationalist ideologies per se, which generally have those tendencies. What you are seeing now with the BJP and its allies, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Shiv Sena, most importantly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, they are pushing this major party, the second largest party in India today, to extremes of an ideology of difference. Hindus are different from Muslims. Christians are different from Hindus. Sikhs are different from all. This is producing extremes, such atrocities as the destruction of a historic mosque, or such excesses as the communal riots that were promoted in various places, and such extremes of militaristic thinking that led to the testing of the nuclear device last May. So a militarisation occurs with this ideology of differences. It could lead to wars and violence, both domestically and abroad.
It seems that nationalism as an ideology requires an expanded and solidified identity. You have said that “If you’re going to build collective identity, you’re going to distort history.”
Not only building collective identity. Building collective identity and abusing the Other. We are so-and-so because we are not the Other. We are what we are because we are different from the West, or from the Muslims, or from the Hindus, or from the Jews, or from the Christians. This necessarily leads to extremes of distortion.
Examples abound. You see in India today a portrayal of Muslim rule, Mughal rule, for example, in ways that never existed. Historians point out that majority of the noblemen, feudal lords, nobility of the Mughal empire, were Hindus, not Muslims. They have pointed out that the Muslims of India were by and large a poorer class throughout the 700 years of Muslim rule than the Hindus were. Of course, there was more of a propertied class among Hindus, while Muslims had mostly converted from the ‘untouchable’ class to Islam in search of gaining a measure of freedom and equality, since Islam does not have in principle a caste system. But all that is being distorted by the day. To their credit, though, I should underline that the large body of the most renowned Indian historians are combating this tendency in the case of India.
What were the triggers that ignited India’s decision to set off the nuclear explosions?
Rationally speaking it made no sense whatsoever for India to have tested its nuclear weapons a second time, and it made equally no sense for Pakistan to follow suit. The only way you can explain India’s decision to do so is this particular brand of nationalism which the BJP represents. Their notion of power is military power. Their notion of influence, the influence that is attained by force, by the show of force.
I am not sure at all that considerations of Pakistan played any role at all in their decision to test nuclear weapons. I think they were testing to become equals of the other nuclear powers. They tested in the expectation of joining this silly abstraction called the “nuclear club”. What are the privileges of this membership are not clear to me or to anyone. If it is clear to somebody, nobody has explained it to me.
There are many reasons why the tests made no sense. After nearly 30 years of failure to improve relations with China following the India-China war of 1962, bilateral relationship was improving rapidly. All India’s and China’s neighbours were starting to think that closer friendly ties between the two great giants of Asia would be to the benefit of all Third World people. It had reached a point where the Chinese president and prime minister were very active when they visited India and Pakistan. They came to Pakistan urging the Pakistani leadership to make peace with India even if it meant making compromises on such issues as Kashmir. This was the greatest single achievement of Indian foreign policy of the last 10 years. In a single day the BJP leadership destroyed this achievement and turned China once again into an adversary. The Pokhran test was preceded by a huge amount of anti-China rhetoric. But India cannot afford an arms race with China. It will be disastrous for India, just as Pakistan cannot afford an arms race with India.
Secondly, India has been economically a surprising country. In the last 40 or 50 years after decolonisation, its economic growth had hovered around 3.5 to 4 percent despite the fact that it is a country with massive human and material resources. It had a good administration, a good bureaucracy, a good army, a strong state. Economists couldn’t figure out why, so as social scientists do, when they can’t find a real explanation for something, they found a phrase. They started calling it the “Hindu rate of growth”, as if there was something cultural about it. Then in the last seven years India broke out of its “Hindu rate of growth” and its development curve started to climb. In 1997, its growth was 7.5 percent, and in 1998 it was projected to be 7 percent. This explosion, this testing, brought India’s rate of growth back to 4 percent. Why did they hurt themselves so?
Thirdly, India has ambitions to be a regional power. One basic principle for a regional power is that it should have better relations with its neighbours. The government of Inder Kumar Gujral had been successful in improving relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. By exploding this bomb, once again they have increased tension in the region and frightened their neighbours.
Indian commentators such as Prem Shankar Jha lay the blame for India’s action on Pakistan’s doorstep, claiming that India went ahead with its test only after Pakistan changed the power equation in the Subcontinent by launching its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Ghauri. They also refer to the aggressive intent behind the very naming of the missile.
I think the testing of the Ghauri was a mistake. It was not necessary. The naming of this missile, which had previously been called Hatif, was outrageously crass, crude and in some ways provocative. In fact, it is also totally ignorant. The naming of the Ghauri was based on total linguistic ignorance on the part of the Pakistani government and its officials.
Before Ghauri, India had already deployed a missile system called Prithvi along the Pakistan border. The Pakistani rulers didn’t know that prithvi means “earth” in Hindi. They thought Prithvi was named after Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the 12th-century Hindu king who had defeated Shahabuddin Ghauri several times and was finally defeated by Ghauri. So they were thinking that the Indians had named it after Prithvi Raj Chauhan. They decided to name their missiles, which came after the Indian missiles, Ghauri.
What this illustrates is that we are dealing with medieval minds, with distorted histories. Prithvi Raj Chauhan was not fighting Shaha-buddin Ghauri because he was a Hindu. Shahabuddin Ghauri was not fighting Prithvi Raj Chauhan because he was a Muslim. These were medieval rulers, conquerors, invaders—invader in one case and king in another case, fighting for land, territoriality.
Shahabuddin Ghauri did not fight Prithvi Raj Chauhan until after he had defeated half a dozen Muslim rulers who came in his way. But distorted histories have created a new kind of medieval history that is Hindu history and Muslim history. These distorted ways of looking at it created these two misunderstandings, Prithvi on the one hand, Ghauri on the other. All this is indeed provocative, but it suggests a medieval mindset and a generalised problem that includes Pakistanis and Indians.
Secondly, there was already a missile race on when the Pakistanis tested the Ghauri. The Prithvi was already deployed by India, and the more advanced missile system named Agni had been tested before the Ghauri. It is not useful for supposedly independent journalists to come out and ply nationalist lines. We should begin by recognising that Pakistani and Indian rulers are caught in a medieval militaristic warp, that they are no more modern than the Clintons and the Bushes, who see power in terms of military prowess. Throughout the world, we are living in modern times, and dominated by medieval minds—political minds that are rooted in distorted histories.
After the explosions in May, Nawaz Sharif said that Pakistan had no choice, that it had to even the playing field. Do you think Pakistan had a choice?
Of course it had a choice. The evidence before us is that after testing their weapons, the Indian leaders became panicky that they would look very bad if Pakistan did not test. The Indian foreign minister said Pakistan should reconsider its position in South Asia because the strategic equation had changed. L.K. Advani, the home minister, said: We are going to go into Pakistan and take over those parts of Kashmir which are in Pakistani hands. Atal Behari Vajpayee said the strategic equation has changed, the Pakistanis should understand it. This kind of provocative statement was made every day. Some fighting also started along the border in Kashmir.
However, to respond to such provocation is not the act of responsible leadership. I had argued then that there was no need for Pakistan to test. I’m arguing now there was no need to test. By being provoked, we are actually confirming what the most racist part of the world says, that we are not capable of, not qualified, to have nuclear weapons. This is ridiculous.
I don’t know at what level I should argue here. I do not believe in nuclear weapons. Therefore, first of all I believe that just because India has nuclear weapons, Pakistan does not have to have it. I believe in unilaterally not having to compete with India in the nuclear arms race, number one.
Number two, even if I didn’t believe that, supposing for a few minutes I was thinking like the Pakistani policy-maker, I would say: Why? Pakistan is a smaller country. It had a nuclear capacity. India knew it had a nuclear capability for the last 10 years. The world knew it had a nuclear capability. For this smaller power it is best not to show that capability. They could have kept quiet about it, and that would have been more effective.
Sharid used a couplet by Mohammed Iqbal while announcing Pakistan’s nuclear explosions: “Love plunged into Nimrod’s fire without hesitation. Meanwhile, Reason is on the rooftop, just contemplating the scene.”
A greater vulgarisation of Iqbal or of Sufi thought is difficult to imagine. The prime minister of Pakistan, in announcing the Pakistani decision to test its own nuclear weapons, puts down his decision as an act of love. Contrast it with the argument of people like me, who were saying: Reason demands that you don’t do it. To elevate the bomb, then, to the level of divinity, to the level of morality, to the level of the spirit and the spiritual act, is vulgar. It’s a vulgarity of which I’m quite sure Pakistan’s prime minister was not quite aware, yet it’s regrettable.
Nawaz Sharif has said that he thinks the introduction of the Shariat would be a good thing for Pakistan. Do you agree?
Of course not. i wrote about it as he had proposed a 15th amendmmentto the constitution. I argued that in modern times Islam has been in Pakistan and in other Muslim countries a refuge for weak and scoundrel regimes and rulers. Whenever they feel threatened, they bring out Islam from the closet and use it as a political weapon.
That’s what Nawaz Sharif is doing. He has been in office now for nearly two years. The economy has not improved. He tested the nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s security has not improved. Our basic disputes with India have not been resolved. He supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has brought us into conflict with Iran, as if we needed one more hostile neighbour. Under these conditions, he pulls Islam out of the closet and starts the process of Islamisation. This is typical use of religion for purposes that are less than moral.
What is at the root of what so many see as a deep sense of insecurity among Pakistanis? You could see it in the demonstrations in the streets after the explosions in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis’ sense of insecurity is there, but let me clarify two things. There were expressions of joy at the testing, both in India and in Pakistan. In this respect thje Pakistanis were not very different from the Indians. Secondly, in both countruies it was a microscopic minority that expressed joy. In the case of Pakistan, I am a witness to the fact that most of the pictures that appeared on television in the first three days after the Pakistani testing on May 29 was due to the extraordinary hunger of Western media for photo opportunities.
One of the pictures that you saw most often on television, including CNN, I personally saw how it was taken. The world media didn’t quite descend on us until the day after the announcement of the Pakistani explosion on the afternoon of the 29th. The next morning after news conferences that officials gave to these media people, government agents ran around up and down Abpara market in Islamabad saying: Close your shops, come out to show your support for the bomb. These were police officials running up and down. Probably a maximum of 50 or 60 people gathered. They were handed bouquets of flowers. Two persons went into a halvai food shop, bought a whole lot of sweets and started distributing them. They were both officials. Then they said to the camera people, you can now take pictures. That was the demonstration in Islamabad. I did not see any expression of spontaneous joy either in Islamabad or in Rawalpindi.
A week later, Nawaz Sharif went back to Lahore. There his party, the Muslim League, officially organised a mass demonstration to welcome the prime minister and therefore the bomb. That was all official. It was a state-sponsored event which the Western media did not know or did not recognise as entirely staged. Whether or not the same thing happened in India, I do not know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
The Indian public and the Pakistani public, even those who felt joy about it, know that this was too serious a matter to go about celebrating. This was not a moment of celebration. In both countries, on Hiroshima Day in 1998, large demonstrations took place. In India the demonstrations were much larger than in Pakistan. In Calcutta 250,000 people came out against nuclear weapons. In Delhi, 30,000.
But back to Pakistani insecurity. The country feels insecure for a number of reasons. I think most important is that the country has emerged from a partition of India. Many of the issues linked to that partition have not yet been resolved. Kashmir is one of them. The insecurity that arises out of this is that India has not quite accepted the fact of Pakistan’s existence. This view is wrong. From what I can see, India has accepted the fact of Partition, including the internationalists.
Secondly, the country broke up once, when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, arousing a sense that maybe things are not final yet. Lastly, a sense of stability hasn’t developed. Out of 50 years, 25 years have been spent under military rule and 25 under very unstable, very corrupt and very inefficient civilian rule. People who have been living in that unstable fashion, facing a very large, hostile neighbour, created out of historic India, therefore not certain whether their status is permanent or not—will feel insecure. That’s another reason I feel we should have avoided the possession of nuclear weapons.
What about the state and condition, both materially as well as psychologically, of lndia’s vast Muslim population? What about their sense of belonging, particularly in this atmosphere of communalism?
I think the Indian Muslim identity was very much shaken by the partition of India in 1947. Many of them sympathised with Pakistan and its creation. They became confused about what it means, and who they are. Surprisingly, 50 years later, and this may be a great achievement of Nehru and Gandhi’s secular ideals, the Indian Muslim feels quite Indian. Insecure on grounds of being a Muslim, especially because of the rise of these Hindu fundamentalists, but Indian—not alien, not different, not an outsider, not somebody who should think of going away somewhere. “Punishments will be taken here, and finally the day of counting will be done here.” That’s their outlook. They have that sense of Indianness. It’s very impressive.
The Indian Muslim feels that he’s Indian, and he’s going to bloody well stand up and fight for it. That is an important achievement, I think, which people are not willing to recognise of the Indian National Congress and the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru. It is an important achievement also of that Muslim leadership which stayed in India and which opposed the idea of Pakistan, people like Abul Kalam Azad.
But that leadership also included the maulanas and the moulvis.
The religious class of Islam, the ulema, did not support the Pakistan movement, by and large. Ironic, but that is true. Just as the greatest Judaic scholars in the 1920s and 1930s did not support the Zionist movement. They thought it was inimical to the notion of Judaism, to the universal idea of being a Jew.
But today in Pakistan the Muslim fundamentalist parties are decidedly nationalist?
I don’t think they can be called “nationalist”. They are decidedly Islamist. They are out to capture state power. In that sense, they are nationalist. They are not quite nationalists in the sense that we use the word. They are pan-Islamists.
They wish to establish a theocratic state?
They wish to establish a theocratic state in Pakistan as the first step towards theocratic states elsewhere. They are part of a generalised theocratic movement in the Muslim world today which was given a massive push and an armed character by the efforts of the US in Afghanistan.
What happened in Afghanistan has not been discussed in the West. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, the US saw in it an opportunity that was two-fold. One, to tie the Soviet Union in a Vietnam-like war in Afghanistan. Two, they saw in it an opportunity to mobilise the entire Muslim world in a violent way against the Soviet Union, against communism.
American operatives went around the Muslim world recruiting for the jihad in Afghanistan. This whole phenomenon of jihad as an international armed struggle has not existed in the Muslim world since the 10th century. It was brought back into being, enlivened, and pan-Islamised by the American effort. I saw planeloads of them arriving—from Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. These people were brought in, given an ideology, told that the armed struggle is a virtuous thing to do, and the whole notion of jihad as an international pan-Islamic terrorist movement was born. The US spent 8 billion dollars in producing the bin Ladens of our time. That camp they hit in Afghanistan, I visited it in 1986. It was a CIA-sponsored camp.
Then the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, but US support for these people continued because communism was still alive. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and from 1991 you see a new phenomenon. The US broke faith with a lot of these people. Worse, the US moved in on the issue of drugs. Afghanistan and Pakistan had become the largest centres of the drug trade in the 198Os. Many of these people who were supporting the CIA were also engaged in the drug trade. Now the US did not need them, so it started pushing the Pakistani government and the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to clamp down on these groups that were previously working with the US. They suffered from a double betrayal. There was a failure to continue to fulfill promises made, and there was a turning on old friends.
Who are these people? These are all Afghanistan-connected, CIA-connected people. They are also tribal people. Tribal people have a tribal code, and two words are central to that code: loyalty and revenge. The tribal ethics works around the notion of loyalty and revenge. When your friend to whom you are loyal has betrayed you, you will take revenge. These people have enough of a grudge now on the basis of having been loyal and having been betrayed.
Number two, they have been socialised and trained and equipped to carry on a war of terror against occupiers, foreign occupiers, which was the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And so, bin Laden is merely carrying out the mission to which he committed with America earlier. Now he is carrying it out against America, because now America, from his point of view, is occupying his land. That’s all. He grew up seeing Saudi Arabia being robbed by Western corporations and Western powers. He watched these Saudi princes, this one-family state, handing over the oil resources of the Arab people to the West. Up until 1991, he had only one satisfaction: that his country was not occupied. There were no American or French or British troops in Saudi Arabia. Even that small pleasure was taken away from him during the Gulf war and its aftermath.
The militants of the Islamic movement almost everywhere have all been trained in Afghanistan. The CIA people call it “Islamic blowback”.
Why do you think the West is so ready to treat Islam as the enemy?
After the Cold War, the West had no viable threat around which it could organise its policies. All powers, all imperial powers—especially democratic ones—cannot justify their uses of power only on the basis of greed. No one will buy it. They have needed two things: a ghost and a mission. The British carried the White Man’s Burden. That was their mission. The French carried la mission civilisatrice, the civilising mission. The Americans had, first, Manifest Destiny, and then found the mission of “standing watch on the walls of world freedom”, in John F. Kennedy’s ringing phrase. Each of them had the Black, the Yellow, and finally the Red Peril to fight against. There was a ghost. There was a mission. People bought it.
Right now, the United States is deprived of both the mission and the ghost. So the mission has appeared as human rights. It is a very strange mission for a country that for nearly 100 years has been supporting dictatorship, first in Latin America and then throughout the world. And in search of menace, it has turned to Islam. It is the easiest because the West has encountered resistance here: Algeria, then Egypt, Palestinians, the Iranian revolution. And a portion of it is strategically located: It is the home of the oil resources for the West.
What is your view of the Taliban of Afghanistan?
The Taliban is as retrograde a group as it is possible to find. In 1997, I spent two weeks in Afghanistan. One day, I heard drums and noises from the house where I was staying. I rushed out to see what was going on. There was a young boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 years of age. His head was shaved. There was a rope around his neck. He was being pulled by that rope. There was one man behind him with a drum. He slowly beat the drum.
I asked, “What has the boy done?” People told me he was caught red-handed. “Doing what?” I asked. “He was caught red-handed playing with a tennis ball.”
I went off to interview one of the Taliban leaders. He said, “We have forbidden boys to play with balls because it constitutes undue temptation to men.” So the same logic that makes them lock up women behind veils and behind walls makes them prevent boys from playing games. It’s that kind of madness.
These people are anti-women, anti-music, anti-life, and some of the highest officials of the United States were visiting them and talking to them. The general impression is that the US has been supporting them.
Why would the United States do that?
When the Soviet Union fell apart, its constituent republics became independent. The Central Asian republics, whose majority population is Muslim, happen to be oil-rich, gas-rich states. Their gas and oil used to pass through the Soviet Union. Now a new game starts: How is this oil and gas going to get out to the world?
At this point, American corporations move in. Texaco, Amoco, Unocal, Delta Oil—all of these are now going into Central Asia to get hold of these oil and gas fields. They don’t want to take any pipelines to Iran because Iran is, at the moment, boycotted. It is an enemy of America. So Afghanistan and Pakistan become the places through which you lay pipelines. And you cut the Russians out. Just look at the story here: President Clinton makes personal telephone calls to the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, urging them to sign pipeline contracts. And the pipeline had to go through Afghanistan. In this game, both Pakistan and the US get into the business of saying who will be the most reliable conduit to ensure the safety of the pipelines.
And they pick the most murderous, by far the most crazy, of Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Taliban, to ensure the safety of the pipelines. In this situation, the US concern is not who is fundamentalist and who is progressive, who treats women nicely and who treats them badly. The issue is, who is more likely to ensure the safety of the oil and gas resources.
What is behind the rise of fundamentalism not just in the Islamic world but also in the United States, Israel, Sri Lanka? What gives power to these movements?
There are a number of factors. The first is the fear of—and reaction to homogenisation. Globalisation of the eco-nomy, the shrinking of spaces through modern technology, the power of the media in creating common tastes, everybody eating McDonald’s hamburgers or wearing jeans—all this has made a whole lot of people uncomfortable with what is receding from their own way of life. That discomfort is used by right-wing ideologues to say, “Come to us. We will return you your old-time religion. Come to us. We will give you back your old ways, your old memories.” And people who don’t know any better often follow.
There is a second factor, and that is a disappointment with modernism, a sense of disillusionment with life as it is constructed in our time. It seems empty, void of meaning. It feels like families are breaking up but there is no substitute for the proximities, the comfort, the security of family life. These are changes that occur from technology and from the expansion of the tentacles of capitalism into every aspect of human life. In many ways, advertisers are deciding the colour of underwear we wear, the kind of sexual advances that we make our wives and lovers. Once that starts happening, people feel a loss of individual autonomy. In search of autonomy, we look for some specific, unique way of relating to ourselves. Fundamentalism offers that. Old-time religion offers that. New-time religion also offers that.
The media critique of fundamentalism seems to be very selective in its targets. What about Saudi Arabia?
This is a very interesting matter. Saudi Arabia’s Islamic government has been by far the most fundamentalist in the history of Islam until the Taliban came along. Even today, for example, women drive in Iran. They can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. Today, men and women are working in offices together in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, they cannot do that. Saudi Arabia is much worse than Iran, but it has been the ally of the US since 1932, and nobody has questioned it. But much more than that is involved. Throughout the Cold War, starting in 1945, the US saw militant Islam as a counterweight to communist parties of the Muslim world.
You have coined a term “pathologies of power” in post-colonial states. What do you mean by that?
I mean the fact that Third World politicians and institutions, individuals who hold power and the institutions which they run, do not express themselves most of the time rationally in reasonable ways. Saddam Hussein requiring the typewriter to be licensed. It is pathological. It is almost as if their behaviour is an expression of a sickness, a disease, rather than of some natural aspect of human behaviour. These are deviations from the norm.
Saudi Arabia opening universities is a good thing. But fearing students getting together and talking to each other—because if they talk they might talk politics or revolt—and therefore doing everything to prevent the students from discussing matters, from meeting together, from collaborating, is the exact reverse of what universities should be.
Third World writers are among the most endangered species in the world. Nearly all Arab writers today are living in exile of one form or another. The only great novelist Saudi Arabia has ever produced in its entire history is Abdelrahman Munif. He has been divested of his citizenship and is living in exile in Damascus. It is as if a body politic, a social body, is cutting itself off from something important, something creative. Adonis is a Syrian. He lives in exile in Paris or sometimes in Beirut. So it goes. In Pakistan, I think since Independence, there has not been a major literary figure who has not served time in prison. To me these are all examples of sickening behaviour on the part of the state which expresses an illness, a pathology. These are not natural ways of behaving.
There is the case also of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin.
Taslima Nasrin is one of the recent examples of what is happening. This is not normal, especially when you think of the fact that most of these writers, a majority of them, are really not saying or doing anything that is threatening to society. Taslima Nasrin wrote a novel. She is not a great writer. She wrote a novel in which she is portraying the risks that the Hindu minority runs in a majority Muslim Bangladesh.
She is alleged to have given an interview in which she said something to the effect that she does not believe that the traditions of the prophet Mohammed are binding on Muslims. Whether she said it or not, we do not know. She denies it. And for that she’s been driven out. These are all pathological behaviours, and I can cite many more. Benazir Bhutto, in the space of three-and-a-half years as prime minister, stealing nearly 2 billion dollars from a poor country like Pakistan. That’s pathology. She doesn’t need that kind of money. She was already a rich woman.
In Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples V.S. Naipaul seems to make rather sweeping generalisations on the topic of Islam and Muslims. What is your take on his assessment?
The central thesis of Naipaul’s latest book is that Islam in India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran is the Islam of converted people. He calls Islam an Arabic religion. Everyone who is not an Arab is a convert to Islam. A convert’s view is distorted, nihilistic. It produces disturbances. It is a condition of neurosis. The central thesis rests on the impact of conversion on the converted.
Throughout this book Naipaul identifies a problem in Pakistan or in Malaysia and he says it exists because they were converts to Islam. For example, at one point he describes quite correctly that some of the greatest historical monuments in Lahore, are criminally, carelessly neglected. He describes the neglect and says: How can a people allow such neglect? Clearly it is because these people have no relationship to their history. Converts don’t care about the past. That is his conclusion.
But it is an unfortunate fact that historical monuments and environment are being neglected in India, in Pakistan, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Africa, in Latin America, in Cambodia. They are being neglected in many European countries and in America also. So what does that have to do with converts? There is that problem. His central thesis is wrong.
There is a second problem that is even greater. Who is not a convert? By Naipaul’s definition, if Iranians are converted Muslims, then Americans are converted Christians, the Japanese are converted Buddhists, and the Chinese, large numbers of them, are converted Buddhists as well. Everybody is converted because at the beginning every religion had only a few followers. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, all prophetic religions developed through conversion. In that sense, his organising thesis should not exclude anyone.
You are wasting time. This is V.S. Naipaul, a man haunted by imagined, created ghosts. None of his ghosts are actually real. They haunt him in very unexpected ways. This book, for example, is about Islam, but suddenly in the chapter on Pakistan he spends the major portion on a particular person whom he calls Shabaz.
Here is a British-school-educated, Cambridge-educated young Pakistani who discovers Karl Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara while studying at Oxford and Cambridge. He returns home and like young people of that generation in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East or America, he joins a leftist group and ultimately a leftist armed uprising in Balochistan. So Naipaul goes into very great detail of this person’s narrative, makes this person look like some sort of a distortion. I’m not debating with you or telling you whether this person is a distortion or not. But that’s how Shabaz looks as he goes through this rigmarole of a leftist uprising that doesn’t work. His friends die and he reconverts back to normal life, etc.
Nowhere is there any suggestion in this entire chapter that Shabaz was a believing Muslim or that Islam had any role in his life or in his education or in his thinking or had any role in the narrative on which Naipaul spends 35 pages. He comes in for only one reason—because Naipaul is haunted by his hatred of everything leftist. He finds an opportunity to discover his ghost. As soon as he discovers his ghost, whether it fits his narrative or not, he vomits it out: his fears, his hatred, his disgust.
But there is another aspect to it. This is rather typical of the way of this cannibalistic orientalist scholarship, i.e. he cannibalises on friends. The Shabaz of his book is a man who is also my friend, Ahmed Rasheed, who took Naipaul as a personal guest during his six-week visit to Pakistan, showed him around, introduced him to a lot of people, including me. Rasheed was generous to a fault, dropped a lot of other things he was doing, he’s the author of several books himself, to help Naipaul in his work. Naipaul has repaid him by writing a caricature, changing his name but only in such a way that every educated Pakistani would recognise Ahmed Rasheed in that book and pity him for having befriended this cannibal of a man.
His portrait of Ahmed Rasheed, whom he called Shabaz, has absolutely nothing to do with belief of Islam, religion, Islamic society, any of these things. It has to do with the enlightenment of the 60s in the Western world, especially at Western universities, where he was being educated, where he has learnt of Marx and Guevara. He comes back to Pakistan and is moved by the sight of poverty and poor people. He wants to do something. What he understands best to do is what he did. He joins an uprising. Is it right or wrong, that’s not the issue. The issue is, one, it has nothing to do with Islam. Two, he has been caricatured. And three, he gave Naipaul the opportunity to caricature him. In other words, Naipaul, and it doesn’t please me to say so, is a very sick man. Islam is one of his ghosts. Yet he continues to pursue it. He’s like Captain Ahab.
Islam is his white whale?
Islam is his white whale, and he is really after it. The only difference is Ahab at least had a good reason to go after the whale, that is, the whale had hurt him. To the best of my knowledge, Naipaul has never been hurt by Muslims or Islam. Yet he is obsessed.
Isn’t it curious that he marries a Pakistani woman?
It’s not so curious. There is a history, that a lot of people marry among those whom they regard as enemies. All the anti-colonialists, most of the anti-colonialists of the Third World, especially those who became armed revolutionaries, married white women from the metropolis. It is a revenge of sorts, and this is particularly true of misogynists. Have you thought of that? It is rather remarkable.
What was your encounter with Naipaul like? How did he engage you?
I saw him several times but there was an absence of engagement. I was wondering why. I think one, I didn’t look like somebody who was going to give him a subject to write about. Two, he asked me what I thought of his earlier book, Among the Believers. I said I disliked his book. He said: Why? I said: Because you are not interested in reality. He got very agitated and said: What do you mean, I’m not interested in reality? That’s what I write about. I said: You wrote nearly 60 pages on Pakistan in Among the Believers. You describe Pakistan as an Islamic state under General Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. You describe it throughout as if this government represented that country and was supported by its people. It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the state of affairs you are describing there was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including all the known poets and writers and artists of Pakistan, without exception. That our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile, our best poets were in prison or exile. Thirty thousand people had been flogged in a public square. Nearly 30 or 40 thousand went into prisons, and you don’t make one mention of it. You describe that regime as Islamic. The least you could have done was to say that this was a contested space.
He disliked hearing that. And it is really rather scandalous. Faiz Anmed Faiz, the greatest of poets since Iqbal, one of the two greatest of this century living in exile, Habib Jalib lived in prison. And in the 60 pages, a serious writer coming from London describes the regime of General Zia-ul Haq and the society he was creating without mentioning that we were all suffering in prisons or exile. This is not writing. He should stop writing. He should be selling sausages.
In the BBC documentary, you travelled for the first time back to your native village in Bihar and you trace the steps along the Grand Trunk Road. Why did you select this highway?
Because I lived along it. It was very simple. The Grand Trunk Road was built in the 16th century by the Emperor Sher Shah. It ran from Calcutta to Peshawar. For me, it symbolised the unity of India. Then the two nationalisms, the Indian and the Pakistani together, broke up the Grand Trunk Road. It lost its continuity only in 1947. It is rather strange that you suddenly come to a particular point in India where the Grand Trunk Road stops. Then you pass the Pakistani and Indian checkpoints and the Grand Trunk Road resumes.
Secondly, I had a childhood association with it in multiple ways. I lived around it, grew up around it, travelled on it throughout my childhood, then romanticised it from reading Kipling. You remember Kipling, a colonial writer but a good writer nevertheless, wrote a lot about the road. So I thought that the road would be a defining symbol of both the unity and the breakup, of disappointment and of my life.
You go back to your village, Irki, which you last saw when you were 13. It is a very happy scene. All the kids are around you as if you were a returning celebrity?
The first thing I saw as I was approaching the village was the mosque. I recognised the village from the mosque. It was very touching to see how much the villagers, both Hindus and Muslims, 50 years later, had remembered, loved and revered my family. They kept running in as the word passed, they kept coming in, presents came in, kids came in, Muslims came in, Hindus came in. The older people were particularly touching because they remembered particular individuals they asked about. But it is a poorer village than I had left, very poor now. It was not a poor village. We had a great library. My grandfather had built a library of nearly 5000 books which included about 3000 manuscripts. All of it was destroyed during the killings and riot of 1946 and 1947.
There is a poignant scene where you visit the village graveyard and comment, one of both pleasure and pain.
My father’s tomb has disappeared. Just across the graveyard you see some peasant homes that are built of bricks and stones taken from the graveyard. It was very painful, but also a pleasure to see that they were giving life to the living, making their lives better. It’s much better to use those stones in a home than in a tomb. I think my father would have been happy.
The film starts in Calcutta. You also recalled visiting Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore was very much a revered figure throughout India, although he was an internationalist. He gave prophetic warnings against nationalism catching up with the Indian psyche. Tagore was very old then. He must have died within six months of my visit. There were a lot of people visiting him. He lay on a cot wearing a white robe-like dress. He spoke very clearly, put his hands on my head and mumbled something like: Be a good boy. That’s about all I can remember. I read him later. I discovered his work only recently, the last six years or so. I’m astounded by how clear-headed he was.
You recall in the film that in 1946, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Bihar and that Mahatma Gandhi visited and took Hindu and Muslim children along with him through the devastated villages as an example of unity. You were one of those kids.
I travelled with Gandhiji for about six weeks.
Did you have any personal contact, any kind of impression?
Daily contact. I wish my mind was clearer than it is now. At that time, at age 13, I was very much in the group of Pakistani nationalism and viewed Gandhiji as not a friendly politician because he was a Congress leader. That was under the influence of my brothers, who had turned to the Muslim League. I went because my mother and father had Congress connections. So I think I was not in as much of a learning mood as I should have been.
But some things were very clear. One was the continuous, almost infectious, love, not the power, the love in which people around him held him. He was obeyed, listened to, because they loved him, not because he was charismatic or because he exuded power. He was a gentle figure. I’ll tell you one story, and then I don’t want to go on talking about it.
My brothers had said to me as I was going: Since you are going with Gandhiji, might as well ask him to teach you to write English. They said Gandhiji writes superb English, and later on I would realise they were absolutely right. He wrote superbly. So I said: Gandhiji, my brothers have told me that you write superb English. Oh, that’s very kind of those boys. So I said: They have told me to learn from you the principle of learning good English. Oh, he said, my boy, there is only one principle. Read the Bible over and over again, the King James version. I always think of that, because if you read his writings and speeches, there is a biblical quality to his English prose, very typical. Simple, short sentences, simple narrative, homilies, very interesting.
Was he aware that your father had been murdered, essentially for supporting the Congress?
He knew the history. Of course.
Then you made a very painful decision…
No, I didn’t.
It was not painful for you? Leaving your mother must have been tough.
I didn’t make any decisions. Decisions were made for me. I was 13 years old. In India, you don’t make decisions when you’re 13.
Your brothers’, your going to Pakistan. What did your mother have to say about that?
She was against any of us going. At one point in her anger she said: Go if you must, but you must know that you have all become Muslim Zionists. She was angry about it.
Did you see your mother again after you left?
She died in 1972. I saw her before she died, but she wasn’t able to talk to me. She was dying.
It seems in some ways you too have in your practice spurned promise of material wealth and the attraction of fame and acceptance.
You are being very kind. I think I have been very selfish in seeking my happiness. I am a very happy man in many ways.
I’m talking in the sense of ruhaniyat, spiritually rich.
I know what you are saying. What I said was that there was no sacrifice on my part. It has all been to my benefit. I don’t own very much, but I’m rather happy.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz is one of your favourite Urdu poets. Why do you like him so?
Faiz was so prescient and so early in catching the mood of disillusionment with the decolonised post-colonial states. He wrote this poem just about six months after India and Pakistan were independent. He, in fact, was talking of both of them. He saw with exceptional clarity the defective character of what we were at that time calling liberation, calling azadi, freedom. That makes it an extremely powerful thing. An analogy I can make was that it was just on the eve of Algeria’s Independence after a long and bloody war of liberation that Frantz Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth. In one chapter, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, he argued the risks that a post-colonial state runs. But the difference between Faiz the poet and Fanon the writer and revolutionary is that Faiz had not seen any previous examples of such failure. Fanon had actually lived in Ghana, visited Guinea, known the Egypt of Nasser, and seen how rotten was the post-colonial state, or how colonial was the post-colonial state. Do you want me to read it to you?
There’s a translation from Agha Shahid Ali, who is a published Kashmiri poet. “The Dawn of Freedom, August 1947”.
These tawnish rays, this night-smudged light
This is not that dawn for which,
ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing
so sure that somewhere in its desert
the sky harboured a final haven for the stars
and we would find it.
We had no doubt that night’s vagrant wave
would stray towards the shore
that the heart rocked with sorrow
would at last reach its port.
But the heart, the eye,
the yet deeper heart still ablazed for the beloved
their turmoil shines in the lantern by the road.
The flame is stalled for news.
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down.
It still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light.
Come, we must search for that promised dawn.
There’s another favourite couplet by Iqbal. How about a translation of that?
That would be hard for me. For a thousand years, narges, which is a particular desert flower, weeps for its infertility. With much difficulty in the garden there is born someone capable of seeing inside.
On that poetic note I thank you very much.