Interview - Dr Akbar S. Ahmed

Dr Akbar S. Ahmed is an eminent scholar of international repute. He is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is ‘The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam’ (2013). He belonged to the Civil Service of Pakistan and served as Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.

Q: Globalization is giving rise to advent of a new universal civilization where citizens of the developed and developing countries could easily interact, observe the differences and compare life in different societies. This awareness, interaction and comparison can generate different responses from those who are not satisfied either with the international system or their own governments. How do you see societies of developed, developing and under-developed world reacting to the process of Globalization in the future?

Answer: First let me say what an honour it is to be asked to contribute to Hilal Magazine. I have many links with the army. My younger brother Sikander Ahmed was a brigadier and a proud Commanding Officer of the 1 Frontier Force Regiment and several of my class fellows from my school ‘Army Burn Hall college,’ Abbottabad became Generals. I've also had the privilege of being close friends with two Shaheed heroes of Pakistan Army, Major Shabbir Sharif and Major Sabir Kamal. I have described them as those who “lived simple and honest lives, cared deeply for the problems of the ordinary people, and readily sacrificed their lives for their nation in acts of extraordinary valour…Their motivation, courage, and idealism are second to none compared with that of officer cadre of any army in the world” (The Thistle and the Drone, 2013, p. 178). I wrote a poem in honour of Sabir called “Major Sabir Kamal: The Last Stand.” I had the pleasure of marching with Shabbir Sharif's 6 Frontier Force Regiment when I was attached to the army as part of my Civil Service training. When I called on the new Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, I was pleased to remind him that I had marched with his Frontier Force Regiment the same as that of his brother. It was such a pleasure to meet the General because he reminded me of my friend Shabbir and I felt that Pakistan was fortunate that it got the right man for the right job at the right time in its history.

Now about Globalization: There is often a process of simultaneous attraction and revulsion to aspects of Globalization in the developing world. On the one hand, people want economic development, improvements in transportation, and new products. On the other hand, people are exposed to far-off countries and cultures in real time through global media and this can provoke feelings of anger and alienation when what is seen is perceived as threatening or alien. For example in my book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), I explained that when those in the Muslim world see the wealth of Western CEOs or idyllic scenes of peace in Western societies on their television screens juxtaposed with the poverty and chaos of places like Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq – many feel anger. Some contend that American culture is invading their societies through the media and a deluge of Western products. Globalization is also characterized by the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming more poorer.

Dangerous gaps are opening between the very rich and the mass of people who are struggling to survive. So, while Globalization is bringing the world closer together and undoubtedly benefits many, it also divides people as many do not feel its benefits, or, are threatened by it. Often those resisting or opposing aspects of Globalization seek to restore their “purity” in the face of perceived threat from outsiders, and conflict and violence can result. It is for this reason that I have dedicated my work to promoting dialogue and understanding between the world's civilizations, religions, and cultures which I believe to be the only way of avoiding confrontation in the age of Globalization. One of the most dangerous ideas that gained widespread currency with the age of Globalization was that there was on-going Clash of Civilizations.

As it happened, I found myself teaching one of my first classes at American University in Washington, D.C. on 9/11. I had just been appointed the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and I looked forward to a long and peaceful innings as a scholar on campus leading a peaceful life. When the plane flew into the Pentagon just a few miles from my university when I was in the class, I knew immediately that my life would never be the same. As a Muslim scholar I knew that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims would become very wide and that it was obligatory on all scholars, like me, to try to bridge that gap. I, therefore, launched into an unending cycle of lectures, media appearances, interfaith dialogues, and meetings at the White House, Pentagon, the State Department, the think tanks, and also churches, synagogues, and temples. In order for better understanding of relations between US and the Muslim world, I worked on an ambitious series of projects, the fourth part of which I will embark on this summer. Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization was the first, followed by Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), and the forthcoming Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire. I was also supported by a dedicated and passionate team of young American students/scholars who accompanied me and helped me create a genuine Dialogue of Civilizations. We thus presented an alternative to the widespread idea of the Clash of Civilizations.

Q: The contemporary Muslim World comprised of countries that either remained colonies of Europe, under occupation and influence of Russia, and few other major powers in the past. How do you see Muslim societies in different countries adjusting to prevailing norms of democracy, free market economy, media freedom, human rights and gender equality? How these societies can avoid internal conflicts that come in the way of any great transformation?

Answer: In my book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization I delineated three models of Muslim response to Western colonization which developed in the 19th century and persist until this day: the modernists, literalists, and mystics. The modernists sought to adapt Islam to Western modernity and include among them prominent figures such as Muhammad Abduh, the Egyptian religious scholar who, in the late 19th century, attempted a programme of reform to adjust to the times, as did, in a different way, the secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. In South Asia, prominent examples include Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who believed Muslims should learn Western science and founded Aligarh University on the model of Cambridge, Allama Iqbal who was influenced by western thinkers like Goethe and Nietzsche, and the Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was trained in the British legal tradition and greatly respected Western figures like Abraham Lincoln. These three figures were instrumental in achieving the State of Pakistan within the modernist tradition.

The literalists, the second category, also arose in the 19th century, but instead of attempting to balance Islam and the West, they sought to draw boundaries around Islam. They saw Islam as under attack from the West and attempted to preserve its purity by going back to the holy texts and attempting to interpret them literally. This included attempts to exactly emulate the behaviour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, for instance by dying their beards. The literalists drew their inspiration from thinkers like the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya of Damascus, who wrote as the Muslim world reeled from the Mongol invasions and believed that Muslims in every generation must revert to the holy texts rather than applying mindlessly the teachings of current scholars. In South Asia, prominent examples of literalist thinking include Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and the influential Islamic seminary at Deoband, which is today linked to various movements across the region.

The third category is the Sufi mystics who see the love of God as the reality underlying all things. Intellectually and spiritually they transcend distinctions of religion and nationality. Their message of sulh-i-kul, or peace with all, resonates with people across the social and economic spectrum in Muslim societies and indeed even in non-Muslim ones. Mystics, who trace their spiritual lineage to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, often attempt to reach God through chanting and music and are inspired by the great mystic poet Rumi, who said “I go to a synagogue, church and a mosque, and I see the same spirit and the same altar.” The universal message of the Sufis is demonstrated by the fact that Rumi is widely cited as the most popular poet in the United States today. There is a great variety of Sufi movements across the Muslim world, including the Chishti Order of South Asia and the Naqshbandi which originated in Central Asia.

In Journey into Islam, I argued that the perception in the Muslim world that Islam is under attack from the West after 9/11 has meant that the mystics and modernists who wish to engage with the West are pushed aside in favour of literalists. Like the Deobandis in the 19th century, many literalists teach that the purity of Islam must be preserved by adhering strictly to Islamic law and tradition and keeping out foreign influences. The turmoil of the Muslim world today is in part the clash of these positions. Only by speaking and interacting with one another as fellow Muslims and seeing the humanity in each other can this turmoil be resolved. I believe that we must find a balance between Islam and modernity as the great modernist figures mentioned above, all of whom were guided by the example of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, argued.

Q: How do you see growth of the post-colonial state in the Muslim World? What went wrong that still most of the states have not been able to establish powerful institutions, construct internal cohesion and achieve economic progress?

Answer: In my latest book The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, I argued that the post-colonial modern state has failed to accommodate its own people. At independence spirits were high across the Muslim world with charismatic founding-fathers such as the Quaid, Sukarno in Indonesia, and King Muhammad-V in Morocco appealing to people in every corner of their respective nations to cast off the colonizer and shape their destiny as united independent people. The problem came shortly after, however, when the unity dissipated and clashes broke out between the dominant ethnic or religious groups at the “centre” of the country and minorities living in the “periphery.” Development was disproportionally concentrated in the centre and sorely lacking in the periphery. People in the centre viewed the periphery as uncivilized and did not grant them their rights as full citizens of the state. In Pakistan this can be seen, for example, in the attitude of the elite who come mainly from the big cities such as Islamabad and Lahore and their attitudes towards the people of the Tribal Areas and Balochistan, and the perceptions of those people towards them. It is my thesis that this clash between centre and periphery has driven conflict since independence, and, after 9/11, terrorism in postcolonial Muslim states from Nigeria to Indonesia. The Thistle and the Drone contains 40 such case studies. In short, for all the talk about national identity and unity, we have seen time and again the modern state failing to provide prosperity, peace, education, security, and democratic representation to all of its citizens. In order to improve the situation and build unity, centre and periphery must be brought closer together. This can only be done by granting the periphery and the ethnic and religious minorities the full rights and privileges of being citizens of the state.

Q: Clash of Civilizations is a West-coined cliché that intrigued the mind of many particularly in the Muslim World. How do you explain the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, intervention in Iraq and Libya, continuous support to Israel, and, also US support to Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo?

Answer: After 9/11 many commentators in the West argued that a Clash of Civilizations between the West and Muslim world was occurring. This, they claimed, was a war that had broken out at the founding of Islam and 9/11 was only the latest episode in it. These commentators were building on the work of scholars like Bernard Lewis, who coined the phrase Clash of Civilizations, and Samuel Huntington, who popularized it. (I have been in the extraordinary position of conducting one-to-one debates with both). The problem with this theory was that there are many examples in history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews living, working, and producing great works of art and literature together for example, Muslim Spain that do not fit into this mould. And, as the question indicated, there are many examples of the US intervening in support of Muslims before 9/11, such as in Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion and in the Balkans in the 1990s when Muslims faced ethnic cleansing. After 9/11 the US, driven by many policymakers who believed in the idea of the Clash of Civilizations and who possessed an inadequate understanding of the people who had attacked the US as well as Muslim culture and history, went charging into Muslim societies intending to defeat the “terrorists”. In doing so, it linked up with central governments eager to defeat the people on the peripheries they viewed as troublesome. Many nations picked up this global anti-terrorism paradigm driven by the Clash of Civilizations theory. The Muslim world had its own adherents of the Clash of Civilizations, such as Osama bin Laden, which helped propel global conflicts. So while I do not believe that there is a Clash of Civilizations in history between the West and Islam, it is certainly a simplistic albeit powerful and influential idea that needs to be challenged. I have dedicated my life and work after 9/11 to promote an opposite idea, a Dialogue of Civilizations, first proposed by President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, calling for understanding, education, and cooperation across religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries.

Q: The Muslim World has often been blamed for reverting to the Fundamentalism and Conservatism. However, we also see racism in the West and rise of violent nationalism in Hindu civilization. What is the magnitude of these movements in various societies?

Answer: My friend Karen Armstrong has explained the phenomenon of internal conflict in every major religion in the world between its “fundamentalists” and “moderates” in The Battle for God (2000). While she focused on the Abrahamic faiths Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we can easily apply the same frame to non-Abrahamic faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Today we can see movements that promote the preservation of the “purity” of religious groups and violence against minorities in non-Abrahamic societies in South Asia and Far East Asia. The most important point is to understand that these are global movements affecting all faiths and therefore the moral and spiritual leaders in every faith should work actively towards creating bridges of understanding to promote harmony and peace. The magnitude of these movements in vast swathes of the world is enormous and has implications for the coming time. The violence that has resulted from groups that attempt to enforce purity by targeting others has led to immense suffering. Millions are displaced as a result of the upheavals of global conflict. I dread to think of the millions of young children growing up in refugee camps today after having lost close members of their family. They have little hope of the future and so much despair and anger in their hearts. The world must understand that there will be a cost to bear for the misery that is being caused across the globe to millions and millions of people in this disruption.

Q: Despite a glorious past, the Muslim Civilization has not been able to contribute much in the present rise of a world that is characterized by scientific inventions, technological advancements, and intellectual freedom. What are the main reasons for this decay? How Muslim societies should respond to this decay and construct a better future characterized by knowledge, economic progress, political freedom, peace and social justice?

Answer: A constant theme in my work has been the decline of ilm or knowledge in the Muslim world. This is tragic and unacceptable as ilm is the second most used word in the Qur’aan and the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam instructed Muslims to seek knowledge as a religious compulsion. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) stated “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” A thousand years ago, the library of the court of Cordoba in Islamic Spain held around 400,000 books, while Christian Europe's largest library at that time only held around 600 books. Today the situation is very different. In 2005, for example, scientists across the Arab world produced nearly 13,500 scientific publications, while Harvard University in 2005 alone produced nearly 15,500 scientific publications. With the decline of Muslim civilization following its golden age came a loss of the knowledge ethos and it has cost Muslim society dearly. I mentioned earlier that the post-colonial modern state has failed to accommodate its citizens. A further failure can be seen in its attitude toward learning and knowledge. Leaders like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez and Bashar al Assad in Syria, Mu’ammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Suharto in Indonesia were more concerned with military glory and eradicating “enemies of the state” than promoting knowledge and education. This has led to the decline of Muslim civilization and a plethora of problems in Muslim countries. In order for the situation to be remedied, there must be a renewed focus on education and knowledge in Muslim countries in addition to what I said earlier about fully accommodating all the state's citizens irrespective of ethnic or religious background.

Q: You have carried out extensive research on the life of Quaid-i-Azam. What in your view was Quaid's vision of Pakistan as a state and society?

Answer: Yes, understanding the importance of the Quaid, both for Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis, I spent a decade of my life conceiving and completing the Jinnah Quartet: Jinnah, starring Christopher Lee; a documentary based on rare archival footage and on interviews given by those who had seen or interacted with the Quaid and were therefore contemporaries; an academic book on the Quaid's life from a sociological perspective; and a comic book, probably one of the first in Pakistan. These different projects were aimed at reaching different parts of society.

I must put on record the tremendous support and affection I received from so many people, both Pakistanis and akbar s1non-Pakistanis. The readers of this magazine will be interested to know the great support of former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, and many others in uniform. On the other hand, I was maligned and attacked by some, which always puzzled our supporters. Christopher Lee and others would constantly be puzzled as to why Pakistanis were attacking those people who had set out to pay tribute to the man they so respected – the Quaid.

The Quaid envisioned a State which would be a homeland for South Asia's Muslims while also protecting the rights under the law of ethnic and religious minorities as well as those of women. The Quaid cited as his inspiration for these values the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam. In order to understand the Quaid's vision for the nation, Pakistanis should study Jinnah's first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947. In his speech, the Quaid emphasized the equality of all in Pakistan, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu alike: “If you change your past and work together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make.”

On religious freedom, the Quaid told the citizens of the new state: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan…You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State . . . We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State.” The Quaid was confident about the future if Pakistanis could follow these ideals. He made a pledge: “My guiding principle will be justice and complete impartiality, and I am sure that with your support and co-operation, I can look forward to Pakistan becoming one of the greatest nations in the world.” The Quaid in his speeches often quoted a Dutch proverb which encapsulated the values he wanted Pakistanis to have: “Money is lost, nothing is lost; Courage is lost, much is lost; Honour is lost, most is lost; Soul is lost, all is lost.”

Today's Pakistan is far from the vision of the Quaid. In the trying current environment, where there is so much conflict between different religious, sectarian, and ethnic groups in Pakistan, all Pakistanis need to remember the Quaid's vision for Pakistan and work to make it a reality.

Q: How to avoid spread of sectarian divide that is quite visible on domestic political landscape of many Muslim countries?

Answer: When I was growing up in Abbottabad and studying at school the students were almost one hundred per cent Muslim, I had no idea who was Shia and who was Sunni. Yet today I am heartbroken to read about and see on our television sets the violence between the two. I think it is one of the most tragic, and, frankly speaking, it makes no sense. I am quite disgusted to see the deliberate targeting of medical doctors and prominent members of each other's communities in order to destroy the community. Do these people not understand that in doing so they destroy the larger society in which they live? Anyone with any doubts about Shia and Sunnis should recall the Quaid's famous answer when asked whether he was a Shia or a Sunni: He replied, I adhere to the same faith as the Prophet of Islam, and if you can answer whether he was Shia or Sunni I belong to that faith.

Q: The incident of 9/11 brought War on Terrorism to Pakistan's neighbour as well as home front. How would you comment on US/NATO's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, conduct of the war for last thirteen years, and now pull out by the end of 2014?

Answer: The American invasion of Afghanistan was provoked more by anger and emotion than cold logic. There was little thinking or planning about the strategy and objectives. The Americans, therefore, fell into the same trap that many foreign invaders have throughout Afghan history including the British and the Soviets. That is why you see the paradox of the most advanced and well-equipped army in human history failing to vanquish an impoverished tribal society which had been suffering from a civil war situation over the previous decades. Not only was Afghanistan thrown into war but the effects spilled into Pakistan and as a result an estimated 55-60,000 Pakistanis were killed unnecessarily after 9/11. A state of raging civil war was created, and law and order collapsed in many districts, especially those on the border. We, therefore, see a relatively stable nation like Pakistan which was destabilized and a struggling nation like Afghanistan thrown into uncertainty as a result of the invasion. The Americans too are asking questions as to whether it was all worth it. They sunk billions of dollars into the war, lost thousands of lives, and emerged with fewer friends in Afghanistan or Pakistan than when they went in. The ledger of history is clear: the losses have been too great and the gains too few. Afghanistan has been the longest war America has ever fought and has been so, for some time now. Future historians may see this as a turning point in world history. Indeed, we are already seeing developments on the world stage as a direct consequence of America's weakened position, for example President Putin's astonishing “capture” of the Crimea under the noses of the US and the EU. Putin has got away with it because America is in no mood for any more wars. That is why everyone, Americans, Pakistanis, and Afghans, feel that America's wars after 9/11 have cost it so much and given so little. Many questions are going to be raised after the American pullout and a new chapter, perhaps one of even more uncertainty, will open in the region.

Q: How Pakistan should tackle the issues of terrorism and religious extremism on long-term basis?

Answer: Pakistan's problem with terrorism dates back to its post-9/11 security policies, which were enacted at the urging of the United States. Following the American invasion of Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf, under pressure from the Americans to capture suspects fleeing across the international border, sent forces to Waziristan, placing troops in the area for the first time since the Quaid withdrew all troops from the Tribal Areas at independence. The Waziristan region particularly South Waziristan has the toughest tribes in Pakistan which have historically been the most resistant to central authority and tenaciously wished to preserve their independence and way of life. I saw this first hand when I served as the Political Agent in South Waziristan in the late 1970s. The Islam of these tribes, as I explained in The Thistle and the Drone, is influenced by their tribal traditions of honour, revenge, and hospitality.

The 2003 onwards military presence in a way ushered in an era of military administration over the tribes (that in a way) sidelined the civilian administrators who had administered the area dating back to independence and even to British colonial times. The conflict escalated exponentially following the Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad in July 2007 in which many soldiers and civilians, including female students got killed. Nearly 70 % of students in the Lal Masjid were from the Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Tribal Areas erupted in violence which soon spilled over into the rest of the country. The character of the attacks in targeting the innocent reflected a cultural change stemming, as I argue in The Thistle and the Drone, from intense fury at the government and a total societal breakdown. All three pillars of authority which used to hold together tribal society – the tribal elders, religious leaders, and political administration – were attacked and side-lined in the chaos, creating a vacuum which was filled by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was formed in December 2007. The TTP unleashed strikes all over the country and struck terror every where in Pakistan. In 2008 alone, there were 88 bombings in Pakistan which killed 1,188 people and injured 3,209. It was estimated that 80% of all suicide bombers came from South Waziristan.

To resolve the problem of terrorism, Pakistan must fully accommodate the people of the Tribal Areas and bring them into the state with equal rights. It must also re-establish the civilian writ of the state which has been lost in the current ill-conceived and contradictory policies of either fighting the tribes or turning over areas to be ruled by the Taliban who roam unchecked, commit acts of unspeakable violence, and implement laws outside the legal framework of the state of Pakistan. Pakistan must reconstitute a neutral, strong, just, and compassionate civil service, judicial structure, and police structure in all districts. It will be impossible to stabilize Pakistan without these crucial reforms. In the Tribal Areas, the army needs to be withdrawn and administration turned over to civilians. The army must rethink its role in the affairs of Pakistan. From my own experience I know how impressive the Pakistan Army is and the high caliber of its soldiers. Yet Pakistan's soldiers are not trained for civil administration. Instead, they must return to the barracks and the civil bureaucracy to function in FATA. Of course, the army must always be ready to assist civil administration when needed. In the tribal regions, the civilian administration should work with the local tribal leadership to ensure peace and stability. These steps would help ensure a rapprochement between centre and periphery in Pakistan which will lead to peace and harmony in the country, not only in the Tribal Areas but also in Balochistan.

Q: What should be your advice to the government and people of Pakistan for achieving a lasting peace, economic prosperity and constructing an enlightened and tolerant society?

Answer: As I have already pointed out, we need to keep the Quaid's vision of a modern Muslim state in mind in order to construct a peaceful and prosperous society. After all, he is the Father of the Nation and we seem to have wandered from his ideals. The Quaid correctly pointed to the evils of corruption, nepotism, sectarianism, and provincialism. He emphasized human rights, especially for women and minorities. He repeated the importance of maintaining and upholding the constitution and the rule of law. Today, I notice that Pakistanis have little hope of receiving justice from the state and even less hope in their fellow Pakistanis. The widespread violence also affects everyone and government must give law and order top priority. In this turbulent stage it is crucial for the leaders of Pakistan to provide shining examples, otherwise things will only get worse. Pakistan's strategy for the future must be holistic and long-term. It will require courage, compassion, and wisdom from the leaders of the nation. The challenge for Pakistani leadership is to either accept the Quaid's vision of Pakistan as “one of the greatest nations of the world,” or abandon it and allow Pakistan to fragment and fall. I pray and hope that Pakistani leaders will be up to the challenge and that your readers who form such an important part of this leadership will play their role in this critical time of history.

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